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Use critical thinking skills to think outside the box

Welcome all,

I am so excited to have our next guest blogger join us for this week's post. I recently "met" Mr. Dan Dreher on Twitter early this month. The work that he does in his special education classroom was amazing. He was creating engaging and hands on lessons that got his students up and moving, problem solving, learning, thinking critically, and collaborating. In this week's post Mr. Dreher shares his experience with creating a breakout activity for hist students.

Over the past several years, escape rooms have become the latest craze for groups of people to socialize and have fun. However, there’s actually a reason why it’s so popular. I’m going to make a pun in this sentence, so bare with me; the reason why people are flocking to escape rooms is because they’re using critical thinking skills to think outside the box (there it is) in conditions that are all wound up in a ball of excitement and panic. Two years ago, I attended TeachMeetNJ where Jay Eitner planted the seed in my head of incorporating escape rooms in the classroom and the way I reinforce content and teach changed ever since.

The roles and dynamics of high school teenagers are turned upside down when they’re solving a variety of puzzles with limited time. You tend to see students who are timid become vocal, assertive leaders and students who are the class clowns become the focused team player. While it does take time to either implement or create an effective scenario for the activity, the role of the teacher becomes a facilitator who stands back, stays quiet, and watches the organized chaos develop in front of them. Students tend to learn real quickly that it’s their responsibility, not the teacher’s, to get the whole class involved if they want to succeed.

What I love about escape room activities is that you see students in a totally different light!

Students tend to thrive under these unusual conditions since it caters to practically every type of multiple intelligences. This contributes to the overall objective of solving a number of puzzles to unlock the locks to reveal what’s inside the box. An example of a puzzle I’ve done was a riddle on a back of The Last Supper that said “what year was I finished” in Latin, which required them to translate it, search for the year, and input the four-digit number into the lock to solve it. I’ve done this approximately thirty times and every time when I do a debrief discussion, I always like to highlight the collaboration and communication aspect of the activity. Questions I usually ask is who they thought led the group effectively and if they could do a certain puzzle over how would they approach it. The verbal responses from students are just as enriching and insightful as the actual activity in my opinion.

Now I know what you must be thinking - this sounds all great and everything, but how much is this going to cost me? There are many different approaches you can take when implementing an escape room activity in your classroom. I personally bought a kit from Breakout EDU. This kit came with boxes, different types of locks, a UV light, a hasp, and access to their database where you can search for games that are broken down to grade level and specific content lessons. If you rather not spend that type of money or build your kit by buying individual items, you can find escape game activities that are done strictly on paper and could be conducted with or without technology.

Escape room activities in the classroom from my viewpoint of an educator has been fun, rewarding, and effective. Students are able to reinforce content knowledge with critical thinking and communication skills in a way that rewards the time and effort they put into it. You can always contact me on Twitter (@Mr_Dreher) if you have questions or bounce ideas around. You’ll know you’re onto something when students are asking when they’ll do it again right after they finished it.


Dan Dreher is a high school special education history and reading teacher in southern New Jersey. He's currently in his fourth year teaching. He earned his master’s degree at Stockton University in Special Education with a Reading Specialist certification.

Outside of the classroom, he is an assistant coach for the Girls Swim Team and advisor of the Video Game Club. You can follow him on Twitter (@Mr_Dreher)


Have you tried an escape room in your class? How did it go? What did you learn about your students and what did they learn about the topic

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