AVID, Breakout EDU

Student-Created Breakout EDU Games

I ran my first BreakoutEDU game with my 7th grade science students last February. It was an incredible experience for my students and me; even though they didn’t break out, we had a great debrief and were able to critically look at the skills needed for perseverance and problem solving.

In March, Justin Birckbichler and I started building digital versions of the breakouts, which ended up being quite the project. We found that many teachers struggle with the productive struggle just as much as our students, and we put great value on teachers modeling the critical thinking process alongside their students. In order to ensure more flexible and resilient adults in the future, we must explicitly teach and model these skills for our students. 

Double checking math clues.

Fast forward to now, my 8th grade AVID students just finished creating their own Breakout EDU games! They used what they learned in their career research project within their game. It was a very challenging process for both myself and my students–just like when I facilitate games, I did not step in to help them more than absolutely necessary. In other words, I allowed some of their clues to fail. Why? That’s where the learning takes place! 


Using emoji rebus to create a riddle

The setup
My students had already played a few physical and digital games, and were familiar with the skills needed to successfully play Breakout EDU games. They were excited about creating their own games, and we talked about what elements make a successful game (story hook, interesting topics, clues that are not too hard but not too easy), then they launched into their game building.


Brainstorming clues based on
available locks
Our creation process: 
1. I randomly divided students into groups of 4 or 5.
2. Students wrote their story in their group’s shared planning Doc (before they received their locks)
3. I gave each group a basket with 4-5 locks. Students decided who would create the clue for each lock.
4. Students created their clues on shared Slides.

5. I programmed all the locks and printed the clues.

Playing the games
I programmed the locks ahead of time based on students’ planning docs, and had each set of locks separated and ready to go.

Each team facilitated their own game. I had them fill out a reflection graphic organizer as their peers played their game. This served two purposes: it kept the facilitators busy so they didn’t become too vocal and it allowed students to reflect on the process of designing and facilitating their own game.

It was incredible to step back and watch my students play and facilitate their own groups. Some students tried to ask me about specific clues during the game, and I directed them to ask the game creators. It did not go perfectly, and some of the clues were confusing, but that’s all part of the learning process! 


Finding area of an shape to solve a clue
“I think I have it!”

One group particularly struggled with designing their game. They lacked teamwork and cohesion, and it showed in their final product. While playing, they realized that one of their clues made no sense to their participants: it was a math problem, but the resulting code was random numbers from that math problem. It was SO hard for me to not jump in and rework their clue to make sense. I had them go outside to discuss how they could change their clue on the fly, then come back in and give the participants a hint. They had to go back outside multiple times before they had a solution. The whole process took over 10 minutes, and many failed attempts of guiding questions from the facilitators to their peers. It stretched their brains, but it also taught my students how to think on their feet. 


The debrief
We had great discussions after playing the games. Students shared what they found was successful, challenging, and what they learned about themselves in the process. We focused on the positives and constructive feedback, and how we can learn from this.

Additionally, we used our school’s character qualities, the Vikings’ Code, to write blog posts on our experiences:
Use at least 3 characteristics from the Vikings’ Code to answer the following questions. Remember to use specific examples in your writing!
– Describe your experience designing your own Breakout EDU game.
– Describe your experience facilitating the game you created.
– Describe your experience playing your peers’ games.

Filling out facilitator feedback graphic organizer
while peers play.


What we learned
If I had a dollar for every time a student said “Ms. V, this is hard!” during the game creation process, I’d be rich! I knew this process would be tough, but I didn’t anticipate how much we would all learn. The formal and informal debrief conversations brought out many great ideas and learning opportunities.
– My students wished they had a chance to test out their games before their peers played. In the future, we will build in a peer review process within the game design.
– Students quickly realized that creating critical thinking opportunities is significantly more difficult than critically thinking itself. 

– As hard as it is to step back as a game facilitator, it’s even harder to step back while students are designing and facilitating their own games. They have to experience the highs and lows themselves, without me stepping in to fix everything.

Next steps
My students are excited to share their games via another teacher at the AVID National Conference in December. They are revising their games, testing them out on teachers and students at school, then submitting a final draft game.

Students will have another chance to build a game in the spring, and this time we’ll open it up to physical or digital games…content or purpose to be determined.

Breakout EDU, Breakout EDU Digital

Teachers Don’t Always Have All the Answers

The mantra of Breakout EDU is “It’s time for something different.” Breakout EDU is an immersive game-based platform that adapts the escape room concepts of problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration into an educational format. Players have to solve riddles to unlock a locked box. As we have shared in this post from Ditch That Textbook blog, we are thrilled to have the chance to live this motto as the Breakout EDU Digital team (in which we adapt the mechanics of Breakout EDU into a digital format). As we have evolved, iterated, and learned from that initial article, two situations have been brought to our attention time and time again. In this post and a follow up, we will examine these points and provide our response to them. 


With a Breakout EDU game using the box, setup instructions are provided. It gives the lock combinations, printable materials, and the paths the students follow to solve the riddles. You need these in order to facilitate the game. With the Breakout EDU Digital games, none of this is provided – everything is ready to go as soon as you enter the game.

Multiple times a week, we receive emails, tweets, Facebook messages, and other assorted communication from teachers asking for an answer key to the Digital games. When we receive these messages, we provide additional prompts and hints, but refuse to provide answer keys.

Why do we do this? Is it because we are evil and want you to suffer? Absolutely not – this is our contribution to the Breakout EDU mantra. For the bulk of the history of education, teachers have been viewed as the keepers of knowledge or the sage on the stage. In our opinion, this has gone on far too long. With the advent of the digital age, students have access to limitless amounts of information. Our roles as teachers need to change.

The “hidden curriculum” of soft skills is just as critical as the content we are mandated to teach. Words like rigor, growth mindset, resilience, and productive struggle thrown around as skills that students need to be successful in life, yet how often do we model this for our students? By not having access to an answer key, you are provided with a perfect opportunity to experience what a student feels when they first encounter a tough trigonometry problem. You’re faced with a choice – put in effort to stretch your abilities to their fullest extent and grow your brain or email us for an answer (which is akin to flipping to the back of the textbook for the key.) Which would you prefer your students to do? Why do we not hold ourselves to that same standard? 

You don’t have to struggle alone – share your plight with your students. Challenge them to help you complete the puzzles. Students see things differently than adults; something that has stumped us for hours takes a matter of seconds for them. Imagine their moment of glorious success. They solved something their teacher couldn’t.

But it’s deeper than that. You were vulnerable with them. You shared your struggle. You modeled resiliency and a refuse to give up. You showed them that it’s ok to ask for help; that it’s ok to admit you don’t always have all the answers. This is a bond that can’t be forged by playing a video about famous figure who overcame adversity to reach success. They’ll be more likely to let down their guard and ask you for help – and you’ll understand their feelings even better. 

Nicole Link couldn’t solve a clue when I introduced
Breakout EDU to teachers at lunch, so she came back to
play with my students on her prep period! 


By now you’re thinking that this is easy for us to say – we have all the answers to the games. However, we’ve played other’s games and been through this productive struggle.

And it’s not just us who feel this way. For every few requests for answers, there’s one praising this dedication to doing something differently. We’ll close with our favorite, which comes from Dr. Donovan DeBoer, superintendent of Parker School District in South Dakota:

“One of my “mantras” has always been: “The one that does the doing, does the learning.” So when I was ever so close to our first teacher in-service days, and [Breakout EDU Digital] was one of the items I wanted to show my staff, I was very torn when I sent that dreaded, “I need help email.” However, in true educator fashion, [Justin and Mari] did not oblige my begging of “cheats” to complete the task. Instead, I was sent a very subtle hint and encouragement to complete the task.

It was a great lesson for me as a leader of young people, and adults. It helped solidify my belief that if you want to learn, you have to do.

It also proved to me how important collaboration is for our students. I needed help, I didn’t necessarily want the answers, but I needed another brain (or 32). As I introduced the activity to my staff, I was short one lock code. In the essence of time, we worked in groups on the digital breakout “Stranded on the Island.” As time passed I witnessed adults, veteran teachers, cheer with excitement when they found a new clue, or figured out a code, and hide their answers to allow for others to feel the same thing when they found things on their own.

Few more hours went by, in-service over, but I was still plugging away. I had to complete this thing. That’s when the magic happened – one of my football coaches sent me a text. He had solicited a friend from hours away, that started working on it as well, and we finally cracked the mystery lock.

The power of collaboration is real. Shared suffering in the task, and then the jubilation we share in the accomplishment. Two heads are better than one, and three better than two. Students need that time together, to share, to bounce ideas off one another, to enjoy the struggle together.
More importantly, we have to have the patience to let learners learn. They need to make mistakes, they need to learn from them, they need to talk it out with other people to learn the other side of communication not talked about “listening” to one another. Then the “magic,” can happen.”

Breakout EDU, Breakout EDU Digital, Critical Thinking

Breakout EDU Digital

(Cross-posted to Justin’s blog and DitchBook blog)

Playing an Ice Age themed game with 8th graders

Breakout EDU is an immersive learning platform developed by James Sanders and Mark Hammons. After visiting an escape room (a room where you are locked in and have to solve clues and riddles to escape) with a group of students, James and Mark noted how engaged the students were while working on the escape. Realizing most educators can’t lock students in a room (for obvious legal and ethical reasons), the two decided to flip the concept – take a wooden box, add a hasp and a few locks, and provide clues. Let the students’ natural curiosity and excitement do the rest. By the end, students will have (hopefully) found and figured out all of the clues, enabling them to unlock all the locks and complete the game before time runs out.

Overthrow the Co-Dictators in 7th grade science

We (Justin & Mari) have run multiple Breakout EDU games with our students, and love seeing how engaged and motivated our students are, even those who less likely to participate in class. We realized how much fun these games were, while also being educational. We wanted to replicate them using only digital tools. With Google Forms and data validation, we were able to recreate the locked box and hasp. In our games, all clues are linked directly within a Google Site, and take some serious detective work to solve.

This project started small, and we expected to share the games around, then move on with other things. When we sent out the initial invitation to Beta test our games on March 25, 2016, we were blown away with over 200 responses in less than 36 hours. After the initial Beta test and feedback, we released our games and website out to a wider audience on Facebook and Twitter.

Playing a digital game in 7th grade AVID 

In mid-April, James Sanders reached out to us and asked if we’d like to officially become Breakout EDU Digital, and take on breakoutedu.com/digital. We responded with an immediate “yes!” and began integrating our content into the Breakout EDU website.

We’ve certainly learned a lot since we first launched our games. One lesson we’ve learned is that we constantly need to be flexible in our teaching. As part of our games we have a feedback form that allows us to hear directly from the people who are playing our games. We act on all feedback that we feel improves the games, which is something an effective teacher should always do as you gauge student reaction in class.

Overthrow the Co-Dictators in 7th grade science

Resiliency and growth mindset has been another huge focal point of this project. We purposely make the games challenging and rather in-depth. Sometimes people contact us asking for answers or hints, and we encourage them to explore the games alongside their students, to show that teachers don’t always hold all the knowledge. This may make some teachers uncomfortable, but the connections your class forms as you decode the games together will pay off in dividends.

You can definitely tie your instructional content into a Breakout EDU, whether the box version or the digital type. For our digital game “Alcatraz Night Escape,” we included a number of facts and information about the history of Alcatraz necessary to unlock the Form. Other users who have created their own have also tied their content into their digital breakouts. Imagine how much more engaging this is than reading it from a textbook!

So how can you develop your own Breakout EDU Digital games? We’ve tried to streamline the process by having a “Build Your Own” button on the website. These are a series of screencast tutorials that model different elements of our games. The most important element is the Google Form that acts as the box. Under advanced settings on “short answer” (in the new Forms) or “text” (in the old Forms,) you must turn on “data validation.” From there, type in the desired response and add something like “Still locked” or “Keep trying” in the help text. If you don’t, it will give the answer to the students. There are plenty more tutorials available for you to watch, and we’re always on the lookout for new ideas!

Sharing a digital game with my Tech Tuesday lunch crew

One of the critical elements of the original Breakout EDU is the collaboration and communication between the classmates. With Breakout EDU Digital, there might not always been that inherent need for collaboration since each device is its own box. We have presented at a GAFE Summit (Mari live, and Justin on Google Hangouts) where we had participants play a short demo game. The session started out with everyone on their own devices, and the naturally paired up and then formed larger groups to work together to solve the breakout. Additionally, we recently hosted a Breakout EDU Digital LIVE event with eighteen adults working together to solve a brand new game. These events proved that the collaboration factor definitely takes it to the next level.

Presenting at GAFE Summit IV on Breakout EDU Digital
Justin on Google Hangouts + our good friend Ari!

We predict an exciting future for Breakout EDU Digital. We are currently getting ready to launch a Digital Sandbox, where community members can submit their own games for others to play and provide feedback. Additionally, we are both building their own individual games and collaborating on games, and are on pace to release one game per week for the foreseeable future. We always love feedback and suggestions on new directions and how to improve our games.

So what are you waiting for? Go visit breakoutedu.com and breakoutedu.com/digital to learn more about how you can use it in your classroom. The students will be engaged, will collaborate, will develop interpersonal skills, will have fun, and will even learning something along the way!