Teaching Teamwork in 10 Minutes: The Birds Activity

The first week of school is a powerful time to set norms, and one of the most important norms in a collaborative classroom is valuing others’ perspectives on teams. There are lots of great activities out there – for example, lost at sea or the marshmallow challenge – but when you run a chaotic, project-based classroom, sometimes you crave simplicity. So, here’s a simple and engaging activity that requires only 10 minutes and pencil/paper.

The Birds Activity

The Birds Activity (courtesy of Ellen Browne) shows the value of different perspectives on teams. For this activity, students should be in teams of 3-4 and need paper and a writing utensil.

Here are the instructions – try them out yourself! As a facilitator, do NOT show all the instructions up front. Instead, show one instruction at a time.

  1. Independently, write a list with as many names of birds as you can.
  2. Discuss strategies with your team. You cannot share specific names of birds, but you can talk about how you thought about your list.
  3. Independently, write a list with as many names of birds as you can.

After the first step, check how many birds students could list (“Raise your hand if you have more than 5 birds…10 birds…15?”). At the end of the activity, check how long the final lists were. Then, discuss what strategies students heard from each other, how those strategies impacted their lists, and if any of their bird names were particularly interesting or surprising.

Why It Works

First, all students can engage in this activity because everyone has some base knowledge of birds. Their goal is not to come up with a long list, but rather to do the best they can.

Second, every student creates a longer list the second time because of their team discussions. The value of team discussions and listening to others’ perspectives are immediately apparent because they lead to direct, numerical results.

Diving Deeper: Using the Birds Activity to Unlock Creativity

What I love MOST about this activity is how it serves as a sneaky launching point for discussing creativity. Because creating a list of bird names is not obviously a creative exercise, students don’t actively try to “be creative.” Instead, the activity uncovers how people are creative in different ways by demonstrating two components of creative thinking: strategies and assumptions.

1. Strategies

The strategies that students use show how people bring different problem solving approaches, even for as simple of a problem as listing bird names. For example, some students imagine they’re walking through a zoo. Or, they travel through different habitats, like city, forest, and ocean. Others think through categories of birds.

As students discuss and debrief strategies, they consider: How do diverse approaches generate more ideas? And how can you change the way you approach a problem to open up more creative solutions?

2. Assumptions

Different students respond to the prompt with different assumptions of what they consider birds. Students list everything from bird species (“swallow”) to bird characters (“Donald Duck”) and mythical/fictional birds (“phoenix”), and even non-animal birds, (“Larry Bird”).

Often, my most academic students come with the most rigid assumptions of the prompt, listing species of birds (and feeling stumped when they run out of ideas!). When we debrief interesting or surprising names, they complain, “I didn’t know we were allowed to write those!” Then, the discussion evolves naturally: What rules are real and what do you make up? How can you identify and challenge your own assumptions of the problem?

So, in just 10 minutes, students learn that each person bring a unique perspectives that shapes their strategies and assumptions. They see evidence that working with a team results in more ideas that are more interesting and diverse.

What do you think of the birds activity? Let me know if you give it a shot! And what are your favorite back-to-school activities?


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