Day 2–For the love of the game: Breakout EDU

I love games. Growing up, my family’s summer beach trips were spent playing in the ocean all day and then playing games all night back at the house.   The games were often card based. My family had an affinity to “Spoons” where you pass cards around from person to person and then someone stealthily (or not so) takes a spoon from the middle of the table. Once a spoon has been taken, it is important to quickly grab a spoon before everyone else. It’s almost a card version of musical chairs. The last person without a spoon gets a letter. Once a person has spelled the word SPOONS, that person is out of the game.

Family beach week was also when I learned how to play Rook. Rook involves bidding on hands, relying on partners, and winning rounds. It’s important to win the points you need but not to carry around points you don’t. Much like Spades or Hearts, Rook involves trump cards with the ultimate trump card of the Rook itself. It is fun. It is strategic. And at midnight, it can be downright funny.

As a fan of games, especially those that involve strategy, solving puzzles, and unraveling mysteries, I have always wanted to participate in a “break out room.” Getting locked in a giant puzzle room, working with others to solve the mystery to get out, sounds like the geeky, crazy fun that I would enjoy and probably laugh until I spewed Diet Dr. Pepper or hyperventilate (whichever comes first). So when I first started noticing so many teachers Tweeting about Breakout EDU boxes, I was immediately intrigued.

Breakout EDU is a boxed version of break out rooms. There are a series of locks—some keyed, some combination—to unlock. Finding the clues to the combinations is the trick to breaking out of, or in reality breaking into, the box. On the welcome page to their website, Breakout EDU states:

Breakout EDU games teach critical thinking, teamwork, complex problem solving, and can be used in all content areas. We created this Breakout EDU Kit to get you going and hopefully answer questions you might have.

Over the past year, I have read about the box, watched videos of teachers setting up their rooms, and followed teachers Tweeting about their experiences. Recently, I asked my principal if we could purchase a few boxes for our school. The awesome administrator she is not only responded with a “Yes!” but upped my request by many more boxes!

The boxes arrived just after Winter Break. I dug through the website, found a scenario I wanted to try with my 4th grade students and set to work. So far, I am halfway through using this scenario with all 4th grade classes and I’ve learned a lot from just two experiences. First, I learned that while some puzzles seem easy to me because I have all the knowledge, even if the solution is blatantly obvious, the locks themselves could be tricky for students to navigate. Due to my class schedule, I have attempted to teach about the box and run a breakout within one 45-minute session. Having no prior experience with Breakout EDU or other break out games is the first real hurdle students must overcome. Thus secondly, I have learned to adapt some puzzles to make them easier for students. Understanding your students is essential when using a set of banked games and scenarios.

Most importantly, I learned that it really does work best when the groups are smaller but not too small. So far, all the groups that have successfully broken out have been comprised of 5 members. My four member groups seem to get stuck at the beginning seemingly overwhelmed where to start. My six, seven, and eight person groups have all spiraled into battles for control struggling to listen or not listen to all members’ viewpoints. But the 5 member groups rarely breakdown. When they have, it’s been quick. Maybe it is because there are short balances of power. Even with human nature wanting to break into dyads, there is a middle person swinging back and forth serving as fulcrum for groupthink.

But based on my very limited experience with Breakout EDU so far, the best part is witnessing students take control of their learning. I set up the scenario, stage the room, and assemble the locks. But once the box and materials are in their hands, they literally control their destiny. I walk around listening and observing. I offer a hint when the group unanimously agrees to hand in a “Hint Card”. But the teaching and learning is all theirs.   The most significant piece is observing groups that did not successfully break out still talking afterwards about the scenario and stating facts discovered and learned. Even today, one student made a connection between the scenario used for Breakout EDU over a week ago and a television show he watched last night. He sought me out today to share with me his connection. I have not been as successful building a relationship with this student as I have with many of his classmates. His excitement today was infectious and I feel like he and I will have a better relationship going forward. I know he is a leader and has great potential. I was trying to find a common connection between us. Now, I see that Breakout EDU has laid the groundwork for our connection.

The 30-day blog challenge recommends day two’s blog posting focus on technology I hope to incorporate into my teaching. Some people may not view Breakout EDU as technology because it’s not a computer or digital. However, it can incorporate devices and it can easily be used online in digital Breakout EDU format.

Breakout EDU looks like a game. And maybe it really is just a game at its core. But it is much more. It is engaging. It is challenging. It is rooted in communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. It is any curriculum you need it to be. But mostly, it is fun.