Jessica Brown

Written by Jessica Brown

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You are trapped in a room and you have only two ways to get free: solve a series of problems or wait until the bell rings signaling your freedom leave. Am I talking about a traditional classroom or an escape room?

Many students feel trapped in classrooms where boredom persists — they are being lectured at, asked to memorize information, and to regurgitate it on standardized assessments. Sixty percent of students who consider dropping out report that it is because they don’t see the value in the work they are doing. Student motivation has been a topic of studies and school reform efforts for decades, yet there have been little disruptive system-wide changes in instruction or assessment to increase student engagement.

According to a study done in 2003 by the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, students are more motivated when one to all of these conditions are met:

  • They feel competent and able to complete an assignment or challenge
  • They understand the relevance of their work
  • They are rewarded for completing the task either socially or academically
  • They understand the cause and effect nature of the work — their actions contribute to an outcome that is predictable.

Here in the Student Experience Lab, we have been on a mission to escape from standard curriculum and assessments and escape into Deeper Learning (DL). Deeper Learning can be a solution for student and educator disengagement. It is defined by the Hewlett Foundation as a set of six interrelated competencies: mastering rigorous academic content, learning how to think critically and solve problems, working collaboratively, communicating effectively, directing one’s own learning, and developing an academic mindset — a belief in one’s ability to grow. Walk into any school committed to deeper learning and you will likely see students excitedly working together on projects, collaborating with their communities, igniting their passions, and guiding their own learning.

Why Escape Rooms?

Escape rooms are an immersive entertainment phenomenon that has sparked a booming new industry all across the country. Escape rooms are live-action adventure games where players solve a set of puzzles, problems, and tasks in order to find a way out. Players have to race against the clock to find hidden clues and uncover the story of the room. Good escape rooms:

  • have a compelling narrative — like searching for a gold prospector’s stash.
  • engage multiple senses — like smelling different ‘wines’ to know which bottle has the right clue or listening to different notes to create a musical masterpiece.
  • are filled with delightful surprises — like trap doors that lead to extra rooms, or secret messages revealed under a blacklight.
  • tap into individual abilities and group collaboration — such as having one person call out instructions and that others execute, or having a puzzle that taps into math, science, or music skills.

Since we are always looking to find exciting, relevant connections from ‘non-school experiences’ we have been exploring how escape rooms offer an opportunity to dive into Deeper Learning and explore its competencies. In the classroom, engaging escape room experiences have everything listed above plus content specific elements that bring learning to life.

Our team went to Austin to challenge SXSWedu participants to escape boring learning with us. In a jam-packed day, we took a trip to an escape room with 25 teachers who all had to escape by solving puzzles within 60 minutes. We then took a trip to a collaborative working space to debrief the experience and assess our learning. After debriefing what made the escape room so engaging, and analyzing how we might hack it for educational purposes. Then it was time to try those ideas out and create puzzle rooms for the rest of the SXSWedu attendees in hopes that it would inspire them to recreate similar experiences in their classrooms. At the end of the day, more than 100 teachers went through the three escape rooms that participants created and debriefed their experiences using a Deeper Learning rubric that helps assess which Deeper Learning competencies participants were using while in the escape room.

So how can you continue to escape boring learning?

  • Take advantage of our open source Deeper Learning Escape Room toolkit — co-created with teachers and students this document contains analysis, insights, and ideas for the creation and implementation of an escape room at your school.
  • Get a window into our experience at SXSWedu by watching the video below
  • If you like what you see, vote for the next stage of our work — DeeperLearning Escape Pods — to be showcased at SXSWedu.

Let us know how you plan to escape boring learning at your school, email me at!