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Tip of the Week: BreakoutEDU and student engagement

Escape rooms.

I’ve never tried it but people I know who have done the escape room thing say the experience is awesome. If you’re not familiar with the concept, head over and take a quick peek at one example from the TV show The Big Bang Theory.

The idea is that you are “locked” into a room with a time limit. There are clues scattered around that you must find and figure out. These clues eventually lead to a key or passcode that you can use to escape from the room and win the challenge.

Escape rooms are great examples of the research that suggests the brain loves solving problems and novelty. When we experience new and intriguing tasks, reward chemicals are released – cementing learning and retention.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that a couple of teachers adapted the escape room idea to their classrooms. James Sanders and Mark Hammons developed an activity that they titled BreakoutEDU. But instead of escaping from an actual room, BreakoutEDU players solve clues to open a series of locks and boxes with the ultimate goal of getting into the final Breakout box.

And the cool thing?

The teachers who created the idea will sell you a BreakoutEDU kit. You get everything you need to start your own game – locks, clues, boxes, ideas, links to downloads and games.

But they’ve also done a great job of making the process very open-source and collaborative. So you can create your own kit, create your own game, share your game, borrow someone else’s game, adapt a game, adapt the kit – pretty much take the idea and use it in a wide variety of ways.

breakout steps

There is an excellent Facebook group that shares ideas and games that they’ve created. You can connect with the creators and others via Twitter and participate in the #breakoutchat.

The kit is generic enough so that the same elements can be used for games across grade levels and content areas. And the reasons why it works so well with adults and students never change:

Sylvia Duckworth's reasons why Breakout works

Sylvia Duckworth’s reasons why Breakout works

I had the chance last week to experience BreakoutEDU with a group of social studies teachers in Eric Langhorst’s session at the Missouri Council for the Social Studies conference. Eric created a Breakout that forced us to activate prior knowledge and learn new stuff about famous Missourians in order to win the challenge.

Working together, we solved the problem in about 20 minutes. And then spent the next hour and half asking questions and sharing ideas of what this might look like in the classroom:

  • The activity aligns and supports the idea of historical thinking. You’ve got a problem. You need clues / evidence to solve the problem. Use the evidence to create a solution.
  • Is it better make your own kit or buy one? Probably a good idea to get an official kit and then use that as way to adapt future kits you build yourself. The cost is going to be about the same.
  • We talked about how to create groups within each class. More than about 10-15 kids in a group make it difficult for everyone to participate.
  • How can you keep clues from getting to the next class period? Some suggestions included some sort of competition with fastest class solving the puzzle getting extra credit, free quiz, or a free homework pass. This was perhaps the one topic that doesn’t have a clear answer.
  • We discussed the option of having larger groups but have smaller sub groups that have specific responsibilities early on in the process. This could be smaller clues and boxes that have to be opened that will lead to solving bigger clues. This would be a way to keep all kids engaged.
  • One good idea would be to do a sort of socratic method. Break a larger group into two smaller groups with the “inside” group solving the clues, with the “outside” group watching and not talking. Then switch the groups halfway through.
  • Have kids make their own game and have other groups play those games.
  • Don’t underestimate what your students will be able to do.
  • Buying the actual kit probably is easier and less trouble, especially if school will pay for it. It might also be cheaper. Either way, you can then add on extra clues or locks.
  • Lay everything out and walk through the steps before doing the activity before handing it over to your kids.
  • Don’t tell your kids that this is a BreakoutEDU game or use that term. Trust me. They will be able to track down the Facebook group, find the clues online, find videos, etc. (Which may be another reason to not buy the kit because it’s got BreakoutEDU stamped all over it.)
  • Use a variety of clues. Some things we talked about – Add Google Cardboard or Streetview as a place where kids can view clues, street names, house numbers, business names. One teacher used Inca knots in a string as a set of numbers needed to open a lock. Require kids to put primary sources or photos in chronological order – numbers in the bottom corner or on the back are then in the right order to open a box. Create images with clues embedded. Use transparent boxes so that kids can see what is inside such as batteries for the black light flashlight. Integrate a series of QR codes. Leave “random” USB jump drives lying around that have clues embedded. Use an online jigsaw puzzle creator that students have to solve to get their next clue. Create contextual or primary source analysis activities on the day before the Breakout challenge that builds clues for the game that students must refer back to.
  • Use as a hook activity.
  • Use as a review activity.
  • Be sure to use the Facebook group to get resources and to ask questions.

There seems to be a ton of things that are possible with BreakoutEDU. And the powerful thing about all of this? It’s great for the brain and good for kids.

Have fun!


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