To foster active learning, Dr. Tom Philippe uses paper airplanes, blocks, beads, and balls to solidify skills in listening, teamwork, and problem solving.
Professor of Management,St. Petersburg College, FL
PhD in Engineering/Management, MS and BS in Engineering
Bouncy balls. Paper airplanes. Beads and blocks. These may sound like items that teachers would confiscate from students. But Tom Philippe, PhD, a professor at Florida’s St. Petersburg College, not only allows them—he supplies them.
This innovation—like many others—was born out of frustration. Philippe says that creating traditional slide presentations for his management classes was a little tedious. “It was brutal for me,” he says, “and brutal for my students.” In 2001, he began employing active learning strategies involving unconventional props, and he never looked back. “I use simulations [with props] to demonstrate how groups of people are able to collaborate and improve processes that are central to doing business,” he says.
Philippe admits that the course description and syllabus for his Process Improvement Methodologies course mentions nothing about the joys of building castles or airplanes, but the lessons that employ them are central to the coursework. “Active learning is exactly what business students need to get ready for the real world,” he asserts. “One of the most satisfying aspects related to active teaching is seeing how students can improve their communication and problem-solving abilities in a short amount of time. It builds the students’ critical-thinking skills.”
Ready to give it a try? Here, Philippe has shared four of his active learning strategies that focus on active listening, communication, and problem-solving skills—all crucial to success in any classroom or workplace. Use the instructions below, and you can perform your own similar simulations with little more than printer paper and some common children’s toys.
“Active learning is exactly what business students need to get ready for the real world. One of the most satisfying aspects related to active teaching is seeing how students can improve their communication and problem-solving abilities in a short amount of time.”
-Tom Philippe, PhD
Course description: This course presents the basic principles and techniques used to manage process improvement. Today’s managers need to understand how to engage people in process improvement, as well as how to critically understand and apply the associated methodologies. Process improvement is complicated and dynamic, encompassing a variety of approaches traditionally recognized as Total Quality Management (TQM), Lean, Six Sigma, Balanced Scorecard, and many others. The potential benefits of process improvements create not only lucrative opportunities for today’s organizations, but they are a necessity for survival in the competitive world marketplace. Businesses must be able to better manage and control their process improvements in order to achieve their strategic objectives.
1. Paper-Tearing Exercise: Active listening to verbal instruction
Takeaway: This exercise shows how difficult it can be to both give and follow verbal instructions. It shows that processes, even simple ones, can be very complex. Being able to articulate complex ideas is not easy, and you may need to employ some simple techniques to help communicate your message.
Materials: 8½ x 11-inch sheet of paper (one per student)
Time: 10–15 minutes, plus discussion
Directions: Give each student a piece of paper. Ask the students to pay close attention to the instructions—which Philippe delivers verbally, only once—then perform the tasks without asking questions.
- Fold your sheet of paper in half.
- Tear off the upper right corner.
- Fold your paper in half again.
- Tear off the lower right corner.
- Fold your paper in half.
- Tear off the upper left corner.
- Unfold your paper and look at what you made (your “product”).
The follow-up: Ask students to look around the room and compare their paper with their neighbors’, and you may see some surprised faces. The products may look wildly different from one another. This simple act provides a key lesson in active listening. A good question is, “Why is there so much variation in everyone’s output?”
To get students thinking even more, ask them to consider questions such as: “What surprised you?” “Why is yours different from mine, given that the directions were very simple?” Then invite them to share and discuss their answers, which will offer insights into common communication skills and challenges.
Philippe then asks the students to map the process steps individually; then they do it again as a class to get a low-variation output. By explicitly writing out the steps, the students see how to succeed in getting everyone’s output to be the same. For example, students may realize that, even when asked to perform a basic exercise, a colleague may not hear or understand you the first time.
2. Ball Transport Simulation: Solving problems as a group
Takeaway: This is an exercise in team problem solving and communication, particularly focused on how individuals react in a group. Do some people tend to be more proactive or passive? How does this affect the entire team? Such awareness is crucial to helping students recognize when, how, and why they take part in solving problems.
Materials: Timer and tennis ball (or similar ball)
Time: 30 minutes, including discussion
Directions: Note: This exercise works best with at least six participants. You will also need an open space where everyone can stand and pass the ball from one to another.
Start by asking each group to pass the ball to each other without touching hands; this is the warm-up. Then ask the group to repeat the exercise “as quickly as possible,” using the timer to time their progress. (This is the baseline.) Next, ask the group to pass the ball through each person’s hands again—but in half the time.
Before beginning this second round, give the group a few minutes to determine a strategy. You can repeat this round several times, each time announcing their current time and asking them to perform faster.
At first, they may think it will be impossible to transport the ball in half the time it took on the first round. But the students will learn that is far from the case! In this sample video on YouTube, Philippe’s students improve their speed by more than 20 seconds.
The follow-up: This activity can launch conversations about problem solving. Discuss the process of arriving at an answer—particularly focusing on who actively (or passively) participated in its creation. Ask students to consider whose ideas were used, and questions such as: “Which ideas were tossed aside?” “Did people build on others’ ideas?” “How surprised was the group by their progress or lack of it?” “Does a team benefit from an outside push, or is managing a challenge internally the best approach?” According to Philippe, all of these prompts point students toward conclusions that will be more memorable because they are learned by doing.
3. Castle Build: Communicating and listening effectively
Takeaway: The way we communicate can often be a predictive tool in determining success. If communication is well thought out and received, tasks can be completed efficiently, allowing people to move on to more difficult challenges.
Materials: Timer and child’s medium-size building blocks in various colors and shapes
Time: 30 minutes, including discussion
Directions: First, divide the class into teams, and then build your version of a castle using the blocks, but keep it hidden from view. Give one member from each team 20 seconds to look at your iteration of the castle. They must then go back to their team and communicate how to replicate it by giving oral directions. They could say, for example, “The sides are shaped like a square, and the foundation has blue and yellow blocks.” This goes on until one team replicates the model accurately.
The follow-up: The castle build shows that the vision of one person can either lead or mislead a team that is working on a practical level to bring a product to life. Students also begin to understand that success involves not only having the right employees and a current process but also the ability to improve and change that process as needed. The exercise shows how important and difficult it is to define your starting point or problem properly. You cannot improve a process until you have consensus on what you are all looking at. This exercise emphasizes critical-thinking skills in that the student must solve this difficult problem with a combination of presentation and communication skills.
Enhance the exercise by discussing how certain types of communication can improve the process or derail it. Ask students to think about how well they listened and understood the directions. The better part of our lives is spent listening, making this exercise particularly important.
4. Red Bead Experiment: Problem solving, variation, and cause
Takeaway: This exercise, developed by W. Edwards Deming, teaches students that, in many cases, only management can initiate countermeasures to deal with problems. It also highlights the fact that randomness exists in real life, and sometimes there is nothing that the willing worker can do to improve the situation. Workers, most of the time, have no control over their experiences. The worker should not be held responsible for mistakes when usually it is the process that is causing the issues.
Materials: 40 red beads and 160 white beads, a box or bin, and a scoop (to scoop beads from the box)
Note: You can also purchase a kit specific to the exercise, which includes flat paddles with dimples to hold the beads.
Time: 45 minutes, plus discussion
Directions: Select four willing workers and a quality control person. The quality control person’s job is to count the number of red beads and write down the number.
A willing worker uses a paddle to draw small beads from a large bowl. Each draw of the paddle gets 20 beads. Some are white and some are red.
The white beads symbolize the good things that we experience each day as we do our work, and the red beads symbolize the problems or bad things that we experience. Before each round, have a contest for the employee of the week, the one with the fewest red beads. Then do the opposite: Identify the employee with the most red beads, and fire this poor willing worker.
The follow-up: Remind them that sometimes the person who fields “all” the problems is not the cause of them! Also talk to the students about what is (or may be) possible to control in the work place, which is the underlying problem that caused the metaphorical red beads to appear in the first place.
It is best to recognize that people often have little control over some problems, and that problems can also vary dramatically. However, the students do have the power to spot faults and suggest improvements. They can learn that, when people are empowered to fix an issue, they perform better and are more successful than when they are chastised or even offered an external reward to improve.
This simulation is also a terrific way for hands-on learners (who may have trouble deciphering charts and graphs) to see—and easily recall—the results.