Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Odyssey of the Mind

I'm the coach for my 4th grade son's Odyssey of the Mind team. While I mean to mostly discuss EARLY childhood eduation in this space, Odyssey is so eye-opening for me, and such an amazing education journey, that I want to share a little about it here, even though the participants are a few years older.

Have you heard of Odyssey of the Mind? A quick overview: in the 70s, a professor of engineering at a community college in New Jersey wanted to get his students excited about their end of semester projects, so he staged a contest. The students loved it, and stimulated by the friendly and open-ended competition, they created some stunning projects. He did it the next year, and then they competed against another college, then some local high schools got involved...and now it's an international non-profit that organizes regional, state, and a world competition each year for kids from Kindergarten through college.

Each team of 4 to 7 kids is given an open ended problem. They have 8 minutes to perform their solution at the competition. To get there, they must work together, learn through trial and error, and dream big.

The white-hot center of the Odyssey experience is a rule called "no outside assistance." This means coach, parents, teachers, siblings, friends--we must all keep quiet. The team and only the team dreams it, plans it, builds it, and performs it. The kids totally own it, from beginning to end.

As coach, I am there to watch for safety issues, to gently remind them of the passing of time, and to make sure that every team member's voice is being heard. Mostly, I'm there to learn. Sometimes I have to cover my mouth with both hands to keep a suggestion from popping out. But I know from experience (this is my fourth year coaching) that if I resist that urge and see what the kids come up with, they will eventually figure out what I had noticed. Or--and this is the magic--what they figure out far outstrips my conventional, ho-hum, grown-up idea.

In Odyssey, the shy perform, the boisterous focus, the artist calculates, the planner dreams. The kids exceed their own expectations. And the adults pray a lot, because all this magic looks exactly like chaos until impossibly late in the game.

This year my son's team is building aircraft that perform different kinds of flights. I'm so worried, because they've talked so much and build so little and the competition marches nearer every day. And at the same time, I'm not worried at all. Ah, Odyssey.

Read more about the program at


  1. This sounds incredible, Launa. Inspiring to read about what kids can do if we just let them!

  2. I'm sorry I missed this post - I was in OM when I was in elementary and middle school! When I was in 8th grade, we won the World Finals - it was so incredibly exciting for me - a kid who wasn't at all athletic - to be competing mentally. I was thinking about coaching a K-2 team here at school next year...there has never been a team from Belgium!

  3. Wow, Allie, what a great story! I would have loved Odyssey myself, and I'm so glad it's available for my children. I would love to hear about your Belgian team--keep me posted!