In 2005, James Sanders started as a classroom teacher in South Los Angeles, where he continued for the next five years. In his words, he was “lucky enough to be one of the first teachers to use Chromebooks in the classroom” as a pilot with Google. Of course, there must have been more than luck at work as he went on to be head of innovation for KIPP Bay Area Schools, worked with education projects at Google, was co-founder of ClassBadges, became a Presidential Innovation Fellow, and more recently, James became the founder of Breakout EDU.
From their web site:
Breakout EDU creates ultra-engaging learning games for people of all ages. Games (Breakouts) teach teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking, and troubleshooting by presenting participants with challenges that ignite their natural drive to problem-solve.
James explained that the idea for Breakout EDU came when he and Michael Wacker were in Canada at an escape room with a group of teachers and students. If you haven’t experienced an escape room, you get locked in a room and work with others to solve a series of challenges/puzzles/riddles to get out. With his background in the classroom, James already knew that play was a powerful tool for learning. Combine the experience of a classroom teacher and that of a rich game design like an escape room and you get the birth of an education startup that is building an impressive community of educators who are excited about mixing games and learning.
Of course, there are problems with locking students in a room, but you can still use the game and puzzle part, and that is just what Breakout EDU does. They provide you with the starter kit or the instructions to build your own. It consists of a wooden box, a series of different types of combination locks, an invisible ink pen, and a few other items to get you started. Then there are the games. Among the 70+ existing Breakout EDU games, only a small portion were developed by the Breakout EDU team. The rest are built by the wonderfully creative and engaged Breakout EDU teacher community.
James is quick to note that the power isn’t in the box and locks but in the power of play, and putting these tools into the hands of great teachers. When you have that combination (pardon the pun), you get a community of students who are deeply engaged and working incredibly hard to solve problems. Along the way they are developing skills like collaboration and problem-solving, and they are gaining some content area knowledge as well.
At this point, Breakout EDU has not done any traditional marketing or promotion. They are still in beta and believe strongly in that, using this as a time to refine their ideas with the help of a vibrant community. Of course, the word is getting out, and the interest is growing, as evidenced by the robust Facebook group and the fact that I’m seeing presentations about Breakout EDU at EdCamps, regional education conferences, and in the online chatter among those in the larger educational technology community.
If you read my blog, I’m often talking in grand terms, speaking of potentially disruptive innovations or the wide scale impact of a new technology or company. James is cautious, even skeptical of such language, claiming that Breakout EDU is not a solution to any great educational problem. For James, “it is just a tool.” However, he clearly has a simple but compelling mission in Breakout EDU. He sees this as an opportunity to show people that learning and fun are not mutually exclusive.
Breakout EDU is also completely open. It is an open community. They provide everything that you need to build your own kit, so anyone with less than a hundred dollars for supplies and a local Target or Home Depot has pretty much everything that they need to get started. Anyone can design a game or use the other games, and there is nothing proprietary.
In an education startup space where many are designing entirely virtual products and services, Breakout EDU maintains a keen interest in the physical element. Many of the existing games certainly have a blend of the online and physical, but James believes that, “there is something powerful in getting them to move around and work in groups.”
Such an approach in the classroom is also an interesting way to reconsider the role of failure. Where failure on a test or assignment is no laughing matter and often even a cause serious concern, failure in a game becomes part of the learning experience. A group might have 75-100 failed attempts at solving a puzzle before they find the right solution. This is a good thing in a game, and failure becomes just part of the journey to success.
In the contemporary education startup space of people positioning for large market share and massive financial support, Breakout EDU is a refreshing exception. They are not seeking venture capital. They are not quick to rush out of the beta phase. They truly embody the spirit of Nail It Then Scale It, but they seem far more driven by building a great model that helps teachers than creating some world-renowned educational gaming company. As much as I could tell from James, they truly are a mission before margin outfit, a fine example of social entrepreneurship in the education space.
In the past, I’ve written about how I see potential in being a humble radical in the education space, but Breakout EDU is a good example of what I mean. They have a compelling vision, but they are more grounded in the present than grand dreams of the future. They embrace the fact that what they have is a work in progress, and they invite a community of educators to help with that progress. They are providing something of potentially great value to educators, but they refuse to overstate the potential impact of what they’ve provided.
As such, I’ll give the Breakout EDU community the last word in this article. As our chat was coming to an end, I asked James about what sort of results teachers were finding from their games. James simply posted that question to the Facebook group, and following is how the community members responded.
Mindy C. I have found that my students earning D/F’s are often the ones solving clues! It’s awesome to see them participating and finding success.
Sara B. Yes! Students that don’t do well in “traditional” school assignments seen to thrive here. Maybe it says something about their thinking…
Bailey C. I know as a new teacher I’ve been really having a tough time getting my students on board with the idea that learning isn’t always a “show me on a quiz” process. It finally clicked with them now that I am doing content based breakouts and they are having fun exploring topics rather than focussing on “what’s going to be on the test.”
Jody M. I have seen a student who, in regular math class, refuses outright to do any math at all (very bright, autistic spectrum), but in a breakout sat twice with pencil & paper to show another student how she felt something should be solved.
Jessica G. The first two breakouts I did, I had one student who would completely give up because it was “hard” and he was “stupid.” Then, after a pep-talk about perseverance, this same student KILLED the next breakout, solving clues left and right. The smile on his face was priceless when he realized he could do it if he set his mind to it…..Attitude is everything! smile emoticon
Michelle J. Some students (who feel they are “not smart enough”) have been able to appreciate their own special gifts when they think differently and are able to help the group of solve a problem. The feedback process for me has been very important, as well as being able to give students the opportunity to design their own games.
Maria G. One of my favorite things I heard in the debrief after a game with 8th graders showed me what a big role inference plays in BreakoutEDU games. They were saying that they loved not being told what they were going to learn and having to figure it out by themselves. You can see a sense of empowerment that they felt. This to me was such a powerful positive example of what these games bring to learning.
Donna W. We played one game with 5th graders during their Media Center pullout time. None of the groups were able to breakout in the time allotted. However, every time they see the Media Coordinator they ask when they will have another opportunity to Breakout. They were engaged, thinking, collaborating during the activity. They didn’t give up and they want to try again- calling that a win-win!
Toni H. During a debrief session, a student(special education) identified that he became obsessed with the lock rather than using clues to solve it. He plans to use the clues in his next Breakout session. His teacher couldn’t believe he identified the issue and planned for improving.
Heather L. I found it interesting how my high level kids struggle with both the breakout box lessons and the weekly homework challenges. The lower level kids excelled during the breakout box lesson. I watched the advanced students get frustrated by the thought an…
Bailey C. Agree! I’m seeing similar things. However, my gifted students do not fit well into that mold. I’ve found mine get pretty competitive and proprietary over their solutions.