The Marshmallow Challenge Meets Class Session Design Challenges

25 Mar


marshmallowThe marshmallow challenge is a team-building activity that demonstrates iterative design.  Teams of four are asked to build the tallest freestanding structure they can in 18 minutes using 20 pieces of spaghetti, three feet of masking tape, three feet of string,and a marshmallow placed at the top.  (You can review Ted Wujec’s TED talk for the rationale and  insights provided bycompleting the marshmallow challenge.)

Surprisingly, young children consistently outperform adults on the challenge.  Wujec explains that childrennaturally begin with a prototype by putting the marshmallow on top of the spaghetti and building a short, freestanding tower.  Then they devise ways to make the tower taller, all the while ensuring that it remains free-standing, which models the iterative design approach of prototyping, testing, and improving.  Adults, on the other hand, spend most of their time in the planning phase creating elaborate and sophisticated designs on paper, and then at the last minute building the tower, usually to find it collapses.

The longer I teach, the more I see the application of iterative design to lesson planning:

Perfectionism in planning gets in the way of quickly addressing the most important aspect of my class session design, risking that my core outcome is never identified, or gets lost in a clutter of lecture notes, PowerPoint slides, or familiaractive learning activities.

For more efficient lesson planning (and reduced stress) I now ask myself What is the marshmallow? (core outcome) and What is my first prototype? (initial lesson plan that is the minimum I and my students need to do to address that core outcome).

The initial lesson plan represents the prototype in iterative design.  The core outcome is inspired by the core idea in compact form:  a simple message from the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.  Synthesizing principles from the marshmallow challenge, iterative design,and Made to Stick leads to a simple four step approach for class session design.  These steps are outlined below and applied to a real-life example from my own teaching.

earth coreStep 1. Identify your core outcome.

To identify your core outcome, ask yourself:

  • if my students only remember one thing from today’s class what would it be?
  • what skill or concept is essential to enable my students  to understand material in future classes?

Providing effective peer review is a skill I depend on my students having.  Unfortunately, I find that many students have trouble providing constructive criticism to their peers for fear of offending them.  Based on this, I identified my core outcome as: Students will be comfortable providing effective feedback to their peers.

planStep 2. Design an initial lesson plan that minimally allows you and your students to accomplish your core outcome.

Once you have identified your core outcome for the lesson, identify the minimum activities you and your students will need to do to meet that outcome.  It might be:

  • having students solve problems on their own
  • asking students to come up with real world examples of a theory
  • having students perform a skill correctly

My minimum activity to allow students to feel comfortable providing effective feedback to their peerswas to require students to provide feedback to a peer afteran “expert” modeled how to do it in an effective and respectful manner.  To do that I asked students to lead a short discussion with an instructor sitting in to manage and demonstrate the feedback process.

improveStep 3.  Improve the plan as time permits.

If you have time, you can:

  • add additional outcomes for your students and design activities for these
  • improve the design of your prototype activity after reflecting on it or discussing it with a colleague.

Because I had more time I was able to write up detailed instructions for students and create a rubric for them.  I also ironed out some details on the size of groups and  the timing for the activity.  BUT, if something came up that didn’t allow me to do this additional planning, I still could have completed the activity.  It may not have gone as smoothly, but I expect that it would have met my goals.  Knowing this gave me the luxury of asking myself if the improvements I was planning would positively impact student learning.

Keep Calm Lesson PlanStep 4. Continue improving on the prototype.

Another reason I like the iterative design approach for teaching is that the process requires redesign with the intent to improve.  You’re never done, which for me, takes the pressure off for trying to be perfect the first time around.

I want to be clear that I’m not endorsingmediocrity in teaching, rather I’m advocating for prioritizing your lesson design by planning the minimum that must be done for students to achieve your most important outcomeas a first step.  Improve upon this as time permits.

This approach also echoes the inverted pyramid model for course planning that Randy Bass described in his classic paper,
The Scholarship of Teaching: What’s the Problem?”

If I had to pick one of these learning goals or outcomes as the one thing that students would retain from this course after leaving it, what would it be?  Thinking about that one goal, then, could I honestly say that I spent the most amount of time in the course teaching to the goal I valued most?

By following the steps of iterative design for your class session planning, you will ensure that you spend the most amount of time teaching to the goal you most value.


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