Escape the Room! Halacha Mini Course

By: Aryeh Wasserman
from Kohelet Yeshiva

Category:
Risk Taking and Failure

Subject(s) of entry:
Halacha, Technology

Pedagogy:
Experiential Education, Gamification, IBL - inquiry based learning, UBD - understanding by design

Grade(s) to which this was taught:
9, 10, 11, 12, High school

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
Elementary school, Middle school, High school

I created a series of week long escape rooms to teach different topics in Halacha. I used Google Classroom and other apps and websites to transform my class into an exciting Escape the Room for the week.

Entry Narrative

Background Information:

At Kohelet Yeshiva High School, the faculty identified a problem in the teaching of Halacha. Halacha was taught within the context of Gemara class and in theory, out of the eight periods of Gemara a week, two of those periods were to be dedicated to teaching Halacha. The reality was that for a variety of factors this was not put into practice. The LK administration decided in response to this issue, that we would dedicate four weeks spread out over the course of the school year as Halacha weeks and during each of these weeks teachers would offer Halacha Mini Courses (HMC’s) from which the students could choose from. Each of these week (rotating throughout the year) would be dedicated to one of four areas of Halacha: Shabbat, Bein Adam Lechaveiro, Contemporary Jewish Issues and Daily Life.

In each of these areas of Halacha, the LK teachers craft a week long course about a specific topic within that area (e.g. cooking on shabbos, organ donation, hilchos tzitzis… ) and students have the opportunity to choose a course for that week based on topic, teacher and level (from green – discussion based/very few hebrew texts to black – heavily text-based).

When creating these courses the LK administration challenges and encourages us to try and create different types of courses. Instead of feeding the students a lot of content and quizzing them at the end, the goal was to try and have the students create some sort of project or product that demonstrated learning. The hope was to take dry halacha and make it into a more fun and engaging learning activity while at the same time ensuring our students are exposed to basic halachos by the time they graduate.

During the first year of Halacha Mini Courses, I created projects for the two courses I taught (2 times each – one week boys; another week the girls). While they were creative projects, they were still very much in the box – a traditional model of learning with a creative project to demonstrate the learning. At the end of the first year of Halacha Mini Courses (school year ‘15 – ‘16), as I prepared to think about the next batch of Halacha Mini Courses I would have to create for the coming year, I tried to stretch my creativity out of the box and think of a way to make these courses really engaging and exciting. I wanted to create for students on all textual levels a meaningful learning experience that was at the same time challenging and fun. At some point over the summer, I was discussing with someone how my wife arranged for my birthday, for us and a few of our friends to go to the Escape the Room challenge in downtown Philadelphia. I remembered how challenging it was and how upset we were when we didn’t escape (we were really close though!) and that’s when the crazy idea came to me – create a Halacha Mini Course Escape Room!

While I was hooked on the idea, I knew this would be a very risky experiment. How would I create a week long Escape Room that was fun, escapable and at the same time challenging? How could I use the game to teach students specific things I wanted them to learn without teaching it to them before the game? How would I assess student learning during the game? What if they escaped on day two? What would I do with them for the rest of the week?!

I hope you enjoy reading about the creation and implementation of the games I created. I believe that from the successes and failures of this experiment we can learn a lot about student learning in general and that the learning environment the game creates can be advantageously adapted to a variety of learning ages, levels, subjects and assessments.  

The Submission:

In this submission I have included the following items:

  • What is an Escape Room – General Information
    • Educational Escape Rooms
    • Digital vs physical
  • The Uniqueness of my Escape Rooms
  • Classroom setup
  • Rules
  • The Games
  • Student Feedback
  • Teacher’s Escape Room Playbook
  • Adaptation
  • Reflections
    • The Good
    • The Fail and Response
  • Pictures and Videos

What is an Escape Room – General Information

“An escape room is a physical adventure game in which players solve a series of puzzles and riddles 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. Escape rooms are inspired by “escape-the-room“–style video games. Games are set in a variety of fictional locations, such as prison cells, dungeons and space stations, and usually the various puzzles and riddles themselves follow the theme of the room. Escape rooms are great activities for families, friends, students, and even businesses because they rely on team building exercises.

Escape rooms became popular in North America, Europe and East Asia in the 2010s. Permanent escape rooms in fixed locations were first opened in Asia and followed later in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and South America.” (1)

The typical escape room allows for about 1 hour to solve the puzzles and clues and finish the challenge. These games usually allow from 2 – 10 people to play at once. Many times there is a screen in the room or other communication mode where the person running the game can supply clues to the players of the game should they get stuck.

Educational Escape Rooms

Not only have recreational escape rooms skyrocketed in popularity recently in the US, their use in educational settings have been increasing in the past several years as well. They have been found to create gaming environments in the real world where the participants are placed inside a learning challenge that requires critical thinking. “Students transform into players and an escape game’s unique nature eliminates certain learning barriers while encouraging critical thinking and interaction within the group.”(2)

The learning that takes place is active and collaborative. Participants recognize that part of the path to success in the game is by trying and failing: putting in an incorrect code, not making the correct connection or association or not paying attention to an important detail. Participants learn from their failures and it is accepted and understood that one will make mistakes in the learning process. Participants come to appreciate and maximize every second (3) they have in order to complete the learning and solve the clues. The nature of the game requires analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating the highest echelons of Bloom’s Taxonomy in order to make meaning of the information scattered throughout the different stages of the room.

They also are adaptable across the spectrum of age and subject. “Educational escape rooms can be super effective in schools because of their ability to be adapted to any subject. Students will be excited and motivated to learn different subjects in an immersive, engaging environment. 20th century literature? No problem. The psychology behind serial killers? The sky’s the limit.”(4)

The nature of the game also seems to increase student motivation to learn. “Some teachers have noted that the desire to learn has increased significantly, allowing many students to thrive in this natural problem-solving environment, even the ones that don’t normally interact within the classroom.”(5) It is because of these reasons more and more teachers have begun to try and incorporate these games into the classroom.

Digital vs physical

“Escape rooms are innovative learning tools that bridge the physical and digital learning environments. “(6The advent of technology in the classroom allows for limitless possibilities to transform the everyday classroom into an exciting escape game with the digital universe as the arena of play. You do not need expensive props or a designed spaces to create a game. Many everyday objects can become clues of exploration for the topic of choice with some simple easy to use (and free!) digital apps.

The Uniqueness of my Escape Rooms

While many teachers have created escape rooms already, I feel that my experiment was unique in two ways. First the length of the games. My games each lasted a week. The same rules pretty much applied for a standard escape room, just that they would stop each day when the bell rang and would continue from where they left off the following class. The second difference in my game was the platform used. Most escape rooms primarily have physical clues to solve. The majority of my information being learned and the clues to be solved were digital or a combination of digital and physical. I also used the platform of Google Classroom and google apps in an innovative way as the main hub for the game.

Classroom setup

I set up my classroom in a unique way that made it feel like an escape room. I placed chairs and tables in specific areas. I turned off the lights to create more of an escape room “vibe”. I made a “wall” out of student desks surrounding the teacher’s desk in the corner of the room where I sat during the duration of the game. The students were permitted to work and search for clues in any area other than the sectioned off area I took up. It was an invisible wall they were not allowed to cross. Our school is a 1:1 ipad school and many of our students elect to use their own laptops instead. We also have apple TV’s in all of our classrooms to airplay and project on the board. I used the Apple TV to display hints, and post a timer on the board throughout the game each day. They used their devices to play the game and attempt to solve the clues to escape the room.

Rules

Each day before they entered, I waited outside the preset room. I explained to them that they had a week to escape the room. The only way to escape was to crack the digital lock that was located on the other side of the door. They were instructed that once they all go in (as a group) unless for an emergency, no one would be allowed to leave for the entire class time. So if they needed to go to the bathroom “now is the time to go”. This type of briefing is standard in regular escape rooms before entering the room. I also informed them that they could not cross the “wall” nor do they need to nor should they destroy anything to solve a clue and escape. They were informed that for the duration of the week I would not speak to them as I was “outside the room” on the other side of the “wall”. During the game, they discovered that I would send them messages airplayed on to the board or personal messages on their player logs (see examples below) to address their concerns and aid them when I felt they needed some direction.

The Games

In this section I have included my google folders with materials, student work, and solutions to 3 of the Escape Rooms I have created. The Google Classrooms for each are most likely not active (except for the Kosher Escape Room) so I have included some screenshots of what the classroom looks like. Game 1 was a black level while games 2 and 3 were designed as green levels (see above section about background information).

  1. Yom Tov Escape Room (Escape the Yom Tov!)
    1. Planning Document
    2. Solution and explanation to the game
  2. Principles of Halacha Escape Room
    1. Planning Document
    2. Solution and explanation to the game
  3. The Kosher Escape Room!
    1. Planning Document
    2. Solution and explanation to the game

Student Feedback

At the conclusion of each game, I asked the students to fill out a survey to help me determine how they perceived the game, to try and measure its success and to see how I could improve it for the future. The responses were anonymous. One stat that stood out to me is that 80% of the students who took the courses said they would want to take another course like it. So the style of the course was at least overwhelmingly positive in the eyes of the students.  You can see the form for each game here and the results here. The best compliment about the game came from a student who told me he went home the night before the last day of the game and stayed up for hours trying to figure out the final password. After the game he told me that he had done other escape rooms for fun, but mine was way better.

Teacher’s Escape Room Playbook

In this guide, I have collected for those that wish to replicate this style game for their own classroom, a list of general tips when creating your game, a collection of useful apps and hacks to hide and create clues to solve for the content you want to teach and some student hacks around the learning aspects of the game I have discovered through my experience and how to outsmart them! Finally I discuss how to embed individual assessment without losing the excitement of the game. Check the playbook out here.

Adaptation

These games were designed for high school kids learning new topics in Halacha. They were also designed to take place over the course of a week of Gemara classes. That’s eight 40 minute periods which is equivalent to 5 hours “trapped” in the room which is WAY longer than any recreational Escape Room. The beauty of the model though is that it can be applied to ANY discipline, can be implemented pretty much for any age (although the types of games that I created I would guess would be appropriate for middle school and up) and can be utilized for pre-assessment, formative assessment or even summative assessment. I plan to try and create an Escape the Midbar Escape Room in place of a final as a summative assessment on all the topics we learned over the course of the semester. If I succeed, it will definitely be the coolest most fun final ever administered in schooling history! If more teachers start using my model (based on google classroom) we could create a portal for teachers to share their escape rooms and in turn gain access to other escape rooms for different subjects created by other teachers in the field.

Reflections

The Good

When creating this concept and the specific games, my goal was to create an exciting learning environment that would motivate students to learn topics in Halacha. I thought there were a lot of advantages and plusses to creating an escape room for learning.  

First the learning environment. The context of the game would create a strong motivation to learn the material. What is more is that several amazing things occurred. First, although there was a grade in the class, the one thing that was not graded was if they escaped the room. (My escape rate is still 0%!) Despite it not being graded, there was intrinsic motivation in the students to beat the game. Each game that is played and is not solved, that motivation increases, because everyone wants to be the first to escape. This is perhaps the most valuable lesson to be taken from this experience. If we could apply this to all of our teaching in a successful way, we would be able to ditch the grades and re-paint school and learning as an opportunity which is extremely challenging and fun in the eyes of our students. The second thing was that the rules of the game created an accountability to be in the room. I told them that they would not be able to leave the room for the entirety of the period. In many classes at Kohelet (I am sure that it is true in many other schools as well,) the culture of students is to “go to the bathroom” often. However because of the environment of the game, I was amazed that not a single student left the game. (Other than specific exceptions like learning center or the office called a student) What’s more is that some of the periods were a double period with a 3 minute break in between the two classes. Despite the “allowed break” due to the bell, still no one left the room and they continued to attempt to escape. Fourth is that the students had to work to find the material they were learning. They had to search for clues, they needed to gain access to the learning material in Google Classroom, they need to search the room for pieces of learning. They even had to bring the chairs (piled up on the side) to the table for their learning. They had to bring the learning to them as opposed to a traditional classroom where the learning is presented to or thrown upon the students.

The room’s structure facilitated differentiated instruction. There were a lot of different learning pieces and different students could work on different things at the same time. The students had choice when to work on what elements. Some students succeeded in text based learning, others in associations, while others who couldn’t sit still found things in the room hidden from view that the more “studious” students missed. An example of this is that a particular student who generally does poorly in other classes was “messing” around with the documents and discovered the invisible ink (see the playbook for an explanation) hidden on the page. It facilitated an opportunity for this student to shine because of his “deficit” of curiosity and experimentation which in a traditional setting where there is one way and one correct answer is a disruption. Furthermore, since the teacher is in his truest sense the “guide on the side” he is free to intervene with specific students digitally while the learning is taking place. During one of the games there was a particular student who selected to be in the class with students way above his textual learning abilities. I saw he was literally lost so I accessed his learning log and gave him specific directions about specific sources he should learn. I guided his learning with more questions and prompts on his player log that no one else could see. He responded to my prompts verbally. At one point some of the other students asked him “who are you talking to?!” The game also allowed me to give more hints and help to students or groups (I gave each course twice – a 9/10 group and an 11/12 group) based on their ability.  

Although I used the game for Halacha, it could be adapted to any material. The common denominator for any application is the real world learning that takes place in the room. Every student is responsible for their own game and grade, but it is impossible to succeed in the game alone. The collaboration that takes place is vital for the world after school. Furthermore, in life students are not going to get everything handed to them on a silver platter – they are going to need to figure out the mysteries in life in order to succeed. They are going into a world where the digital and physical are merging and they will need to figure out how to harness technology to benefit them in their tangible existence. The apps and tools used are things that are very relevant in their lives (I even used snapchat in one of the games) and thus makes the content of the game more relevant to them.

I haven’t taken a poll, but I would argue a high percentage of students in high school do not read the syllabus of a course unless they are forced to. Those that do read it, many of them probably skim it. One of the things that I designed for the escape rooms was that they either needed to figure out a password to get into the syllabus, had to find hidden clues in the syllabus itself by reading it carefully and critically or both. It not only incentivized reading it but it made it part of the learning itself. They had to apply things in the syllabus to the game. This I think is just one example of the critical thinking aspect that the game fostered. In order to escape the students needed to think on their own, they needed to be curious, make associations, not just read information but analyze, connect and apply it. Students are not read a script about how they are graded or assessed, they have to figure it out on their own. They are encouraged to trial and error. If they don’t get the password once they try again. The teacher won’t give them the answer but rather offer a clue or nudge in the right direction to help the juices flow to connect the dots to find the answers. Another small example of a critical thinking aspect is the crossword puzzles I created. As the students completed the puzzles I monitored their progress. When they got answers correct, I highlighted those cells green to show they found the correct answer, red to indicate incorrect and yellow to show them it was right but incorrectly spelled. At first they started exclaiming “Rabbi why did it turn green?” Since I wasn’t verbally speaking to them I was able to resist the standard impulse of just answering the question. What this allowed for, was for them to figure it out on their own. They quickly got the message and then began to ask “Rabbi can you look at my puzzle?” or “Hey Rabbi – puzzle check?” In addition, the concept of the room in an educational setting inspired student creation. Three of my students after playing my escape room were involved in planning programming for “Ste(a)m Day” – a day where regular classes are cancelled and there are interactive learning opportunities to learn about the fields of STEM and the arts. These students created their own escape rooms that required learning about science and math for the program. They loved the experience and it inspired them to take information they were knowledgeable in and share it with others by creating their own games.

The Fail and Response

My biggest fear going into each week was what I would do with them if they solved the game way too early. Thankfully I planned enough and it was challenging enough that that scenario was avoided. So thankfully that was not a fail.

However, despite all the positives listed above, ultimately the most important measure of success is if they actually learned anything. From the results of my feedback forms at the end of the games though, it seems that for many of the groups, many of the students did not really internalize as much of the learning that I had hoped. I asked them to list three things that they learned and a big group of students did not write anything substantial – several of them couldn’t even write 3 things! One example of this is a student wrote “Escape the room helps you learn; Escape the room is stressful; Gemarah,” in response to the Halacha Principles Escape Room. This was from a student who said they loved the game and would sign up again. This was confirmed by comments (optional at the end of the feedback form) from students such as “I think learning in unique ways is great but for a long part of it we were trying to solve the puzzle and losing sight of learning.” and “I personally feel that a regular shiur format or project would have helped me learn more,” among others. You can also view some samples of student player logs, that show that many of the students did not learn so much in a meaningful way (or at least didn’t show it).

In response to the Yom Tov Escape Room, the first game I created, a student wrote something really insightful, “I think the actual learning could have been more obviously related to the game. It was compelling not to learn and just to play the game.” This particular game was very heavily Hebrew text based as opposed to the other two games which had minimal Hebrew sources to learn. The clues were embedded in the sources and for many of them the students figured out work arounds to figure out the clue, not necessarily learning all the material in a deep way. What I tried to do for the next two games was to make the learning more essential to figuring out most of the clues which hopefully addressed these concerns.

Another aspect of the game which ended up not working out as I had planned, is the MVP aspect. In any collaborative project there is fear that there will be members that will do more work than others yet will receive the same grade as the members who did not contribute as much, which is unfair. So in this collaborative game, the kid who learned but just copied all the clues from someone else would get the same grade as someone who contributed way more to the success of the team. In order to address that, I wrote on the syllabus that 5% of the grade was for people who actually cracked codes, (up to five) and then an additional 5% went to the MVP’s who cracked more than 5 passwords during the game. This competitive spirit would hopefully be enough to incentivise everyone to work extra hard but at the same time be fair. (a 95 is a great grade…) On the feedback form I received several comments that said it took away from the learning. For example, one student wrote, “…it was compelling not to tell other people about leads you have because they might type the password quicker and steal your extra points.” I also got rid of this element for the following courses which seemed to have addressed this concern. I think students were more willing to help out each other because of this.

Another challenge was the matching the content and expectations to the skill and level of the students. The first game was WAY too hard for the 9/10 girls who took it, so much so that, by the last day I abandoned the game and taught them some of the material frontally. The structure of the Halacha Mini Courses was that the same course was offered to 9/10 and 11/12. The students had the choice to sign up to whatever class so I had no way of knowing when creating the game that weaker students would sign up for a course that was banking on them having a certain level of ability with hebrew and textual access. I discuss in the teacher playbook how one needs to plan for right above the zone of proximal learning for safe success. If the learning is too much above the students heads, the game will be pointless because it is not solvable for them due to their level. They will never arrive at that feeling of “eureka”, they will never have that amazing feeling of looking down from the top of the mountain they climbed.

For some students the aloofness that I took (no verbal talking) during the game was too much. In addition, some were too confused about all the different aspects they had to put together. The Player Log was very open ended. Perhaps it would be more successful if I structure the player log a bit more with prompts about what they are learning, guiding questions and more focused sections to input their notes and process their learning.

Some students didn’t buy into the game. For them, the whole thing becomes pointless. In a normal class there is more accountability to pay attention, take notes or not actively do other things. In this setting students who have no desire to escape the room and marginally care about their grade are not going to put in the mental effort to drive their own learning. For these students, the engagement ends after the initial few minutes when the excitement of trying to find things hidden in the classroom dies down. Some students decided to switch courses when they realized this is not for them, while others realized it too late into the week. I ended up taking three students “out of the game” (after consulting with them what they wanted to do about the situation) and I gave them more straightforward assignments about the material being learned in the game. My game was a week long, I imagine for a shorter game this would address this concern.

One last fail to add to the list: I discovered that there is a range of students that this works well for. Groups that had 4 students the game was not great due to the emptiness in the room and a group of 15 seemed to be too many, leaving several students in the corner doing their own things. It seems that the most effective group size is between 8 and 13. Having too many students though is definitely better than having too few in a collaborative learning environment like this.

In conclusion, I think that the Escape Room model has a lot of potential to create a fun environment that can foster intrinsic motivation. The challenge, is to adapt and tweak the elements of the game that were not as good, to have the students not only trying to escape the room, but learn in a deep and meaningful way along the journey. I encourage any teacher reading this, to try and implement elements of what I have done, and to share their successes and failures with the educational community.

Pictures and Videos

Enjoy some videos and pictures from the various escape rooms! Visualizing what it looked like may help you get a better understanding of some of the things I referenced above. You can see the students at different levels of engagement, doing different things on and off of their devices.

Entrant Bio(s)

Rabbi Aryeh Wasserman studied at Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem for two years, after which he continued on to study at Yeshiva University, graduating with a Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology. Rabbi Wasserman joined Kohelet Yeshiva in 2011 on a two-year Legacy Heritage Fellowship, under the auspices of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, and completed his Master's in Jewish Education through the program in 2013. Rabbi Wasserman received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Smulowitz, through Yeshivas Pirchei Shoshanim and from Rabbi Abraham A. Levene, Rabbi Emeritus of the Lower Merion Synagogue. In 2013, Rabbi Wasserman became certified as an Apple Vanguard Teacher and in 2015, he took on the additional roles of Israel Guidance for boys and Director of Alumni Affairs.