Fostering Collaborative Problem Solving in Schools

Surveys reveal that 21st Century skills, such as problem solving and the ability to work well in a team, are highly coveted by employers. For Instructional Technology Specialist Tana Ruder, Breakout EDU is the perfect way to help students develop these critical skills—while also reinforcing core content knowledge.

There are very few jobs now that don’t require problem solving and collaboration. What better way to learn these skills than with Breakout EDU games?
— Instructional Technology Specialist Tana Ruder

Value Extends Beyond the Curriculum

As an instructional technology specialist for the 50,000-student Wichita Public School district in Kansas, Ruder helps educators integrate technology into their curriculum. She learned about Breakout EDU, which brings the concept of escape rooms into the classroom, at a teacher-training session.

Presented in the style of an escape room game, Breakout EDU offers hundreds of learning activities, complete with a backstory and a series of challenges that students must solve by working together. Successfully completing a challenge reveals information needed to progress through various challenges, until students collectively reach the game’s conclusion.

For instance, in a game called “Time Warp,” players are lost in time and have to navigate the history of communication in order to escape. During the game, players learn about various forms of communication—from hieroglyphics, to Incan knots, to the Pony Express, to Morse code, and eventually to the rise of video and the Internet. Students then use the information they learn about each form of communication to open a series of locks and gain access to the contents of a giant “locked” box.

During the training session, Ruder had a chance to play Time Warp with a half dozen colleagues from other school systems.

“We were working on solving clues together, and we were allowed to collaborate in a way that felt comfortable for us but contributed toward a team goal,” Ruder recalls.

She realized the value of the games went well beyond teaching the core curriculum. Ultimately, Ruder convinced the district’s director of curriculum and instruction to invest in Breakout EDU kits and platform access so she and the other instructional technology specialists could introduce the educational content to the student’s in their district.

Student Engagement for a Full Class Period

One big question these teachers posed to each other - can this kit fill a full class period? Well, it sure can. The Breakout EDU kit includes lockable boxes, five different types of resettable locks, an invisible ink pen, a UV flashlight for reading invisible ink, hint cards for when students need help, and other materials needed to set up and play the games. An online platform includes digital games that students can play, as well.

Teachers can choose from hundreds of pre-made activities spanning every subject area, or they can create their own learning challenges using the game materials provided.

While some games are available online free of charge, a subscription to the Breakout EDU platform gives teachers access to the entire library featuring hundreds of learning activities. In addition, teachers throughout the district have found that students love being able to unlock the physical boxes included in the Breakout EDU kits. Not only does this make the learning more tactile and hands-on, but the payoff is greater, as well: there is something extremely rewarding about turning a lock tumbler to the correct combination and having it spring open.

Ruder and her fellow instructional technology specialists have about a dozen kits that they use in professional development workshops, classroom demonstrations and even family learning nights throughout the district. When teachers see the games in action, she says, many ask their principal or parent teacher organization to purchase Breakout EDU kits for use in their own classrooms, which is leading to adoption at a school-wide level.

When students are solving the challenges, they are fully engaged in their learning. Many of the games start out with challenges that are easy to solve, Ruder says, which hooks students right away—and then the challenges become progressively harder. “Once students are hooked, they’re engaged for all 40 minutes,” she notes.

Learning the Skills Employers Desire


As students are solving Breakout EDU challenges, they aren’t simply learning or applying core content knowledge; they are also learning how to communicate effectively and work together to solve problems.

“Students are learning how to listen to each other, take in ideas from someone else, and be willing to try those ideas,” Ruder explains. “They also have to explain their thinking to the group.”

Surveys suggest that these so-called “soft” skills are highly coveted by employers. For instance, the National Association of Colleges and Employers asks hiring managers each year which attributes they most value among new hires, beyond a strong GPA and the technical skills required for the job—and problem solving and the ability to work well in a team have been the top responses for the last few years.

Ruder has found that when teachers hold a debriefing session at the end of a Breakout EDU class period, powerful learning results. Not only does this help students make valuable connections between what they learned in the game and what they are learning in class; it also allows students to recognize each others’ contributions in solving the challenge.

Ruder heard from one teacher who said she was thrilled to see students who don’t often receive a lot of recognition being celebrated by their classmates. “She saw a change in the demeanor of those students when they learned their teammates appreciated what they had done,” Ruder says. “Imagine how that affects their approach to learning!”

She concludes: “There are very few jobs now that don’t require problem solving and collaboration. What better way to learn these skills than with Breakout EDU games?”

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