On our first day of school this week, all of our math classes did the Marshmallow Tower Challenge. One of our math teachers found this challenge last spring; we thought it would be a great way to start the semester, get the students talking to each other, and alleviate some stress about math class. Little did I know, this challenge would provide me with so much information about my students.
Our program’s theme this year is growth mindset based on Carol Dweck’s research. Some students, without realizing it, exhibited the growth mindset from the get go of the challenge. Others exhibited such a fixed mindset I had a really hard time letting them be during the challenge. Students exhibiting the growth mindset started discussing plans, building different structures and modifying their structures as things happened. These students were actively building and conversations focussed on how to improve the structure or incorporate a new idea. These students were also able to draw their quieter and/or unsure teammates into the process.
In contrast, several students picked up their supply bag and immediately said, “I won’t be able to do this.” One student deliberately broke all the spaghetti into small pieces and said “there is no way we can do this.” In addition to disregarding their teammates’ opinions and feelings, and ignoring my directions that each group member participate in the challenge, these students showed a complete lack of willingness to even try. Some of them had such a strong personality, that their teammates who were quite and/or unsure of themselves followed this negative path.
After the challenge was over we discussed how attitudes towards the challenge translate to attitudes towards math. Some students were surprised that perseverance and willingness to try new design plans would help them in math, so I counted that as a very worthwhile discussion!
Usually I do a few rounds of “Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock” on the first day of school because it gives me the opportunity to discuss how most students know how to do school, just like most know how to play “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” However this school year for them is going to be a big change, just like “Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock.”. After that we talk about our program and what to expect in class. I will now always start the year with some sort of challenge, and we’ll do “Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock” the second week of school.
I learned so much about my students from the challenge that I feel like I knew them after the first day. I followed this up with a second challenge the next day because I wanted to see if anyone adjusted their thinking after our discussion the first day. One or two did, but not by much. I also asked the students to fill out surveys about math and mindset, and I think this gives me a great basis for the semester. I am still reviewing the surveys, but feel like there is a clear path for each student to improve and grow. All of this in the first three days of school because we built Marshmallow Towers on the first day!