Using an Escape Game to Experience the Value of Partner Work

One of my students said that I was like a therapist because I was helping her express her frustration with group work. She bore many deep scars from projects that required her to spend more time trying to engage her teammates in the assignment rather than doing their part to complete the assignment.

I get it. It seems every group project can be expressed succinctly with this Hangover meme.

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From our conversations in class, apparently every student I teach is Bradley Cooper in this situation. I have a feeling there is a bit of revisionist history and knowing the intensities of my gifted and talented students, they may have brought on some of the lackadaisical efforts of their teammates by judging their team’s work through their own personal perfectionist lens.

How do we create situations that invite students back to the collaborative process so that students feel that working together can make us all better citizens?

Working with a team or a partner can be a very rewarding experience, and I have found in my consulting work and in my new enterprise of designing escape rooms, that teamwork and collaboration are a vital skill for survival in our ever changing world.

Recently I visited an escape room that required two people to complete a puzzle: one person could see the pieces and the other person could move the pieces. But no one person could do both.

I loved the game dynamic and the rush I felt with my partner when we completed the puzzle. I wanted to bring the game to my classroom but did not have the time to recreate 15 versions of this intricate wooden puzzle. Luckily my campus bought thousands of Lego’s a few years ago.

First I created some structures using a variety of colors. Then I took pictures of the structures and printed them out and glued them to note cards.

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When students came into class I split them into pairs. I gave one student a blindfold and the necessary bricks for their assigned structure. The other partner received the picture directions.

The blindfolded student is the only one who is allowed to touch the bricks. The sighted partner must direct them to select the bricks and then give them the instructions required to build the correct structure.

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I usually set the timer for about 25 minutes. This is enough time for the students to work through three to four structures, taking turns with the blindfold.

When we are done, I ask the students a number of follow-up reflections questions to see what they value about working with a partner.

Student responses have included:

You get better ideas when you work together
Double the smartness
Build on strengths
Get more stuff done
Someone who has your back
Classroom atmosphere is lighter
Get to know new people
Someone to help you when you don’t know what to do

This is not a cure all for students who resent working with others but it does begin to guide the conversation in the right direction.

I like this work because the cognitive load is on the teamwork and communication and not on the content. It is too hard teaching new processes with new content. Any time I try to introduce a new process, I make sure the concepts are well known so that students are not splitting their mental powers between learning content and a new process.

One other responsibility of the teacher of course is to make sure that group or partner assignments truly require the strengths of everyone in the group. Many times I have seen and created assignments that require students to basically work in parallel, trying to merge competing visions of the project together. The conflict that arises from such assignments forces some students to dominate to finish the work and others to check out to avoid the stress of the conflict, crushing their vision.

If your students are not happy with group work, back up and invite them into the process with some Lego’s and blindfolds.

Other observations from watching students work through this process:

They make revisions on the fly
They have to work on specificity of directions
They have to prioritize the work flow
They practice using their spatial awareness
They have to learn how to overcome short term frustrations
They have to transpose their directions (right becomes left, left becomes right).

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