The boy circled the table, holding the marshmallow, being a bit of a pest. Perhaps a tad hyper, even, he kept asking, testing the patience of his team-mates who very responsibly maintained their focus on the structure they were building, ever and ever higher.
“No,” one girl replied. “It’s not ready yet. Wait until we are done! We still have seven more minutes.”
Many of us are chattering with increasing enthusiasm about the importance of learning from failures, mistakes and errors. Doing so it is not only a valuable part of learning, it may well be an essential element of effective learning.
As educators we are always looking for concrete examples and active experiences to better advance understanding. Last Saturday I spent four hours with groups of 15-20 seventh graders, about an hour at a time, undertaking an activity which has (at least) two powerful take-away lessons, one of them being the critical importance of error in achieving success.
The activity is called the Marshmallow Challenge, and it is incredibly easy and amazingly powerful. It has its own website with thorough directions, including a fascinating Ted-talk by Tom Wujec who articulates astutely some of its lessons.
Here’s the gig: set up groups of almost any size, and any age, Kindergarten to Centenarian. Give them a table top, 20 sticks of spaghetti, a yard of string, a yard of tape, and a marshmallow. Set a time to 18 minutes, and tell the crowd at the end of time, you will measure and (very modestly) award the team which has the marshmallow supported highest above the table– and remember, at the end of time, no hands!
That’s all. Step back, watch, and learn.
Spoiler warning. STOP reading now if you don’t want your own, first-hand, learning experience to be spoiled by my commentary about it. Stop now, go to your kitchen, and do it yourself, before coming back to read-on.
Groups do a wonderful job building the spaghetti structure– they discuss engineering, they share ideas, they manipulate their materials effectively. In almost every case, the focus is entirely on building a spaghetti structure high up into the air; spaghetti is very light-weight, and there is plenty of tape; hence the structures quickly become inspiring towers.
As group-leader I called out the count-down. 10 minutes left. 5 minutes. 1 minute! 30 seconds. For most groups, it is about here and now that the group-leaders concede that it is time to pop up on top of their beautiful structure the marshmallow. “Let’s do it,” they say confidently.
Here’s the thing. Marshmallows are deceptive. They look like cotton balls; they look like clouds. Surely they are lightweight, puffs of air, really.
No. They are not. They are dense, moist, glutinous. Atop the spaghetti structure they go, and down it falls.
Only a third of the 16 groups I supervised succeeded in having a standing structure at time’s end, and every one of them was a group which tested the structure somewhere around the half-way mark, and saw it fail. Only by testing, only by coming to recognize the structural limitations of the spaghetti by first hand experimentation, were the groups then able to succeed.
Returning to the italicized narrative atop, they were the groups who allowed the impatient boy try it out “before it was done.” Several different times I observed groups where an individual student, usually a boy, eagerly and enthusiastically urged the group to try it, only to be squelched by his “more serious” collaborators.
After the 18 minutes are up, everyone came back together for a de-brief. Each group was asked to reflect on its success or lack thereof; charmingly many groups put a focus on the collaborative experience. “We really learned a lot from each other, and realized we needed everyone’s ideas to make it work.” Failure aside, this is a great insight: the value of crowd-sourcing and diversity of ideas.
But with a bit of patience, pressing for further reflection, groups began to recognize that success lay not exclusively in the value of the brainstorming and intellectual analysis, but in the process they used to test, check, experiment, gather insight, re-group, and move on.
In the accompanying TED-talk, Wujec tells us stunning, surprising, but not-so-surprising when you think about it, statistics about the marshmallow challenge: Kindergarten students, on average, achieve significantly better results than do business school students and lawyers. Children don’t want to spend all their time getting it perfectly right– they want to see what happens and learn by doing.
What I fear is that the most successful 12th grade (or even 8th grade) graduates of our schools, our best students, mimic more closely business school students and lawyers than Kindergarten students. They spend so much time meticulously and seriously planning for perfection that they don’t test, prototype, experiment– until it is “just right.”
Three recent posts on the topic of learning from failure.
Seth Godin: How to Fail.
All of us fail. Successful people fail often, and, worth noting, learn more from that failure than everyone else.
Scott Dill, here at Connected Principals, The Necessity of Failure
Failure is not the same as failing. Failure is an opportunity to learn, to grow, and become better than we have been.
Lee Burns, Learning from Losing and the Gift of Failing
I contend, and I love this irony, that it is their mindset about failure and its purpose, their ability to put failure into that proper perspective, to use failure for a purpose and their ability to harness failure to fuel persistence, that makes them winners. Winners, in other words, don’t view failure as an end point, but as a learning point.
Let’s work harder to fail to learn— to use failure as an essential element of learning, creating, problem-solving and innovating. The marshmallow challenge is a great place to start.