The Marshmallow Challenge

A couple of weeks ago my English for University class were looking at design, and I decided to set them a task. The brief seemed simple: in eighteen minutes, teams had to build the tallest tower out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one metre of tape, one metre of string, and one marshmallow. The only rules were that the tower needed to be free-standing and the marshmallow had to be on the top. What could possibly go wrong?

In groups of three my class set about the challenge in different ways.  Some talked about ideas, others sketched down plans whilst one group started building immediately.  As the time went by, the towers began to rise up from the tabletops and by the end of the challenge the team of Shao, Dang and Ethan had triumphed.  This was just as well, as Ethan is studying architecture at university!

Now, what was the reason for this challenge?  Well, I first heard about it in a presentation by Tom Wujec on, a great website that we often use here at the school.  According to Tom, the challenge “encourages teams to experience simple but profound lessons in collaboration, innovation and creativity”.  I don’t doubt that for one moment, but the reason I like doing this task in class is that it forces people to collaborate and more importantly communicate in English in order to achieve something.  Tom makes a number of interesting observations about the nature of the challenge in his talk, but I would like to add some of my own.

1.  The most successful teams are those who talk about the problem the most, be it planning, evaluating or even bossing others aroundCommunication is the key.

2.  Students make fewer mistakes when speaking English during the task.  I have to say that this surprised me.  It seems that when students have an activity to focus on, the appropriate language seems to flow out of them.

So the lesson here for learners of English is to get out of the classroom (or at least a typical classroom situation) and into a real communicative situation.  Of course, learning vocabulary and expressions are valuable, but using them in a real situation is essential.

If you would like to run your own Marshmallow Challenge, you can find out much more here.  Thanks for reading.

By Andy


brief – (n) an outline or set or rules

free-standing – (adj.) not attached to or supported by anything

sketched – (v.) drew quickly or roughly

triumphed – (v.) won

profound – (adj.) having a deep meaning

collaboration – (n.) the act of working together

innovation – (n.) the act of introducing new ideas

boss around – (v. + adv.) tell people what to do in a direct/rude way

flow out – (phr.v.) to produce easily or naturally

essential – (adj.) absolutely necessary

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