Posted 31/3/11
In this activity, students are introduced to, the website of the decade. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. The website is a repository of talks and presentations from the TED conference in which the world’s most creative educators, businessmen, politicians, scientists, artists, etc, are all represented. Talks generally last 20 minutes and the site gives users access to transcriptions of the presentations. For this activity, I have chosen Dan Pink‘s surprising science of motivation.
  • Language level: Intermediate; Upper intermediate
  • Learner type: Teens; Adults; Business
  • Time: 30 minutes + homework
  • Activity: Speaking; Listening
  • Topic: Motivation & incentives
  • Language: Business language associated with incentives (commission, bonus, pay rise, etc)
  • Materials: Video; Worksheet
The candle problem pdf [downloaded 7734 times]

Lesson plan outline

It will help if you plan for this activity by familiarizing yourself with Dan Pink’s presentation. The PDF download contains a summary of the structure which can help. You may also want to bring into the classroom the components of the candle problem (see step 3 below).

  1. On the board write ‘carrot and stick’. Find out if your students know what this well-known image refers to.
  2. The carrot and stick image refers to rewards and punishments, and exists across many cultures. Think of a donkey receiving a juicy carrot incentive for a good day’s work or being slapped with a stick for an unproductive one.
  3. Brainstorm carrots and sticks that people come into contact with in life. Write ideas on the board under two headings (‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’). For business students, make sure that you include the following: pay rise, bonus, commission, promotion, perks, losing your job.
  4. Tell students that you want to introduce them to a famous psychology test. Introduce students to the components of the candle problem and teach the words if necessary (a candle, some thumbtacks, a book of matchsticks). Find out if anyone has ever heard of the candle problem and if so, politely ask them to keep quiet at this stage.
  5. Tell students that their task is to fix the candle to the wall and light it so that the wax doesn’t drip onto the table or floor below. Make sure that students understand what is required of them: ask them to repeat the task back to you and clarify any uncertainties that they may have.
  6. Do not give students access to the objects (if you brought them into the classroom). This will require them to verbalise their solutions rather than use the objects to show you. Ask students to write down their ideas. Tell them that the candle problem can be solved in approximately 20 words. Do not give them the solution yet.
  7. To solve the problem, you have to use thumbtacks to attach the matchbox to the wall and use it as a platform for the candle.
  8. Let students read out and share their answers. Find out how many people successfully worked out the solution. Correct language if necessary.
  9. Ask students how difficult the problem was to solve. Ask them how long they took to see the solution. Tell them that the test was created to demonstrate a phenomenon called functional fixedness. Ask students if they can guess or work out what that means.
  10. Dictate the following to clarify the concept of functional fixedness:
  11. Functional fixedness is a type of mental block. You see the matchbox only as a receptacle for the thumbtacks. You fail to see it as having a useful function for solving the problem. In order to overcome functional fixedness, you have to ‘think outside the box.’
  12. Tell students that the candle problem has also been used in the science of incentives and motivation. Give out copies of the worksheet Glucksberg’s experiments (included in the PDF download) and ask students what they would imagine the results of the two experiments to be.
  13. Let students share ideas. Tell them that you are going to play an excerpt from a presentation by a man called Dan Pink. Play the video from 01:50 and pause it at 06:18 just after Dan says: “This time the incentivised group kicked the other group’s butt! Why?”
  14. Allow students to share and compare what they understood. Offer to play the clip a second time.
  15. Go back to the worksheet and make sure that students understood the results of the two experiments (i.e. that the cash incentive had a negative effect in the first experiment but a positive effect in the second experiment).
  16. Ask students if they can explain the experiments and work out the implications of them, especially in a business context.

Follow ups

  • Ask students to watch the full presentation at home and complete the homework sheet provided in the PDF download.
  • Ask students to find out about Dan Pink and write up his CV (inventing details when necessary.)
  • Use the clip to study presenting styles and techniques. Ask students to watch Dan and describe details relating to his voice, body position, hand and arm movement, gesture, etc.
Posted 31/3/11

19 Responses to The candle problem

  1. Valery says:

    Hello Jamie, I have only recently discovered your website and I find it very inspiring. I too find an extremely interesting site. It is a wonderful tool for people who would like to improve their English. The bloggers do a fantastic job translating. My students can then either read the transcript in their mother tongue and then listen in English or watch the talk with the English subtitles. In fact there are many ways to exploit the videos. I like the way you have broken down Dan Pink’s talk to work with the students. I live and work in France and have used Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s talk quite often when I work on how to give presentations. There is another talk on TED which I am sure you would find interesting only I can not remember the persons name and I no longer have the name saved as my computer crashed (yes I have learned from my mistake and now have back up) anyway it is a talk about team work and there is a problem to solve which involves spaghetti. Maybe you could find the talk. Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. Jamie Keddie says:

    Hello Valery
    I love a challenge – is it this one?
    It is great to point out that some of the talks on have subtitles in a number of different languages. It is usually the more popular talks. The subtitle selector switch is located just below the video window.
    Thank you very much for the comment
    Jamie :-)

  3. Valery says:

    yes, yes, yes! Oh thanks Jamie that is the one. I thought that you would know which one it was. You are right about the translations for the talks, not all of them are translated and when the talks are newly posted there are no subtitles. It usually takes the bloggers about a week to get them done. I just LOVE TED. True the subtitle selector is just below the video and I saw that you have indicated where to find the Interactive transcript which allows the user to go to any point in the video just by clicking on the phrase of their choice. Thanks once again for finding the marshmallow challenge for me.

  4. Jamie Keddie says:

    Ha ha – glad we got it!
    Did you ever think of giving your students the marshmallow challenge but insisting that they only speak in English while collaborating? Wonder if it would work.

  5. Valery says:

    I will try this challenge after spring break…As the class have already put themselves in groups I am going to break them up. I do not want them to work with their friends. Once they are out of school they will have to be able to work with all sorts of people, even ones they do not like. Their names will be put into a hat and we will do a draw first. This way (I hope) the class will be mixed up. I still need to think of some sort of penalty for not speaking in English. Once the Challenge is over then we will speak about teamwork. My daughter is already preparing the trophy for the winning team, a golden marshmallow!

  6. Jamie Keddie says:

    Valery – there is a Marsh Mallow Challenge website that gives really good information on how to set up your own challenge. It even tells you how to give good instructions. Invaluable I think:

  7. Jonathan says:

    A big fan (and user) of the candle problem, great to get talking about management / bonuses. I came across your coments on the marshmallow challenge and tried it out the next day (shops were closed so it was v. difficult finding marshmallows, but a student brought some in!). Really got them going and was loads of fun. It was hard preventing them from speaking French but a 1cm penalty for each time I caught them seemed efficient ! A trophy is a great idea. Thanks for the tip !

  8. Jamie Keddie says:

    Hey Jonathan
    Excellent idea to give 1 cm penalties!
    I imagine that keeping students speaking English throughout the task would be tough. I thought about setting up videos cameras – one for each group. The cameras would be unmanned and they would be there so that we could over the language used later. But it might also encourage students to speak English. I don’t know. Might try it this summer and will share results!
    Thanks for the comment

  9. Aleksandra says:

    Thanx for this lesson plan, it works perfectly well especially with business English classes:
    Here is another version of Dan Pink’s talk:
    Greetings from Poznan:)

  10. Paul says:

    The amazing also the video with dialogue and vocab:

  11. Jamie Keddie says:

    Very useful to know
    Thanks for that Paul :)

  12. Ken MacDougall says:

    Hi Jamie,

    I’m a Scot that used to live in Barcelona and your name and site came up in a conversation I was just having with Neil McMillan.

    Cool site!

    I think you might need to add a caveat to watching TED talks that would encourage teachers to show/students to watch the whole talk as that seems to be part of the license mallarkey (sp?) This came up in some materials that I have just produced and the scary editor (ask Neil) picked me up on this.

    As I said, cool site.

    Que vaig i be

    Ken MacDougall

  13. Jamie Keddie says:

    Hey Ken

    Nice to meet you. I am writing this from Glasgow. Just got here for iatefl. Where are you from?

    I’m not sure about this potential permission problem for TED. I certainly don’t see anything of this nature on their terms of use:

    In any case, such a limitation would go against the whole TED ethos of ‘Ideas worth spreading’.

    Also, they carry a creative commons license. If I was creating lessons plans for commercial reasons (which is what the scray editor might be doing), I would have to be more careful. But since I’m not, I think I’m safe.

    Thanks for the comment and thanks for the nice words about the site.
    Jamie :)

  14. JonB says:

    I’ve never heard of the “carrot and stick” applied this way. I’ve always just thought of it as the carrot being held in front of the donkey with the stick:

  15. Jamie Keddie says:

    Hey Jon
    Yes – I have seen both meanings. Wikipedia mentions them both as well:

  16. marcia says:

    Hi Jamie
    Thank you very much for such an interesting and engaging site.
    I teach one to one and used it with 2 advanced students and worked really well.

  17. Jamie Keddie says:

    Thank you for your comment Marcia
    Glad it worked!
    J :)

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  19. Maura says:

    Hi, Jamie!

    Used this lesson last week for an upper intermediate group of customer care agents I teach. It was their first exposure to TED and they were really impressed. I now have the free TED app on my iPad – so I will be using this stuff with this group a lot more often now.