Teaching Teamwork, Leadership, & Creativity to Students in Taipei with the Marshmallow Challenge

Tom Wujec is a 3D designer who studies how people share and absorb information. He created the Marshmallow Challenge to encourage “teamwork, leadership, and creativity.” I like the challenge because it helps future leaders get comfortable with the unknown, and teaches them how to figure things out amongst themselves.

It was my pleasure to be game-master for an afternoon with students at the Affiliated Senior High School of National Taiwan Normal University (HSNU, 師大附中) in Taipei. HSNU graduates do great things, and famous alums include the architect of Taipei 101 — once the world’s tallest building, an inventor of IBM’s Deep Blue, and the first Chinese astronaut. There’s a lot of talent in this room.

How to Play the Marshmallow Challenge

Build the Tallest Tower Possible

The rules of the Marshmallow Challenge are simple. Other than no phones (no cheating), teams have 18 minutes to build the tallest structure they can, using only:

  • 20 sticks of dry spaghetti
  • Tape
  • String
  • One marshmallow — which goes on top

Marshmallows seem like an easy thing to support, but once you try it, you learn a few things about these puffy, pillowy blocks that refuse to stay still.

The wiggle room that marshmallows have mean a little bit of movement will knock entire structures down. Anyone who’s experienced an earthquake — most people in Taiwan — will be able to apply a little bit of their life experience to how they approach the Marshmallow Challenge. Generally speaking, teams that do better tend to spend more time trying different things, working the problem, instead of planning.

Learn Something About Yourself

The main point is for participants to unlock an insight about how they instinctually negotiate with themselves and teammates, as they navigate this activity. On its own, the Challenge won’t develop self-awareness because it’s so contextual, but it’s also a path towards it.

Every now and then an effective team dynamic snaps into place right away. Sometimes, we just get lucky — but usually it’s because friends team with friends. Two easy work-around are to randomly assign teams, or ask participants to count off.

More Learning Objectives

One thing I like to add to this exercise is asking the teams to count their “uh-oh” and their “ah-ha” moments to encourage more experimentation. Most game-masters award the team with the tallest structure, but I also give out recognition for most uh-ohs and ah-has. Usually there’s a correlation here between this and taller structures.

I also award efficiency, and use this to discuss activity-based costing, an accounting concept. How many physical resources and how much time did teams use to achieve their objective? How much is this worth? How would this change the way you play the challenge? There are different ways to succeed at business. 

Interestingly enough, younger students tend to do better than MBA students, because they spend less time planning. Younger students usually just go for it. How can this exercise valuable to both? Dealing with ambiguity is a big part of exploring new and unknown business and cultural environments. In some people, this needs to be cultivated. Others just need to be reminded of what it’s like to turn their curiosity into action.

What’s So Great about the Marshmallow Challenge?

Students discover things on their own when they learn by doing. Done right, activity-based learning (ABL) gets students excited about education, because they understand what they will be doing with the knowledge. In science and business, there’s observation, finding patterns, and asking questions which turns into investigations that create solutions. This is exactly what we’re doing. In this case, how to build a taller tower together.

Because teams have just 18 minutes, we see students develop communication skills, and an acceptance of (or breakdown between) diverse perspectives. This is first-hand experience in how conflict can be used as a tool to chart a path forward — I feel this is especially valuable in Taiwan, a society that prizes harmony above most else.

Principally, I use the Marshmallow Challenge as a way to teach young adults it’s okay if you don’t get things right the first time. Get over the fear of failure that keeps people from trying new and challenging things. ABL exercises like these create a safe space for young minds to experiment, critical for developing an entrepreneurial mindset. What’s the key lesson here?

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.