The Marshmallow Challenge

Photo Credit: Wesley Fryer

Put a room for of adults into small groups and  give each group 10 sticks of uncooked spaghetti, 1 yard of tape, 1 yard of string, 1 marshmallow, a set of guidelines and 18 minutes and what do you get? TEAMWORK, COLLABORATION, TRIAL and ERROR, THOUGHTFUL DIALOGUE, and FUN!

The Marshmallow Challenge was recently used during our first Teacher Leadership Network session. Coaches from area schools came together for a morning of learning, sharing, networking and goal setting. We opened with the Marshmallow Challenge and it was a hit!

After the 18 minutes were complete, standing structures were measured and kudos were given to the winning team. We had several standing at the end of the 18 minutes, complete with whole marshmallow on top, and a few that even lasted the rest of the morning. One structure slowly took its fall midway during the morning followed by a collective sigh. It was intriguing to watch the various ways teams carried out the task. Some spent considerable amounts of time planning. Some dove right in and one team took to the internet for some research.

We then had groups discuss How is the design of your structure similar to or different from your Teacher Leader (instructional coaching) program? Participants noted the levels of collaboration and teamwork in their schools programs. They also mentioned that coaches draw upon each others strengths just as they did during the challenge. Some noted the planning that went into developing their program while others mentioned the need for further planning and focus. We ended this portion of the morning with viewing the TED Talk by Tom Wujec which I  highly recommended – both if you plan to  facilitate your own challenge and with your challenge participants. You can view Wujec’s TED Talk on The Marshmallow Challenge website. This link takes you to the talk, the transcripts and a PDF of the slides used during the TED Talk.

Participants seemed to embrace the hands on, inquiry based activity that led to deeper reflection than if we had just posed a reflective question about their programs.  The challenge served as what Jim Knight calls a thinking device/prompt. Jim shares that “thinking prompts are provocative objects we share with students (or adults) to create lively conversations in the classroom (or professional learning setting) in his blog post entitled Finding Thinking Prompts For more information on Thinking Devices/Prompts see pages 31-33 of Dr. Knight’s Partnership Learning Fieldbook or in the book High Impact Instruction. We also have a page on the #educoach Wiki devoted to Thinking Devices/Prompt started when the group discussed the book High Impact Instruction. Feel free to join the Wiki and add your own ideas to the page! The Wiki is meant to be a collaborative, crowd sourced site for instructional coaches!

What types of thought provoking activities have you used with teachers or coaches?

What benefits are there to using this type of activity rooted in a thinking device/prompt?

I’d love to hear your ideas!

If you haven’t tried the Marshmallow Challenge, it may be a good one to tie to your own content. It can even be done with students as you will learn when you watch the TED Talk. Take time to watch it NOW!


This post is part of the #educoach blogging challenge! To find out more about the challenge please see my earlier post Get Ready for the #educoach Blog Challenge.


  • TJ 7 Oct

    I love the marshmallow element of this challenge. I have done something similar – but no fun, edible parts. The varying modes of practice that were used also brings to mind the difference of styles amongst one work group.

    Thank you for the blogging challenge.

    • Kathy Perret 7 Oct

      I’m glad you are finding the blogging challenge beneficial! The Marshmallow Challenge was fun. The Ted Talk reveals some great information. It sounds like Kindergarteners ROCK the challenge! 🙂


  • Stephanie Affinito 7 Oct

    I love using hands-on activities with teachers that illustrate a concept in action and foster thinking and collaboration. I will add this one to my toolkit of sorts. I am heading to the Ted Talk next! Do you have a collection of your favorite TED talks? Maybe we could compile them on #educoach?


    • Kathy Perret 7 Oct

      I love TED Talks. What a great idea to compile a list to use as thinking devices/prompts. Our Teacher Leader Network team just decided to use another at our next sessions. Perhaps that will springboard another post!

      Hope you enjoyed the Ted Talk!


  • Melanie Meehan (@MelanieMeehan1) 7 Oct

    I’ve done this with students, but I love the questions you wove in when you used it with adults. Yesterday, we had to decide whether we’d be a paper clip, duct tape, sticky notes, or rubber bands and stand in the corner that coincided to our decision. Led to some great conversations. Love this post and the ideas within it, Kathy.

    • Kathy Perret 7 Oct

      Thank you. I’d love to see the challenge w/kids. I bet they are very creative! The adults were, too. Thanks for sharing the activity you did. Sounds like something that would be good for our Teacher Leader Network. I will be sharing it with our team.


  • zenmasterbill 11 Oct

    Thanks for your thoughtful post! For years, I’ve co-facilitated an in-house PD course called ’21st Century Learning Design Using Technology’, centered around a model (and accompanying website) we call ‘The Manifesto’. There’s a link at the bottom of my reply.

    We have used an activity very similar to this one (sometimes using other materials) as an introduction. When we do, we have participants reflect on what ’21st Century skills’ (Column 2 of ‘The Manifesto’) they used in order to be successful (or almost successful) at the activity, and how our facilitation created the necessary conditions to be successful (Column 4). The reflections tend to be thoughtful and lively.

    Another point that it illustrates well is that ’21st Century learning design’ does not need to integrate technology all the time. This activity is intentionally low-tech and simple enough to elicit a productive struggle without getting overwhelmed with directions.

    I would love to hear of other simple activities that can be used to a similar effect…

    Overview of ‘The Manifesto’:

    • Kathy Perret 11 Oct

      Thank you for your comments and resources to introduce and emphasis 21st century learning, especially pointing out that 21st learning isn’t just about a tech tool!


  • Amy Ellerman 20 Oct

    We did this with our staff, and a powerful concept that transferred was the importance of checking in on our progress as we go. The reason the kindergartners were so successful is that they looked for data points along the way to make sure they were on the right track. That need for formative assessment is motivating–it reassures us that we aren’t pouring time and energy into the wrong work! ?

    The words “progress monitoring” can sometimes get the heavy sighs. . . but looked at from another angle, isn’t it natural to seek out evidence that affirms our positive impact on learning (with kids and adults)?

    • Kathy Perret 20 Oct

      I love how you had staff use the Marshmallow Challenge to think about progress monitoring! Thanks for sharing the angle you took w/the challenge!!


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