Learning from Failure with Marshmallows

“Shouldn’t we test it now? Shouldn’t we?  I want to try; let me put it on top now.”

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.


9 Comments

  1. Hey Jonathan,

    This is such a great activity and something that I did with our faculty at the beginning of the year (http://bridgemiddle.blogspot.com/search/label/Wujek). As you mentioned, there are a number of great talking points (especially after debriefing with the Ted talk) that can be applied to schools and education. It was nice to see your post and hear how the students responded.

    Thanks for sharing,

    Mark

    April 12, 2011
    Reply
  2. Jill Geiser said:

    I too used this activity with faculty to look at the process of learning as well as to talk about teaming. It was really useful especially with Wujec’s debriefing talk to accompany.

    Jill

    April 12, 2011
    Reply
  3. Eric Juli said:

    Jonathan,

    Great post! Before the school year began, I used the marshmallow challenge with our district cohort of first year teachers, grades 7-12. But before starting the challenge, I gave them a paper math quiz. My colleague and I put together a series of questions designed to assess the math participants would use in the subsequent marshmallow challenge. Only a small group of the teachers would be teaching math, and the rest were terrified of being assessed mathematically. Their fear was evident, as was their struggle with the quiz. After a few minutes of “testing” I let them collaborate with their neighbors, and everything about their body language improved, although not everyone could successfully answer all the questions.

    Once the test was over, I gave them the instructions to begin the marshmallow challenge. After the teachers split themselves up into teams, I began 18 minutes of fun, upbeat, challenge music. When the music ended, their structures had to be built. Everything you wrote about with the 7th grade students, occurred with the new teachers as well. They were engaged, laughing, struggling, and working together.

    In the end, our debrief included a discussion about student assessment practices. We compared the paper and pencil “test” with the hands-on marshmallow challenge. We discussed assessing facts via memorization versus assessment via application of skills. The marshmallow challenge was a tremendous tool to help new teachers consider student learning and assessment practices.

    The winning structure is still standing in my office, supporting the very old marshmallow, eight months later.

    Thanks for sharing your experience,

    Eric

    April 12, 2011
    Reply
  4. Tony Kuc said:

    Jonathan

    what a great article! I haven’t used (didn’t know about) the marshmallow activity but have used or been involved in similar “Tower construction” activities. The thing I enjoyed most about how you presented the article was that it was devoid of pedagogical talk, but the obvious learnings from the activity were very powerful.

    Thankyou for sharing – I will follow through with this activity as soon as the right opportunity comes by.

    Tony

    April 13, 2011
    Reply
  5. Suzie Boss said:

    I love hearing that the marshmallow challenge is gaining traction in schools. I’ve been talking it up with PBL teachers (and newcomers) as a good activity to do as a project warm up. It’s one of the best I’ve seen for encouraging collaboration, iterative design, and problem-solving, all with a low-risk, fun activity and almost zero cost for supplies. I’m curious if anyone has repeated it a few weeks later, with same teams. Results?

    Question for this community: What other activities have you seen that generate the same quality of conversation about these important skills? I started a Google doc last year at ISTE to gather suggestions and would welcome your ideas. Link to the doc is at end of this post, also about marshmallow challenge: http://www.edutopia.org/blog/iste-innovation-marshmallow-challenge

    Best,
    Suzie

    April 13, 2011
    Reply
  6. […] If you are not familiar with the use of marshmallows and education you should be. Many educators in an early years program have succesfully created more cooking, counting, and art work with marshmallows then you will ever want to know. If you are only interested in higher education, please read this connection: Learning from Failure with Marshmallows […]

    May 20, 2011
    Reply
  7. lanie byk said:

    Jonathon
    Great overview, love the recent posts on learning from failure.

    I have used the Marshmellow Challenge with adults in regional leadership programs in Australia with just as much success – this certainly isn’t one just for the kids!

    Regards
    Lanie

    *** Trial period expired. Please register at cleantalk.org. Request number f88c4a9f5d60289d71c0bc14b9c29de6. Automoderator cleantalk.org. ***

    March 25, 2013
    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *