NAILED IT! – A day without digital

I tried something a little different this week, just to change things up and get away from all that silly prescribed curriculum nonsense. Just for fun and a little curiosity, I resurrected a problem solving activity I learned back when I was a kid and introduced it to the modern digital classroom. The good old, “balance 12 nails on the head of one” activity.

What inspired me to bring out the old hammer and nails, was that I recently became the last person on earth to read “The Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell. In the Outliers, Gladwell makes reference to a math experiment that Berkley math professor, Alan Schoenfeld, does. It is pretty simple, nothing fancy. Schoenfeld gives the subject a math problem to figure out and then times how long it takes for them to find the solution or give up. In the book, Gladwell uses the example of a nurse named “Rene” who takes 22 minutes to figure out Schoenfeld’s math problem, then Gladwell goes on to explain in great detail why this is significant.

The long and the short of Gladwell’s well taken point, is this… (I paraphrase and take some poetic liberties here) In math, we tend to condition kids to try and figure things out quickly. We view those kids who can come up with the answer quickly, as the ones who are good at math. The ones who are left plodding along and take longer to figure out the problems, are the dullards and relegated to the numeracy dung heap. (1 guess which group I was a part of) In other words, our system rewards speed at the expense of thoughtful processing of the problem at hand.

This got me thinking about how the digital device might be furthering this fast is right conditioning we instill in our children. Just Googling it (as handy as it may be) might be compounding the problem of not taking the time to think things through. Why bother trying to figure out anything if you can just find the answer using your handy-dandy digital device?

But back to the nails… What I wanted to see was just how long it would take for kids to get frustrated with the task and either reach for their digital device for the answer, or give up.

The task is simple. Balance 12 nails on the head of a single nail, I had hammered into a block of wood.

  • I distributed 9 sets of nails to the class, so the kids would have to work in small groups. The idea being, that the problem solving process would be a collaborative.
  • I told the kids NO DIGITAL DEVICES to look for the answer on.
  • The first class I just let work straight on through, the second class, I promised a hint at the 20 minute mark.
  • Within 5 minutes some groups were looking for their device, which I quickly quashed.
  • At the 10 minute mark about 1/4 of the groups had given up but started back up again, at about 20 minutes whether I gave a hint or not.
  • In my first class, one student figured it out at the 45 minute mark and in the second class a pair of students figured it out at the 40 minute mark (with a hint).

The sad thing is, this was probably the best class I had all year. Fortunately I can put a curricularly relevant spin on the whole thing, so when the kids go home and say “Mr. Rispin is the best because we played with nails all class!” I will be able to justify it.

What this whole exercise has proven to me is that, we need to give kids the opportunity and the time to work on problems, whether they be academic or just silly nail hanging like activities, sans digital device. We spend so much time trying to cram curriculum down kids throats, that we forsake the value of thoughtfulness.

What is even more interesting, is that I was asked five times in less than 36 hours after that activity, if we could do that sort of thing again! So I think I am going to make it a Bi Weekly activity. Problem is coming up with the challenges.


  1. Chris

    My worry with “googling” is the inability of some students to struggle with a problem. Life is not supposed to be easy or quick and this looks like a great activity to remind students of this very fact. The positive that comes from your activity is that they were able to persevere to solve a challenging/difficult task.
    Chris Sandor

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      Hey Chris, thanks for the comment.

      I have to agree with you, kids are missing the perseverance part. Of course there are those who are the exception but far too may kids are looking for the quick answer and Google serves that purpose.

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  2. Christian Klaue (@Cklaue)

    Great post on the importance of stick-to-itiveness. Reminds me of Napoleon. He challenged his generals to figure out a way to balance a boiled egg on its pointy end. The generals worked at it for several hours before they reported back to him that it was impossible. They then challenged him to show them how it could be done. He then took the egg and smashed the pointy end onto the table so that it stood upright. They did not like that solution and complained that it was unfair. Napoleons response was that no other parameters were given and they needed to think outside of the box. A great lesson for us today.

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      Thanks for the comment Christian, I would say all the virtues of a truly wise society, stick-to-itiveness, patience, thoughtfulness, measured efforts are being pushed aside in favour of the quick fix fit for the buy it now consumerist society we have created. I am going to crack open “Wait: The Art and Science of Delay tonight. which I imagine will only serve to reinforce the point I was trying to make.

      How is Willy’s Puddle by the way? I spent 3 years there, 2 of which were at Sugar Cane teaching.


  3. Doug Sheppard

    Hi Keith,

    Here is another possible resource from St Louis University – “Innovation Challenge – 22 PBL Mind Workouts for Teams” – free from iBooks. Saw it on Peter Pappas’ Blog “Copy / Paste”.

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