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Amber Chandler, a middle school teacher in the Frontier Central School District in New York, has developed a love for escape rooms—the adventure games that involve locking a group of people in a room with a bunch of puzzles they must solve in order to get out.
“I like the fact that when you’re in an escape room everyone starts taking on a role,” said Chandler, “You know, who’s going to read the clues or who’s going to do different things. And I do a whole lot with my students at the beginning of the year trying to get to know them. So it occurred to me that if I did it like a classroom — at a table, sort of a modified version — I would get to see who my leaders were, maybe who my slackers were.”
Chandler’s teaching is almost paperless, relying on computers and physical items rather than worksheets and textbooks. She hopes that she will go completely paperless in the upcoming school year. Despite this, Chandler still believes that analog tools and creative activities are an important asset to teaching.
“It taps into a different part of their brain, and I think it’s a part we neglect in schools now. I think we don’t spend enough time in that play and that freedom,” she said. “ So, I think even though I have this completely paperless classroom, high-tech kind of thing, I think it’s really cool that we can do something that’s very low-tech.”
Over this summer, Chandler will work on escape game kits, making a different type of activity for her students than what is usually seen in classrooms. However, she isn’t alone with this goal. Adapting the popular game genre has become a small industry. One company, Breakout EDU, is a start-up dedicated to popularizing escape games as an educational tool.
“So obviously, legally, we learned that you can’t lock kids in classrooms,” said Breakout EDU co-founder Adam Bellows. That’s the central issue with adapting Escape Room games for educational purposes. “So we weren’t trying to replicate that experience where you lock someone in a room and they have to break out.”
Bellows and his co-founder James Sanders started Breakout EDU in 2015. While playing an escape room with a few high school students, Sanders saw how determined and engaged all of the students were. With this knowledge, the two decided to work on a small project that consisted of just a backpack and a lock. Now they manufacture kits with a variety of items found in escape rooms: locks, ultraviolet markers for secret writing and a multitude of other tools.
Both Bellows and his business partner have a background in the educational technology sector. “A lot of our games are a mix of physical and digital,” Bellow said. “So games could include things like a QR code, Google Forms and autoresponder e-mail.”
But using technology just for the sake of it doesn’t appeal to entrepreneurs like Bellows nor teachers like Chandler. Whether it be physical or digital tools, each hopes to engage students in ways that deviates from standard classroom work.
The main reason why Chandler finds this form of teaching appealing is that it gets students socially engaged and helps break down barriers with one another.
“I will walk around the room with a clipboard all of their names on it, and I jot down notes about the kids,” she said. “So my goal is to just sort of gather information.”
Chandler, who teaches English, is planning on making kits revolving on the books she teaches, like The Giver and The Outsiders. These types of activities encourage students to discover the information on their own in a fun, unique way while strengthening teamwork rather than forcing unwanted memorization and concepts in the usual ways.
Another surprising thing is who is experimenting with escape games.
“Originally we were saying this is perfect for high school,” said Bellows, “because you can make games that are ‘Escape the Zombie Lab’ or whatever. And that’s kind of where the platform started. But our director of games basically joined the team because she started creating games for her second-grade class.”
Education technology has faced something of a backlash in recent years, with high profile deals to bring iPads into classrooms coming under fire, as critics question the value of technology for technology’s sake. Bringing analog and digital tools together, even in game form, suggest a way forward for a style of education that synthesizes a tech savvy approach with the personal touch, keeping tech in the toolbox without making it the centerpiece for its own sake.
Escape games may not be the secret to creating a 21st Century, digital classroom but what’s happening with them now could end up being an important piece of the puzzle.