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An escape room is, according to Wikipedia, "a physical adventure game in which players solve a series of puzzles using clues, hints and strategy to complete the objectives at hand. Players are given a set time limit to unveil the secret plot which is hidden within the rooms". They are increasingly popular as team-building exercises as well as a fun leisure activity.
In the classroom, an "Escape the Room" format can involve students working together, against the clock, to solve a series of puzzles using existing and fresh knowledge from their studies and from clues and sources which have been left around the room. They can be great for introducing a fresh topic, consolidating existing knowledge and introducing fresh learning into the classroom in a fresh and engaging way.
Although escape rooms have great potential for creating memorable learning experiences in the classroom, they can easily become a time-consuming gimmick where plenty of fun is had but very little genuine learning is taking place. So the challenge I set myself was to develop an easily replicable format for setting up such activities which allows teachers to set them up quickly, and which simultaneously keeps genuine subject mastery at the heart of the excitement.
The approach I adopt is summarised as follows and works well in a lesson lasting 45-60 minutes.
I have created a series of self-contained Escape Room activities for the classroom, including:
Step 2: Conducting the Activity
One of my favourite props is a Mexican Code wheel. I have produced a printable Mexican Code Wheel template which you can use to create your own using paper and card:
Mexican Code Wheel template
What follows is a detailed case study, with supporting resources, which will hopefully inspire you to try one out for yourself!
"It is 1945. Nazi Germany is on the verge of defeat after being invaded by the Russian forces from the East, and Allied forces from the West. You are a group of top-secret codebreakers at Bletchley Park, England. Thanks to you the Enigma codes of the Nazi high command were broken. However, our celebrations have been cut short because we have received an anonymous phone call that a nuclear bomb has been planted in our operations room by an enemy spy who has locked all escape routes. The caller is a double agent who was pretending to help this spy with their evil work. He is keen to help you escape but had to hide clues in the room so as not to blow his own cover. The bomb is locked in a suitcase in the centre of the room. Your job is to crack the code of the lock so you can open the case and defuse the bomb. It has been placed on a timer, leaving you only 45 minutes"
Students are then encouraged to engineer their escape by finding mission slips, completing the tasks and reconstructing the timeline in the manner described above.
From this point the activity should pretty much run itself - students will start hunting around the room trying to find missions, then completing them, and slowly building up the timeline. As the teacher, all you need to do is have your own copy of the mission slips printed onto a sheet so you can tick off which ones have been located, and which ones have been completed. What I find is that for the first few minutes they find very little and rummage around; then they find/solve a sequence of missions; then they hit a brick wall - at which point the hint cards come into play.
Other points to note:
Students should be asked to reflect on the activity with the following sorts of questions:
In the following lessons, students are provided with the timeline in worksheet format. They develop this with notes from two videos ("Britain Alone" and "The Road to Berlin") and images from a web search. They will then use their completed work to choose one character, event or theme to research further: "Find out three interesting facts about your topic in relation to World War Two (1939-45). Be prepared to share your findings with the class. Your teacher may, for example, conduct a 'Tell us something we don’t know' feedback session to identify who has conducted the most interesting research. Alternatively your teacher may ask you to produce a classroom exhibition by collating the research of all members of the class"
I have so far produced a couple of other "Escape the Room" scenarios for my classes, outlined below. I plan to add more of these in due course.
ActiveHistory topic page: Ancient Rome
"You are a team of famous archaeologists preparing an exhibition about the Roman Empire which is due to open in just 45 minutes. The prize exhibit has been locked away safely by your team leader, but he has now been kidnapped by a group of art thieves who are asking for a ransom. Your task is to crack the codes on the locks which will allow you to open the box, recover the priceless exhibit, and start charging people to visit your exhibition. If you fail to do so then you will not be able to raise the money for the ransom and your team leader will be lost forever!"
Missions and setup instructions | Hint Questions (QR code versions) | Sources used in missions | Sources used for hint questions
ActiveHistory topic page: The Rise of Hitler
"You are a member of the Social Democrats, enemies of the new chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler. The Reichstag has just burned down and Hitler has persuaded President Hindenburg to declare a state of emergency and outlaw opposition parties. You were tricked into coming to a secret meeting which was in fact organised by the SA. They have locked you in a room with a bomb due to explode within it in 45 minutes. Your job is to unlock the case and defuse the bomb before it explodes and kills you all".
Missions and setup instructions | Printable sources
ActiveHistory topic page: The Renaissance
"It is 1610. the Renaissance ('Rebirth') of arts and sciences has transformed Europe. You are students of the great scientist galileo in Padua, Italy. You have all been put in jail by the church for insisting that the earth goes round the sun! You will all taken away to be executed in 45 minutes - unless you can find the key to escape! The location of the key is provided in the coded message in the middle of the room".
Images | PowerPoint Starter | Missions
ActiveHistory topic page: Rights and Protest in South Africa
"It is 1966. You are anti-apartheid fighters who have been captured after being in hiding since the Rivonia Trial of 1964. Following the assassination of Prime Minister Verwoerd, you have been discovered and placed under house arrest following a dawn raid by the police. You have been left under the watch of an armed guard while the police have headed back for reinforcements. If you go to trial there is every chance that the terrorism charges against you will result in your execution! Fortunately for you the guard has fallen asleep and it will be 45 minutes before the police return. If you can unlock the box containing the spare key you can make your escape!".
Missions and setup instructions | Documents/Images | PowerPoint Starter |
ActiveHistory topic page: Rise and Rule of Castro
"You are American business people from the United Fruit Company, placed under house arrest by the new Castro regime due to your close ties to Batista. You have managed to ply the guard with rum and he has passed out. But you have only one hour to find a way to escape before he wakes up and takes his revenge".
Missions and setup instructions | Documents/Images
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Events (1400 years ago today): 618 - Li Yuan becomes Emperor Gaozu of Tang, initiating three centuries of Tang dynasty rule over China.
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Births (150 years ago today): 1868 - Miklós Horthy, Hungarian admiral and politician, Regent of Hungary (d. 1957)
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Births (50 years ago today): 1968 - Frank Müller, German decathlete
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