Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Breakout EDU - engaging students through collaborative challenges

UWCSEA Tech Mentors collaborate to solve an online puzzle. Photo: Dave Caleb
"A black-hat hacker has created code on a USB drive that threatens to destroy all digital mapping and navigation software currently in existence. Just think about that, no Google Maps, no in-dash GPS, no airplane autopilot, no more Uber. His claim is that they're making us lazy and mush-headed, lacking essential skills and understandings like latitude and longitude, map reading, and navigating by bearings. You an your teammates are our last hope. Can you solve the geography challenges presented to you and prove your worth in time to find the drive and destroy the code? You have 45 minutes to find out. Your time begins now..."

About Breakout EDU

This is a typical prompt in a game designed for Breakout EDU, an collaborative challenge where groups solve a series of both physical and online puzzles to open locks and ultimately, a box, before time runs out.

Breakout challenges exist for a variety of age groups, from Primary grades through adults. All of them can be adapted and modified for a variety of learners and topics.

A typical session involves the game facilitator reading the scenario to set the scene, defining the objective, and stating the boundaries of where clues might be found. The countdown timer starts and players gather clues and solve challenges. Along the way, additional clues are revealed. Players normally have two "lifelines" they can use to ask for clues from the facilitator if they're stuck.

Working on the directional lock. Photo: Dave Caleb

The learning

The role of the facilitator is key to successful learning in the game. The facilitator will be actively engaged in keeping players involved, recognizing the flow of the game (who did what, found what), and leading the debrief at the end. This is where the learning really becomes present. During the debrief, the facilitator will go through the puzzles that were solved step-by-step and will talk about actions or non-actions that particular players took.

Breakout games are especially well-suited for introducing new topics as well as reviewing concepts where you're either setting the scene or pulling together disparate pieces to show how they're connected. All participants will likely not personally engage with every puzzle, but the learning from others, in authentic collaboration, is made present for everyone during the debrief.

Content learning is only (a small) part of the Breakout experience. The thinking and processes of collaboration, communication and problem-solving that participants engage in present fantastic learning opportunities. Facilitators can support participant's metacognition by giving them thinking prompts individually and then leading the group through a process where choices players made are discussed and analyzed. Participants reflect on their own behaviors and the behaviors of others in supporting the solving of the puzzles. In doing so, they become better problem-solvers, collaborators, and communicators. 

Thinking like a designer

Breakout EDU is an open source project. That means that there is an active community of educators all creating, collaborating, and sharing ideas and games. Teachers and students can design their own games using the Breakout model and a template to guide the process.

The creation of puzzles gets people thinking like designers, really taking into account how the players will interact with the game. Challenges need to be difficult enough to be compelling yet solvable within the constraints of the game. This makes designing Breakout games a fantastic exercise for professional development.
Since puzzles can be online and physical, it really promotes the authentic use of technology. There is no "Ok, take out your laptops" in the typical Breakout game. Rather, participants draw on all resources they have available including internet searches. Because of this, you can't simply ask "Googleable" questions. Incorporating technology also means the sky is the limit for the kinds of puzzles you can make. From using clues hidden in Streetview images to assembling circuits, using drone photography and programming, the possibilities are only limited by one's imagination and willingness to explore.

UWCSEA Tech Mentors solve the challenge. Photo Dave Caleb


We have equipment available via the Digital Literacy Coaches. Please contact us if you'd like to play.

We can point you in the right direction and help you select or develop a game to play with your group, help you set it up and facilitate.

 Breakout is a great activity for mentor groups or with your teaching team as well as with a subject specific class.


  1. How did you get the images on the box pictured above?

    1. Hi Daniel, my colleague Jeff Plaman (@jplaman on twitter) had them laser printed at school. I think the icons were from the Noun Project. :)