You’re locked in a room with a handful of people, often strangers. You need to work together to find clues and problem solve in order to escape before time runs out. That’s the premise behind escape rooms. They’ve been gaining popularity as team building and “just for fun” attractions over the past few years. But what would happen if a group of learning professionals created one, rather than the attraction industry? I found out.
I arrived a few minutes late and missed whatever orientation there may have been. All that mattered was “Escape.” There were several boxes with combination locks on them, some numbered pieces of paper taped to the walls with short phrases like “THUMBS UP,” and a white board with lines drawn on it that looked like part of the setup for a game of hangman.
It’s hard to give a sequential “what happened” because there was a lot going on at once and I was only directly involved in parts of it. So, here are a few of my key takeaways.
- Not having access to digital devices or social media really helps you stay in the moment.
- Writing “Do not touch” on something is a great way to get people to explore it.
- Variety is good for keeping people thinking. No two puzzles used the same format.
- Knowing the room’s theme, “Communication,” was important for a few of the puzzles. Due to an oversight, we hadn’t been told the theme. But it was given to us as a “freebie” hint part way through.
- The modular design was interesting. Unlocking each box required solving a puzzle. And then the boxes gave clues for the overall puzzle on the white board. That’s what we needed to solve in order to escape.
- In one case, a locked box had several smaller locked boxes inside it with their own mini puzzles. Design-wise that’s a great trick for disrupting the established pattern and I’m not saying it was a bad thing. But with the clock ticking, that definitely caused some groans.
- Context is super important. Our final delay happened because we moved a clue, which turned out to be location-sensitive.
- My group escaped without finishing one of the puzzles. We debated whether it should be included in the room at all, since it wasn’t necessary, or whether it added value by serving as a distraction.
- The parts that surprised me the most were getting clues by singing Happy Birthday, having the whole group stand in a box labelled “CROWD” in order to have one person “stand out from the crowd,” and doing the Time Warp dance. (I’m pretty sure the designers included that last one for their own amusement).
- It turned out that the short phrases like “THUMBS UP” were all congratulations messages for completing the room. But it was set up in such a way that you didn’t realize it until you escaped. That was a great touch. Note: After reading a full explanation of the puzzles, it turns out that this was a misconception on my part, but it made sense to me.
- Without the debriefing at the end I wouldn’t have thought about what each puzzle was supposed to teach or how they were all related. This was a good reminder that while activity alone can be highly engaging it can also require direct explanation to point out how it’s informative.
So, what kind of “Learning” was in the “Escape Room”?
- Discovery learning – This involves giving learners a problem or situation to resolve, with little to no guidance. We did the bulk of the work ourselves, much like in a “flipped classroom” model where the instructor is a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage.” If the group was collectively stumped we sometimes got hints such as, “Has anyone figured this out yet? Maybe you should take a closer look.”
- Collaborative learning – This takes place when a group of people work and learn together. In order to complete all of the tasks necessary for escaping, we divided up the tasks. Some people focused on specific boxes while others floated around, either addressing things no one else had gotten to yet or trying to help when someone else was stuck. No single person could have completed the challenge within the time limit.
- Soft skills practice – The whole activity was an exercise in “doing.” Time management, collaboration, communication, task delegation, brainstorming, trial and error, critical thinking, and problem solving were all involved.
Overall, my take on the Learning Escape Room is that it was a fun group activity that got us all working together and thinking in ways we otherwise probably wouldn’t have. I can see why these activities are popular for team building.
Where I could see organizations going wrong with using this format for learning experiences would be if they tried to use it as a standalone method. Because this relies so heavily on process and soft skills it probably needs to be paired with other pieces if the learners need to master content. If content is addressed before the escape room, the room would act as a chance for recall and possibly application. If the escape room comes first, the debriefing at the end could be used to explain the content that was introduced in the room and kick off more detailed discussion.
This experience was designed in less than a day by a group of conference attendees and then play tested the following day by different people. I was in the first of several test groups. The designers were invited to sit in and watch us work our way through their creation. I’d never been in an escape room before, but I knew the basics. I will probably find my way into, and hopefully out of, other escape rooms in the future.
This post was written in response to a request that I write something about my experience in the Learning Escape Room. It was one of the activities at the Learning 2016 conference, hosted by the Masie Center.
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