The Marshmallow Challenge

In his TED talk Build a Tower, Build a Team, Tom Wujec reports on his work with something called “the marshmallow challenge,” and how it forces people to collaborate quickly, revealing deep lessons about design and collaboration.

The marshmallow problem is a team exercise where groups of 4 are given dry spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of yarn, and one marshmallow. They are challenged to build the tallest tower in 18 minutes. As shown below, the common design process that people will follow is 1) orient themselves, 2) plan, 3) build with the spaghetti yarn and tape for the bulk of the time, making an increasingly taller structure. Finally, at the very end, they 4) place the marshmallow on top, stand back, and… the tower often collapses, leaving the group with nothing to show for their efforts.

However, Wujec found that while recent graduates of business school, lawyers, and CEOs do fairly poorly with this task, recent kindergarten graduates perform very well, beaten only by engineers and architects and CEOs with their executive administrative teams.

This seems to happen because kindergarteners are much better at the iterative design process. While business students wait until the end to place the marshmallow, 5 year-olds make many successive prototypes, always keeping the marshmallow on top, and test them throughout the 18 minutes, ultimately ending up with more interesting and more successful designs. In many ways, the marshmallow challenge represents the hidden assumptions in a project. Every project has its own marshmallow, and you don’t want to encounter it at the very end of your 18 minutes.

For people interested in incorporating design thinking into education, it is ironic that our students may be naturally more inclined towards this sort of activity than we are. The capacity to test and prototype may not be natural for many of us, but it’s something we need to remember to do, and it is at the heart of design thinking. Business students are trained to find the single right plan, and this ends up being extremely debilitating to their design abilities.

Specialized skills and facilitation skills are also critical for success. Admin teams and those with background knowledge in structural soundness perform better than average. This is something to note when trying to develop a solution as well: include strong facilitators and experts on your team.

As a first grade afterschool teacher of robotics, I found this to be the perfect lesson to begin my unit on engineering and design. So I did the marshmallow challenge with 24 children divided into 6 groups. They laughed, they cheered, they cried a LOT, and they got spaghetti all over the classroom floor. But ultimately, I think the challenge provided valuable lessons both in teamwork and in the design process.

As observed by Wujec, almost every group of students placed the marshmallow on the top of a piece of spaghetti and built their structures with this already intact. This likely contributed to their successes; ultimately, 50% of our students created standing structures. After the activity we talked to them about what was hard and fun about designing a structure. I then gave them more supplies to iterate and build new creations, because I am trying to emphasize the iterative nature of design with my students.

While I was underwhelmed with their ability to work well together, I wonder if perhaps one reason that young children are more successful is that they are not spending valuable minutes tactfully negotiating the social dynamics of a group project in the way that adults are. In many of my groups, two separate structures were built with no regards for the limited resources available and then the most successful structure later became their final one. In the rest of the groups, a clear leader emerged from the get-go who dictated the entire process. Wujec did not mention this as a factor, and it is something that could definitely be looked into a bit more.

I’d suggest conducting this activity with your students, your coworkers, or even with your friends. It is both fun and challenging, while providing valuable insights into both our design process and the ways that we work on teams.

Tom Wujec: Build a Tower, Build a Team published on TED, FILMED FEB 2010 | POSTED APR 2010

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