When Game Over is a Good Thing


Picture this scene:

A room abuzz with learners fully focused and engaged in the task at hand, persisting, collaborating, sharing, challenging—themselves and others. In theory, this is what every classroom would look like every day, in some shape or form.

Speaking just from my own experiences, this scenario is not always the norm, even when adding choice, novelty, and technology into the instructional mix. But this is what I witnessed firsthand when facilitating Breakout EDU games recently for students and colleagues.


If you’re not already familiar with Breakout EDU, it’s an “immersive learning games platform” based on the “escape room” concept. Instead of breaking out of a room, students try to break into a box through collectively solving clues that open a series of locks. On the website, there are over 300 games available for use with the starter kit, which includes several locks and other accessories related to the game format. Teachers can also design and submit games that are added to the growing database, with game themes ranging from literature-based challenges to those centered on science concepts and historical events.

At this past February TCEA conference, there were several Breakout EDU sessions offered, including one by CEO Adam Bellow sharing ideas and resources for designing your own games to be used with the available starter kit. (Click here to listen to a Cool Cat Teacher interview of Bellow about Breakout EDU).

Conceptualized by founder James Sanders, teacher and Google Certified Innovator-turned-entrepreneur, Breakout EDU is gaining traction among educators by offering an accessible venue for using game-based learning in a hands-on, 4C’s kind of way with students.

I had the opportunity to meet James Sanders at a Google Teacher Academy back in 2012, where he led a workshop for us GTA newbies on leveraging YouTube for your classroom. Initially reminding me of a younger doppelganger of actor Jay Mohr, I’ve since followed Sanders on twitter, intrigued with the evolution of Breakout EDU unfolding in his feed, yet only recently delving into the Breakout EDU world myself.

What I’ve found so amazing about the platform is how simply yet beautifully it puts into play the concepts of relevant rigor-meets-authentic engagement right before your eyes, all within the context of a challenge-based game.

Game-based learning and gamification are not new educational trends. However, not all games designed for learning embody the core traits of a “game” in the truest sense.

Gaming Goddess, Researcher, and Developer Jane McGonigal asserts that games can improve our real lives, even help us live longer. In her book Reality is Broken, McGonigal shares the four defining traits of a game:

  1. A Goal: “…provides players with a sense of purpose”
  2. Rules: “…unleash creativity and foster strategic thinking”
  3. A Feedback System: “…serves as a promise to the players that the goal is definitely achievable, and it provides motivation to keep playing.”
  4. Voluntary Participation: “…everyone who is playing the game knowingly and willingly accepts the goals, the rules and the feedback. Knowingness establishes common ground for multiple people to play together.”

A Breakout EDU game embodies all of these core traits, while also cultivating the 4C’s of Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity. As teams work collaboratively toward the goal of opening the Breakout box, they must think critically and strategically about the clues given, discovered and pieced together, communicating their ideas and troubleshooting possibilities within the timeframe given. Creativity enters the arena through divergent and out-of-the-box strategies to break the code of clues and eventually break into the box.  As teams reach a roadblock, they can request feedback from the facilitator in the form of hint cards at a critical point of need.

Besides seeing the 4Cs in motion, this game format likewise activates several Habits of Mind, such as Persisting, Thinking Flexibly, Questioning, Taking Responsible Risks, and Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations.

Breakout EDU also naturally builds in differentiation as players rise both to the level of expectation and raise their own performance bar without realizing it. As with Genius Hour, Passion-based Learning, and other choice-based progressive instructional models, the Breakout EDU games are designed for (and work with) any learner—not just for GT, Pre-AP, or advanced students. In fact, in the different Breakout iterations I’ve facilitated so far with students, the more divergent and nonlinear thinkers excelled—who coincidentally happened to be students in “regular” classes.

Yet what stands out the most to me when experiencing a Breakout among players of any age or background is the energy of real engagement in real time. After facilitating three different Breakout sessions with students recently, the engagement was palatable during the games and also through their feedback afterward:


The adage “work smarter, not harder” transforms into “work harder and be smarter together” during the course of a Breakout game, effectively rewriting the rules of engagement in learning while simultaneously creating a new genre of game-based learning:

Engamement: Authentic engagement through games.

Some Ideas for Integrating Breakout EDU

Interested in trying a Breakout? Consider these possibilities:

  • Use a Breakout as an opening activity in a Guided Inquiry Design project
  • Have students design a Breakout as part of a PBL project
  • Design a Breakout as the final assessment or culminating activity for a unit of study
  • Challenge students to design a Breakout as their Genius Hour/20% Project

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