Photo by FlatTop341
Chew into this juicy statement from Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson:
For gifted learners, an appropriately differentiated classroom will provide [experiences] that are complex enough, abstract enough, open-ended enough, and multifaceted enough to cause gifted students to stretch in knowledge, thinking, and production. These classrooms provide consistent expectations for gifted students to work with fuzzy problems, make great mental leaps, and grow in ability to exercise independence.
Dr. Tomlinson, Meeting Needs in Regular Classroom
I love the phrase “fuzzy problems” because it immediately eliminates worksheets, drilling, and fill in the blanks. It creates the expectation that there is more than one right answer to problems.
If students have lived a typical school existence, they will be horrified by fuzzy problems. There is no right answer! There is no simple set of steps! Ack!
This is a part of the “stretching” that Tomlinson mentions. As they get used to dealing with fuzzy problems, students will also “grow in their ability to exercise independence.”
Let’s consider how we can keep things fuzzy for our students, while still supporting them with necessary scaffolds.
My Favorite Fuzzy
Photo by Luigi Mengato
My favorite fuzzy problem is the Marshmallow Challenge. You’ll need:
- a bag of marshmallows
- a box of angel hair pasta
- a roll of masking tape
- some string
The students’ goal is to build the tallest freestanding structure possible out of the materials with the marshmallow on top.
- Put students into groups of three.
- Pass out supplies.
- Set twenty minutes on the timer.
- Walk around, taking photos of students building.
- When time is up, ask students to line the walls of the class.
- Measure and take photos of each structure (although, chances are, few structures will even be standing).
Now, watch this awesome TED talk with your class featuring the creator of the Marshmallow Challenge. He’ll make your kids feel better about their structures!
Can’t see the video? Here’s the talk at TED.com
Analysis: The Key
Now, a typical classroom would woosh onto a new topic after this half hour of “fun.”
NO! We’re building a classroom culture that’s comfortable with fuzzy problems. That means we have to sit and stew for a while. It is now, after failing, that students can learn the most, so let’s break down their results.
First, do a quantitative analysis.
- Record the measurements of each structure.
- Analyze the numbers.
- Discuss the differences between median, mean, and mode.
- Were there any outliers?
- Keep this data for later!
Then, analyze the structures qualitatively. Whip out those pictures of each structure.
- Were there patterns in their creation?
- Do we see similar shapes, similar processes, or similar failure points?
- Write down students’ findings.
Ask students to bring in photos of bridges, buildings under construction, or any structure with exposed innards. Clarify by brainstorming what they can look for and where they can find it. Encourage outside the box thinking. It’s amazing how a few minutes spent exploring the edges of the assignment will lead to better results.
Homework like this was optional in my class, but those who brought in images (or emailed them) got “Byrd Bucks” or some other reward.
Yes! We’re spending another session just analyzing. This time, kids are exploring the photos that were brought. They’re examining successful examples of structures. Ask them to look for patterns, especially within the structure. Hopefully they’ll discover the triangle or truss!
Fifteen minutes or so should be fine for this task.
Finally, groups creates their plan for Marshmallow Challenge 2. They know the materials and the constraints. They know the results of previous attempts. They listened to the master of the Marshmallow Challenge. They’ve analyzed successful real-life structures. Now they should create a plan to improve on their previous performance.
Now, it’s time to redo the fuzzy problem.
It is essential to offer a redo of the initial challenge and to do it quickly. This will demonstrate the value of prototyping, testing, failure, error analysis, and planning in students’ quest for excellence.
This time, students will see more structures standing and a dramatically increased classroom median height.
What a way to start your school year and make clear the type of year students can expect. But, yes, we can go even further.
In Dr. Tomlinson’s quote, she mentions abstract problems as a necessity. Encourage students to see that the lessons from the Marshmallow Challenge can be abstracted to cover a wide range of other challenges in class and outside of school.
Good luck getting fuzzy with your class this year!