The Tower Challenge

The Tower Challenge
  • By Dr. Rick Albright

One of my favorite group counseling activities is called the The Newspaper Tower Challenge. I’m not sure who exactly came up with it, but the idea is to separate whatever group/class you have into several equal subgroups (about 4-8 people per group), give each subgroup a stack of newspaper, a roll of duct tape and instruct them to make the tallest self-supporting tower (not attached to floors, walls, desks, chairs, ceilings, etc.) that they can make in a given amount of time – usually about 10 minutes, using only those materials.

For years, I facilitated this activity as an effective kinesthetic precursor to a meaningful debriefing, reflecting on strategies, decision-making, communication skills, and leadership. As a professional counselor, the key is to spend more time on the discussion than on the activity itself and to draw out the metaphors by comparing and contrasting what happened in the activity to what happens in “real life” – insights, meaningful experiences, strengths, and areas for growth. I consistently find that participants really enjoy completing the challenge and it is a really effective prompt for meaningful conversation on key issues relevant for groups, such as general education sixth graders, alternative school teenagers, young adults court-ordered to counseling for drinking under the influence, teachers in-trainings, practicing professional school counselors, and so many more! Invariably, however, every group that I ever worked with would turn this activity into a competition, with each subgroup striving to build their tower taller than the other groups. Each group (and not just the kids!) would get so into the competition to beat the other teams and it didn’t matter how many times I said “This isn’t a competition.” In fact, I think that even mentioning the word “competition” would often make it even worse.

A few years ago, I tired of pushing back against the competition and decided to use it to my advantage. I was teaching a graduate counseling class on Diversity Awareness and Appreciation. With a bit of advance preparation, I was ready to make a few adjustments to the activity. When I walked around to distribute the materials, I gave one group considerably less newspaper – just a few pages – and a mostly used roll of duct tape. What transpired was incredible. I have since done this activity with many different groups of a wide range of ages, abilities, and backgrounds and almost exactly the same thing happens every time. The group or groups loaded down with plenty of supplies – a huge stack of newspapers and several full rolls of tape – go to work building the tallest tower they can, keeping an eye on the other subgroups’ progress, not noticing and/or ignoring the fact that they have considerably more resources than one of the other teams. The under-resourced subgroup typically notices that they were issued less pretty quickly and, on occasion, will point that out, even complain from time to time. More often than not, however, they just go to work with what they have. It seems to me that, when all is said and done, this group ends up being more proud of their tower than the other group(s), regardless of how the final height compares. But the most astounding thing to me is to hear the reactions from the over-resourced groups when they find out that they had more to begin with. They almost invariably feel guilty and perhaps embarrassed that they were so laser-focused on building their tower higher than the other teams that they didn’t even consider whether or not the playing field was equal. The privileged groups almost always contend that they would have shared their resources if they would have known. The idea of the activity, however, is not to make anyone feel guilty or embarrassed or diminish their accomplishment. The goal, rather, is to prompt a good conversation about the importance of mindful awareness of disparities as a prerequisite for compassion, altruism and advocating for equal opportunities. I have added a few other touches over the years as well, depending upon the group focus and goals. In one scenario, I bring extra supplies and put them in a pile in front of the room. When the under-resourced subgroup inevitably walks to the front of the room to request more newspaper and duct tape, I respond by telling them that I will give them some if they put on plain white t-shirts (prepared in advance) emblazoned with words like “ADHD”, and “Learning Disability” spelled out in bold black lettering across the chest. What an amazing prompt for a conversation about the challenges, positives and negatives regarding diagnosis and stigma!

So what does this have to do with you? You are a helping professional, right? – a counselor, a teacher, an administrator, a coach? a parent? You wouldn’t allow competitiveness to blind you to disparities, would you? I would. I have. And as the Grinch says at the end of the movie, holding his hands out to be cuffed – “And I’m sorry.”

I can do better. I can pay closer attention to the resources that my clients and students have or don’t have. I can look to share more of what I have in ways that help others be more resilient without drawing attention to myself and without fostering dependence.

How about you? What students, clients, athletes, or teachers do you work with that could use a little extra support and how could you subtly reach out to offer that support? May you have eyes to see and a heart to help.

There are likely many of you reading this and/or listening to this essay that do just that day after day – your internal radar is set to identify those who are hurting, struggling, or trying to get by with less than others. To you – thank you for sharing your life with others. Thank you for your selfless service and sacrifice. You are making a significant difference, even when you can’t see it. Your tower is growing as you help others build theirs. Lastly, I want to encourage you to feel good about who you are and the important work you are doing. As Friedrich Nietzsche is quoted to have said: “Love ever your neighbors as yourself, but first be such as love themselves.”

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