Why Kindergarteners Always Win the Marshmallow Challenge

During Toffler Associates training courses, we (like many other organizations) use a simple team-building exercise called The Marshmallow Challenge. Here’s how it works: the large group is broken down into teams of about five people. Each team must build the tallest free-standing structure possible out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. The marshmallow must end up on top. Each team has 18 minutes to get it done. The tallest structure wins.

In his TED Talk, “Build a Tower, Build a Team,” Tom Wujec reveals that kindergartners typically do the best on this challenge. In fact, they outperform most post-graduate (business, law) students – building structures that not only are taller but that also are more interesting. The reasons why these children succeed where adults often fail do not lie in ‘book’ knowledge.

It’s because the kids rarely jockey for power in the group. They collaborate freely and naturally. They are more comfortable with iteration than their adult competitors who are inclined to spend the majority of their 18 minutes sharpening the proverbial ax and only a couple actually getting the structure built. The children are not constrained by their experiences. When left to their own devices, they are inclined to develop completely fresh solutions to a central problem. The children approach the problem in a way that is creative and cross-disciplinary, not linear and results focused.

Yet, the American educational system is largely constructed to teach in a way that is predominantly linear and results focused. What if we were to take a different approach?

Rethinking education for the future workforce

Consider what would happen if our early educational system could harness the inherent creative ability of children with the intent of extending it throughout the grade school years. The chances are high that we would produce job and college-ready individuals comfortable with critical thinking and able to advance creative and innovative solutions.

We have proposed that the approach to education in the United States needs to change if it is going to flood the developing Knowledge Era workforce with engaged, capable thinkers. Doing this would require exchanging the currently structured education for an empirical model wherein people actually work in their area as they learn. Rather than focusing on rote learning, the goal of this educational model would be to teach our future workforce to view a problem, dismantle it, and rebuild concepts and questions in order to arrive confidently at original ways to solve the issue.

Critical thinkers in the workplace

Do a combined search of the terms ‘generalist’ and ‘specialist’ online. You’ll discover that organizations across industries, languages, and sizes all are participating in the longstanding debate over who is more valuable to the workforce.

It’s a valuable argument, and both sides have valid arguments. But, the purpose and value of this particular exercise are diminishing in our modern economy. What organizations need for today and tomorrow are people who have been taught from a young age to think critically with a specific focus or on a host of subjects.

If we’ve learned anything thus far in the Knowledge Era, it’s that cookie cutter approaches and answers no longer exist. Realities like globalization and hyperconnectivity mean that challenges and opportunities have implications that far outpace traditional solutions sets. And that means that how we address those challenges and opportunities have to be as connected, as collaborative, and as broadly encompassing as the prompts themselves.

Here’s where critical thinking skills are so incredibly valuable. The ability to put aside assumptions and think outside the box is crucial to coming up with new questions and ways of thinking about a challenge. It opens us up to hearing (not just listening – but really hearing) ideas from others with an ear tuned to the future.

If we were to use our education system to help our young people learn how to learn, we’ll equip them to really analyze, consider, apply, conclude, and iterate on virtually any subject matter. This holistic approach would give our workforce the ability to break down a problem into its subcomponents (marshmallow on top, spaghetti on the bottom). And it would nurture a willingness and confidence for problem solving that works in any arena.

Why revise how we develop the workforce?

Alvin Toffler stated, “The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Modern education already works to make sure our children can read and write. As foundational as those skills are, they’re not enough. They are processes that fill the toolbox. Our emerging workforce has to know what to do with those tools. Most current and future jobs and issues are more fluid and connected than linear. Giving people the skills to learn, unlearn, and relearn will help them to thrive in this more fluid environment.

Educators can start to build these skills by empowering students to be skeptical, to question and think critically. Like a foreign language, these thinking skills are simpler to teach to children than adults. The process has to start early if we are going to develop a future workforce capable of:

  • Developing, sharing and supporting original ideas and opinions
  • Thinking across industries and organizational structures
  • Arriving at solutions for difficult problems by linking seemingly disparate ideas and concepts
  • Relinquishing the notion of one right answer

Ultimately, no revolutionary changes are required to introduce critical thinking skills into our current educational structure. What we’re proposing is more a shift in focus and fresh intentionality around skepticism and exploration. It might mean less time teaching students to memorize texts and formulas and more time giving them the skills to think and read critically. Our young students would quite probably support this trade-off. But more importantly, those young students would emerge as a workforce ready to solve tomorrow’s complex problems.


It’s time to free our students to learn, unlearn, and relearn.

About the Authors

Toffler Associates

As a consulting and advisory firm, Toffler Associates delivers strategic advantage to clients around the globe with an unwavering commitment to be the catalyst for change. Both the public and private sectors rely on Toffler Associates’ Future Proof® business consulting service and unique perspective to architect better futures.

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