Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Teaching the Impossible

These kids will go on to do amazing things.
This summer, I was invited by a friend to teach a series of seminars and host a four-day project for high school kids in Beijing, China. This was an opportunity to really test out something I've always believed very passionately, that the best learning comes about when we are challenged with seemingly impossible tasks. The late Superman actor Christopher Reeve once said:
"So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable."
Every great task at first may seem impossible, but it is this aspect of it that makes it great. If you want to be someone who is different than most other people, you must have the courage to attempt things that most other people refuse to acknowledge.

On the first day of the four days, I wanted the students to get acquainted with my ridiculous demands and to get used to working with the materials. The materials provided were limited to a stack of newspaper, tape, and a pair of scissors. The first project was to build a tower with these materials to stand as tall as one of our staff members while taking up the floor space equivalent to one square metre. Oh, and you have two hours, go.

What's interesting is that I had told that particular staff member beforehand that he was not allowed to give out the measurement of his height when asked. I wanted to force the kids to think of alternative ways to extract information when clear numbers were unknown. Brian (the one in the centre with the black shirt) was pretty clever and asked the staff member to stand beside the chalkboard while he marked his height with a piece of chalk. This was the beginning of a team of people that he would lead to conquer many challenges in the upcoming four days.

Pushing Boundaries

Although initially shocked at my request, the students successfully completed the task before the time was up. So for the next project, I thought we should step it up. I wanted to give them tasks which even I did not know if they were possible or not. If they did it, great. If they failed, that's great too. What I wanted to do was to push boundaries.

So I asked them to build within a day, a tower which would be able to hold a fully-filled 600mL water bottle above the height of a table with only 12 pages of newspaper. This task was so difficult that there were certain times when I thought we should relax some of the constraints.

But guess what? They completed it before the next day was over.

That tower on the chair supports a fully-filled water bottle.

The third and final task was to build a bridge which would lift two fully-filled 600mL water bottles above the height of a table while only being able to build on top of two squares situated 1.5 metres apart. The result was the bridge you see below.

An impressive bridge

When we talk about learning and innovation, it's important to realize that it is the tasks which seem impossible that push us to improve. It is those very difficult tasks which build our confidence and lets us know that we are much more powerful than we've been told all throughout our lives. During the projects, many of the kids spoke with me, telling me that the projects were ridiculously difficult. However, they pressed on and were able to accomplish something which they never would have imagined before attempting these projects.

Take the first step and try to do something which seems impossible. As JFK had said about attempting to go to the moon, we do these things:
"...not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

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