Effectively working together as a team is a hallmark of the middle grades. As such, teaming and collaboration are two themes that weave their way through important middle level publications like This We Believe, Breaking Ranks In The Middle, Turning Points 2000, and Maine’s Bright Futures. Collaboration might take the form of an interdisciplinary or allied arts team, a student work team, or the leadership team. What all these teams share in common is that members come to their group with differing definitions of collaboration and with a variety of skills in this area. Therefore, collaboration needs to be nurtured at all levels. Indeed, concrete experiences that offer practice and reflection on the nature of collaboration need to be part of the teaching and learning for both staff and students.
I found a great activity that focuses on collaboration at the website Ted: http://www.ted.com/talks/tom_wujec_build_a_tower.html that I used in a presentation at the MAMLE Annual Conference at Sugarloaf. Using spaghetti, tape, string, and one marshmallow, teams are challenged to build the tallest freestanding structure as possible with a marshmallow on top. In the video above Tom Wujec, an innovative designer of digital tools, talks about the connection between the degree of willingness to try out various prototypes and the success rate of teams in meeting the challenge. Those teams looking for the one “right” answer were not as successful as those teams that experimented with prototypes and used what they learned from their successes and failures to build a better structure. Too often, says Wujec, the towers do not stand because the design does not support the marshmallow. Maria Libby, principal at Camden-Rockport Middle School, noted the similarities between the marshmallow challenge and the implementation of RTI plans. She wondered if it wouldn’t be better to try out some RTI strategies along the way to see how they worked instead of waiting to implement until a district “perfected” a plan for the state deadline?
It’s always great fun to watch the strategies different teams use to address a challenge. Each group in my session had a different approach and worked intensely to meet the requirements. It’s always important to process what happened during the challenge, and the short video with Tom Wujec is extremely helpful during this part of the activity. When we talked about using this activity back at school, the participants saw many benefits. The emphasis of collaboration as a 21st century skill was mentioned as was the need for students to develop problem solving and innovative thinking skills. I would also like to restate two of Wujuc’s points—this type of activity creates a scenario where the participants have to figure out how to collaborate very quickly. Also he points out that every task or challenge a team undertakes has a marshmallow that threatens to topple the effort if not identified and addressed in the design. Those lessons, it seems to me, are useful to the adults in the building. Too often teacher and leadership teams are expected to be effective and efficient without any thought to building their capacity to collaborate and problem solve. Explicitly working to develop collaboration skills across the entire school community benefits students, and time and resources should be allocated to develop this critical expertise.
20 pieces of uncooked spaghetti
1 yard of string
1 yard of tape
Prompt: Build the tallest, freestanding structure that you can with the materials provided. The entire marshmallow must be on top.