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If They Build it, They Will Learn

April 9, 2016

Today I gave the Grade 3 a design challenge. (Check out @johnrinker  for some cool design stuff. Total guru). It was to build this tallest tower of pasta that could hold a marshmallow. I based the engagement loosely on this. Its been done a million times across the globe I know. I allowed learners to work on their own, pairs or groups. They all has the same amount of materials each: 1 marshmallow, 1 30cm of string and 20 sticks of uncooked pasta. Also at their disposal was tape, scissors and rulers. The couldn’t use anything else.

The plan. So we started out talking about how we would work together. What behaviours or actions were we anticipating? The first and really important part was the sharing the resources. I roughly divided up the materials but it was their responsibility to be fair, share, negotiate to ensure each student had an equal amount of resources. I know my class well and this I knew would be a challenge for quite a few. In the end, I was pretty amazed at the speed they sorted this out (I knew they’d be able to do it) so we go on to the design part. Design happens.


An 8 minute plan

The design. Learners were given the freedom to work with whomever they wanted to. They then had 8 minutes to draw up or discuss some plan but not start building. I didn’t do a lot of pre teaching I just let them at it. I walked around and recored responses ranging from ‘If we try this..this might happen’ and ‘I know that we need a fat base- like buildings- yes thats how they build tall stuff’. So already I was getting a sense of prior knowledge of what they know about mathematics, about basic engineering.

Interestingly enough in this Ted Talk by Tom Wujec, he talks about how business people, adults in general do rather  poorly in this activity and how young children do better. Its because adults start with the structure first, then the marshmallow. He found that when adults finish the structure they then test the design only to find out that it wont hold the marshmallow. Because the design test is essentially last, adults run out of time and work in a crisis mode for the remainder of the timed challenge. Children on the other hand start with the marshmallow and test along the way. Something to say about summative versus formative assessments! (And by the way, most of the groups I observed did in fact start with the marshmallow).

The build.After  8 minutes we were ready for the build. 18 minutes of thinking, failing, frustration, teamwork, collaboration, a lot of cheering, an  argument and a tear. Again I took note of the words and the interactions as I observed. These would be important later for reflection.


Evaluation and reflection.  We saw some proudly standing structures and some sad slumping piece that just didn’t work. One group had a meltdown and didn’t produce anything and essentially gave up but the had some sort of ‘irreconcilable differences’ 🙂 so didn’t get it done.

The results. So as we did a gallery walk, each group/person/pair explained the ups and downs of the build. What worked, what changed, what they’d do next time… Some suggestions were made.


Finally we ended up in front of the board and reflected on words that we felt captured this experience in  the Wordle.

Screenshot 2016-04-08 23.07.59

It was only 50 minutes and the kids really wanted more time. I showed them some other designs other people had made in the post and they were like’ Ah!! Can we try!’ Lots of passion and ideas to further their design. One learners said something that made me stop and think. She said’ But but if we take someone’s ideas and use it, we are copying and stealing’. I thought wow… teachable moment here.

Big takeaways – Students got to be:

  • creative
  • collaborators
  • thinkers
  • problem solvers

Next time I’d like to:

  • give more time presenting to an authentic audience, like a skype with our buddy class in Sri Lanka, o even have another class come in to show what made, talk about the process
  • Find a space to leave the towers where we can have the opportunity to reflect and change the design as we consider other design options
  • Find a way to make the whole thing more authentic


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