An Educational BreakTHROUGH

Last week, my middle school students played BreakOUT EDU.

To say it was a hit, would be the understatement of the year.

Since playing BreakoutEDU, I have been flooded with complimentary parent emails, featured in the school newsletter and have set a standard of fun and engagement that will challenge me to keep up with, for months, and possibly years to come. I certainly can’t take the credit for this concept, but I can take credit for believing in this type of learning and finding the time to get my students working together, thinking critically, solving problems and feeling exhilarated at school.

If you have attended a technology or education conference in the past 5 years, you have probably heard or seen sessions tagged “Gamified Learning”. Not only has gamified learning become synonymous with linking what students spend time doing outside of school (Minecraft, video games, RPG’s) to their experience in school, it has also been the impetus for digital badging, an increase in the use of interactive websites in the classroom and more recently the VR movement in education. In other words, bridging the gap between technology use for the sake of fun with similar use of technology and digital rewards in school, and you have an increase in student engagement. Assuming all of our students enjoy sitting in front of a computer or television screen for hours at a time, surely these tactics could be one way to excite them in the classroom. But, I think students are becoming more and more privy to the attempts made by teachers to connect their digital life with school life. This toolbox that we used to deem “cutting edge” and “engaging,” might not have the WOW! factor it once did so where do we go from here? Collaborating with Google Docs, Skyping with experts, creating book trailers with iMovie, using interactive whiteboards, having students create instructional videos, mapping a book in Minecraft, while better than spiral notebooks and display boards, aren’t necessarily tricks anymore, but quite simply a way of teaching to this generation that we have come to expect from educators.

While my job specifically focuses on “technology integration”, I am equally focused on looking for ways to engage students of all grade levels in the Four C’s (creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration). In my position, I can certainly help teachers plan activities on iPads, Chromebooks and BOYD devices in hopes that editing a movie, blogging, creating a Prezi or using Padlet will prepare them for the future. But, lately, I’m not convinced that this will create the lasting impact we hope for when we think about 21st century learning.

While I will continue to assist teachers in the use of technology in the classroom, I am seeing a shift in my focus as an instructor and tech coach towards the Maker movement as a way to teach the 4 C’s. I am also intrigued by the Design Thinking process and the many connections it has to the 4 C’s. Robots like Dash & Dot, Cubelets, Makey-Makey, Arduino and block programming teach science and math concepts while requiring students to work in groups, all the while enlisting the 4C’s to accomplish a goal.

However, I saw the most significant breakthrough when my students played Breakout EDU last week.

This photo shows three students working on a lock combination while another group is working on the computer. Not pictured is a small group looking for more clues and another group deciphering morse code.

Breakout EDU is gamified education with more critical thinking and less screen time. From the minute students heard about it, the inquiry and excitement began to build. “Are you really going to LOCK us in a room?” “Do you think we’ll be able to get out?” “Where is it going to take place?” “Do we need to know anything before we get there?” “Can you give us clues if we can’t get out?” And, from there, the magic began. I did lock students in a room, the computer lab to be specific. They did get out. They didn’t have to know anything before they arrived nor did I give them many clues.

What I saw was collaboration — A randomly selected group of 6th, 7th and 8th graders expected to break out of a room even though they didn’t know each other very well. They had to put their heads together to solve problems because nobody could have done it on their own.

What I saw was communication — Without communication, it is impossible to win at this game. Students had to tell each other what clues they had found, they had to articulate their thoughts, ideas, successes and failures in order to progress.

What I saw was critical thinking — Student A: “It looks like a code of some sort.” Student B: “I think it’s Morse Code!”. Student C: “Let’s look it up and make sure.” Student D: “It probably says something….wait, it says — -!”

And I also saw some pretty amazing creativity — Students thinking completely outside of the box to decode hidden messages, understand what the tools that they were given actually did and make obscure connections.

To me, Breakout EDU proved that students rise to the occasion when presented with a unique challenge under pressure, a challenge that forces them to engage with each other in ways that they don’t often experience in school; Where the learning might not be immediately apparent to them, but is talked about for weeks to come. What did they learn? Well, beyond the 4C’s they learned how to identify morse code, hieroglyphics, how to unlock 4 different types of locks, how to read closely, pay attention to detail and solve a variety of problems in one class period. This is the kind of learning that lasts. Come to think of it, I was just asked at lunch when the next Breakout room will happen. Commence planning…..

A special thanks goes out to James Sanders and Mark Hammons (co-founders of BreakoutEDU) for showing us how to play at an EdTech team event and encouraging us to toss out one 50 minute lesson plan in lieu of this experience just to “see” what happens. So, I did and it wasn’t long before I realized that this 50 minutes will trump any other lesson you could possibly think up!