The Marshmallow Challenge in the Elementary Classroom

Using Food to Learn
Creating Structures with Collaboration

Approximately two months ago I noticed a Twitter post about something called the Marshmallow Challenge.  The tweet led me to this TED video.  Many of the examples indicated that the challenge could be used with adults as well as students.  The official Marshmallow Challenge website offers many useful instructions and tips for facilitators.  I decided to use the challenge with a fourth grade classroom.  The session, from start to finish, took approximately 45 minutes.  The standard 18 minute time limit to work on the project was perfect for my classroom.  Of course the focus of this project emphasizes teamwork, but I decided to add a few measurement standards. For example, the students were required to measure the length of each pasta stick used and find the volume of the marshmallow (as a cylinder).  The total height of the structure was also measured.  Here are a few pictures from the event:

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The class had a debriefing session after the event.  During this discussion, students revealed their strategy.  Here were some of the questions that were discussed.

  • What will the base of the structure look like?
  • Will we use all of the materials?
  • What are our roles?
  • How will we work as a team?
  • How does working as a team help us succeed?
  • Will we wait to put the marshmallow on top at the very end or test it throughout the project?
  • Should we write out a plan in advance?
  • How should we work together?
  • What are other groups doing?

Overall, this learning experience gave students an opportunity to use critical thinking in a collaborative setting.   I’m planning on having students complete a plus/delta chart and complete an entry in their math journals next week.  

*Picture credit: Stoon

“Aligned” to the Common Core

Image by:  Felixico


Now more than ever it seems that educational leaders are being encouraged to align their curriculum to the Common Core. Currently, 45 states and 3 territories have signed the Common Core initiative.  National tests are now being developed to evaluate how well students understand the math and reading Common Core standards.  Seeing that the majority of the United States supports the Core, new “Common Core Aligned” products seem to be popping up everywhere. Workshops, seminars, webinars, and PD sessions are dedicated to communicating how the Common Core standards impact curriculum.  In general, I believe that the workshops mostly benefit teachers. I also believe that the Core will give opportunities for educators to positively change the way that they deliver math and reading instruction. What I’m concerned about though is how the “aligned” resources are being utilized.  I in no way endorse/oppose the products below, but the images & links contribute to the notion of how publishers (McGraw Hill, ASCD, Pearson, etc.) are marketing Common Core resources to educators and administrators.

I’m finding that teachers are being pressured into purchasing these “aligned” materials to prepare their students for the upcoming accountability testing.  I’m not against the Common Core materials being produced or used in the classroom.  I’ve actually read many “aligned” resources and have found them most beneficial.  To be honest, most educators that I know have already viewed a number of the Common Core materials.

Don’t get me wrong, educators should be aware of the new standards and adjust their instruction accordingly.  The over reliance on “aligned” published materials can cause teachers to take less risks as they focus only on items located in specific published books.  In these cases differentiation may occur less as the teacher uses whole group Common Core instructional techniques to cover specific content that’s found on future standardized assessments.  I view the “aligned” resources as important and another tool in an educators tool belt.

“Aligned” materials and other supplemental materials should not be viewed as a magic bullet in raising test scores or in teaching in general.  Instead of impulsively purchasing “aligned” materials, school districts around the country should collaborate with each other to share resources that will benefit all stakeholders involved.  I believe some states are attempting to use this model and I applaud their efforts.

Utilizing teaching strategies that work for educators and their students instill an appreciation for learning and give students an opportunity to show their learning in new settings.  Using solid pedagogy along with supplemental resources allows teachers to differentiate their instruction to meet the needs of all students.

Math Reasoning and Feedback

Image by:   J. Creationz


Having math reasoning skills is important.  Generally, math reasoning skills are taught and incorporated in early elementary school.  In math, a problem is what a student is asked and expected to answer.  If a student is unable to answer why their answer is correct, I believe that the student might not fully grasp the mathematical concept.  The student might not be utilizing math reasoning skills.

For example, a student that measures area in linear feet might not completely have an understanding that area is measured in square units.  The student could have the correct numerical answer, but include the wrong unit (centimeters compared to square centimeters).

How is mathematical reasoning taught?  I’m going to be taking a proactive step next year to give opportunities for my students to utilize math reasoning.  I’m deciding to use higher level questioning to enable students to think of the process in finding the solution.  The learning process is key.  I’ve found that math instruction isn’t always linear, just as mathematical reasoning isn’t rigid.  By asking students why/how they arrived at a solution is vital in understanding their thinking.

As I’m planning for next school year, I’ve decided to ask students to explain their reasoning more frequently.  By hearing their reasoning, I’m in a better position to give direct feedback.  All math questions have some type of reasoning.  I believe that multiple solution / open-ended questions can be used to display mathematical reasoning. Students need to be able to explain why they responded with a specific answer and what methods/connections were utilized to solve the problem.  Based on the math Common Core, students are expected to reason abstractly and quantitatively.  When students describe their mathematical process, teachers are better able to diagnose and assess a student’s current level of understanding.  Math reasoning isn’t always quantifiable, but it can be documented via journaling and other communication methods.  More importantly, teachers will be able to provide specific feedback to help a student understand concepts more clearly.  I also feel that this questioning process develops self-confidence in students and prepares them to become more responsible for their own learning.  See the chart below.

Problem –> Reasoning –> Feedback