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Developing a Designer's Mindset: The Marshmallow Challenge

The excitement in the room was palpable. Bits of tape, string, and even remnants of raw spaghetti were strewn on the floor. There was the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. This wasn’t a sporting event. It was professional development for principals.

Just a few weeks ago, the Center was fortunate enough to host the first School Retool Fellowship workshop for principals from across the state of Virginia sponsored by W&M alumnus, Ted Dintersmith. Developed in the d.School at Stanford, School Retool focuses on using the design thinking process to empower school leaders to design “hacks” to encourage deeper learning in their schools.  As part of this innovative approach to redesigning school culture, the School Retool facilitators help principals develop 3 mindsets: a bias to action, starting small, and failing forward.

To introduce these mindsets, the coaches facilitated a Marshmallow Challenge.  In this challenge, teams are asked to build a tower in just 10 minutes with the following materials:

  • 20 pieces of raw spaghetti
  • 1 marshmallow
  • 1 yard of string
  • 1 yard of tape

The team with the highest freestanding tower wins.  


It was great to see the principals working and collaborating on this challenge. So often, professional development (for teachers or principals), involves sitting silently for long periods of time watching someone give a PowerPoint presentation. But, this model was completely different. Principals were actively collaborating, problem-solving and participating throughout the day in just the kind of deeper learning we want students engaged in.


An interesting take-away from the Marshmallow Challenge was that some of the participants indicated in the debrief that they spent so much time planning in their groups, they had little time to build the tower. Perhaps this explains why Kindergarteners often have more success in this challenge than many adults – including educators!

This challenge is a great metaphor for three mindsets introduced in School Retool. To be successful in the challenge you have to jump right in and try things out – you have to a have a bias to action. This sometimes means trying to develop just a part of the tower. You have to start small. Finally, as ideas inevitably don’t work, you have to learn from the attempt and adjust for the future or fail forward. These mindsets are also presented in a series of videos, featuring sock puppets no less.


Leading innovation in schools is a challenging endeavor. Like any social system, change happens slowly. School Retool’s emphasis on hacking and play, however, created a different tone and energy among the participants. By the end of the day, the participants were tired, but inspired. In the final debrief, they expressed enthusiasm to work on their quick wins and to shadow a student prior to coming together for the next session. We look forward to following these adventurous school leaders over the course of the semester as they work to bring this engagement and enthusiasm for deeper learning back to their schools.