Perhaps one of the best team-building activities I know is the popular marshmallow challenge, perfect for a time when we are still setting up the ground rules that will define that learner-centred, interactive and cooperative learning environment we will be working in for the next few months. Although initially created as a design challenge for the corporate world, the task can easily be adapted to a language learning setting in which the students will practise all four skills while completing the challenge, and learn compelling lessons on collaboration that they will hopefully apply to their daily classroom practice for the rest of the year.
After asking the students to define “collaboration” and think about what it takes to collaborate effectively, draw their attention to the importance of appropriate language use in the process and how ideas should be exchanged within a cooperative setting. Go over the examples below and check understanding by having them classify the expressions into categories: making suggestions, agreeing, disagreeing, and so on. Tell them they will be using these expressions in the team-based task they are about to start working on.
Each team of 4 gets 20 sticks of spaghetti, a metre of string, a metre of masking tape, and a marshmallow. In 18 minutes, the teams must build the highest standing structure that can hold a marshmallow at the very top using some or all of the materials provided. The task seems easy at first, and yet once the activity starts the students will soon face several challenges for which they will need to find quick solutions — and an appropriate use of collaborative language among team members will prove essential for them to get their ideas across both fast and efficiently.
In fact, when the challenge is over and a winning team declared, the students working on the reflective writing task below independently usually identify the type of language that was used during the activity, including turn-taking and listening skills, as one of the key factors that determined their success. The frequency and quality of each team member’s contributions, the team’s capacity to generate ideas and build rapport, or the ability to listen to other classmates’ ideas to be able to create something unique, have also immediate practical consequences for a language learning environment that emphasizes the communicative function of language and in which students actively interact and work together to negotiate meaning.
So — are you up for the challenge?
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Just to let you know that we’ve shortlisted this blog post for this month’s TeachingEnglish blog award and I’ll be putting up a post about it on tomorrow’s TeachingEnglish Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/TeachingEnglish.BritishCouncil, if you’d like to check there for comments.
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