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Hula hoops and marshmallows help 6th graders learn about teamwork

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On Wednesday, Debbie Madl’s 6th grade class was divided into two groups of around 10 students each.  Each group formed a circle and was given a Hula Hoop.  They held the hoop at shoulder length using only their index fingers, then, without talking, the students were to lower the hoop to the ground.

It didn’t go well.

Dr. Mark Johnson is a Professor of Technology and Workforce Learning at Pittsburg State University.  He is also one of the developers and champions of the Youth Leadership program, a program that visits area school districts once a month to teach sixth grade students about leadership.

The topic on Wednesday was teamwork.  Dr. Johnson asked the students for a definition of teamwork.

“A team is a bunch of people working together to accomplish something,” Tristen Wells offered.

“Correct – it’s about working together, not somebody being in charge, but it’s all working together,” Dr. Johnson said.

The groups first attempts at lowering the hoop failed miserably, just as Dr. Johnson expected.

So he explained to the students why they were having difficulty.

“Teams have four stages that they go through,” Dr. Johnson said.  “The first stage that they go through is just coming together for a common purpose – that is the simplest part of a team.  If you’ve got a baseball team they go to a baseball practice – that is easy.  That is called Forming.

“But then the difficulty starts,” continued Dr. Johnson.  “The second stage is Storming, because all of a sudden we realize we’re all different.  Some of you are raising the hoop and some of you are lowering the hoop and some of you are going ‘huh?’  You’re just all over the board.  So that’s chaotic and you’re getting frustrated with each other.  You’re struggling with each other.  That’s common.  That always happens.

“But a good team gets past the chaos because they begin to realize that some people go fast, some go slow, but we’ve got to work together.  So, what I want you to do is to work together to figure out how to keep that hoop from going into the air, and lower it to the floor.  Talk to each other.  Talk – not shout, not scream, not blame – talk to one another about how to get it to go down.”

When the two groups returned to the exercise, they again struggled.

Watching the students struggle, Dr. Johnson told Mrs. Madl that with this experiment they have seen that teams of three or four do significantly better than larger groups.

“The more people, the more chaos,” Dr. Johnson said.

About that time one of the teams had a breakthrough, and together, they lowered their hoop to the floor.

After applauding their efforts, Dr. Johnson then showed these students that if they touched the back of their hands with the person next to them, without talking, one person could lead everyone to lower the hoop.

“They’re not even talking and they’re going down, why is that?’” he asked.  “It’s called connection.  A great team connects.  Have you ever seen a football where the quarterback throws the ball and the receiver mysteriously runs underneath it and catches it and you go ‘how’d that happen?’  It’s called connection because they’re on the same page.  They know what each other is going to do.  This is the Norming stage when we start to norm and know what each other is doing.

“And then we start Performing and you get the task done because you quit arguing with each other.   You had a leader because she was helping giving directions, but others of you chimed in and gave ideas, so you were being a leader because you were helping out.  The rest of you were leaders because worked with her to accomplish it, to get done.”

The second group ran out of time before they could accomplish the task, but Dr. Johnson said that happens.

“You were in the chaos phase and that’s a tough one to get out of because here’s your reality – 80% of businesses in this country fail in the first few months because of chaos.  Family members come together and they open a business and pretty soon they don’t agree on the money, or on the hours, or on the product, or whatever, and they start bickering with each other and the company fails because of chaos.”

“(Success comes) if we can ever get out of the chaos and quit blaming and yelling at each other and understand we’re all just a little bit different and have different skills,” Dr. Jackson said.  “That’s what teamwork is about.  Team is about realizing we are different but we use those as strengths, not as disadvantages.  We use those as strengths to work through our chaos.  That’ll help you get through almost any tense situation.”

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Later in the day on Wednesday, across the hall in Ashley Hobbs class, several 6th grade students also took part in a Marshmallow Tower contest.  Three teams of four students were given 20 minutes to create the tallest freestanding structure using four large marshmallows, 50 small marshmallows and a handful of toothpicks.

The winning tower was 22 centimeters.  The second place team was 20 centimeters because it was leaning.  Had it been able to stand straight it would have been 24 centimeters tall.

Students said what made the challenge so difficult was finding the right balance between support, without it getting to heavy.

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