Experiential and Project-Based Learning Case Study

Students engineer an Escape Room in which they will lock up their parents.

Learning happens most effectively when it is meaningful. The freedom to decide what and how one learns allows for the creation of a learning experience that becomes personal and therefore has greater impact. Students can imagine what and how they want to learn. At the beginning of each unit, they can propose ideas for weekly, two-hour workshops, and if they can find at least four other students to join them, we create an experience where, guided by a teacher, the students explore their own learning. This is one way we offer self-direction and personalization, and the units last eight weeks and all have a public performance to showcase learning.  

The idea is to develop students’ competencies—such as creativity, team work, and logistics management—while providing them with opportunities to hone and demonstrate their academic skills. This represents a framework for deeper learning and the development of competencies through PBL. 

One workshop that we ran involved building an Escape Room. At the very beginning of this adventure, I handed the reins over to the students. We outlined what we wanted to do (backwards design) and I informed the students that we would to step out of our traditional roles and that they would no longer be students and I would no longer be the teacher: we are a team and everyone has equal standing, but I will take the role of facilitator, whose purpose is to make sure to ask the questions necessary to keep the initiative on track. I made it clear that the Escape Room was their project and that if it was a success it was their success and if it failed it was their responsibility. In both cases we would reflect on the experience. We discussed how when the younger learners take ownership of a project, they are limited only by their imaginations and, therefore, they will naturally be engaged because it is their project, not a teacher-directed task that may or may not be meaningful to them. We established success criteria for what the Escape Room needed to have and developed a timeline. We also set protocols around keeping each other on task.

The learners did not need much time to adapt to the requirements of this project. As a teacher I had to emphasize that this arrangement would only work if they were productive and that it was their project, not mine. As we planned out the Escape Room, the students came up with some very creative ideas!…. but some needed to be more realistic given the physical constraints of the building: “Let’s have a trap door!” “Let’s project an image and control the lighting from the other room!” “Why don’t we have timer release dry smoke?” My role was and remains to ask the same question over again: “How are we going to do this?” Quickly, their thinking reverted within the realm of the practical. This is not a case of stifling creativity; in many ways sticking to the possible stimulates creative thought because one is forced to work with what is available. 

All we have is a room and the items on hand that we can borrow. The room itself has to be configured in such a way as to encourage collaboration and the coming together of small groups in general with space for students to work on their own. There also has to be areas where teams of two or three could quietly discuss their ideas without bothering (or revealing to) others. Lastly, we need a space to gather around and talk as a group, in a circle. I prefer to use the floor as it is more intimate and egalitarian, and also signals to the students that it is time to share because the space was designed for this purpose. The furniture also has to allow for groups to come together in variable numbers. I use flipboard paper and hang it on the walls to show process and exhibit ideas. We utilize white board tables to jot down thoughts. The room itself is a project.

Here is evidence of learning: when the original Escape Room team took in new members (as the new semester started), the incoming students went through the same period of adaptation as the first students, and the latter, unsolicited, kept the newbies on task, assigned roles, made sure everyone was contributing. Now, at the beginning and end of each session, the team gathers around and discusses how we feel about what has been accomplished and what needs to be completed. By mid-January, my input was minimal: the students led their conversations and organization, were accountable to one another, and managed their workloads. They found meaning in the Escape Room and became invested in the project because the students had agency to participate in the project as decision makers in relation to what, where and when they were learning. The puzzles they have produced, so far, are of top quality, and I cannot wait to see how the parents try to solve them. 

Creating an Escape Room is quintessential Problem-Based Learning because the students are presented with a situation that they must resolve, in this case putting together all of the components necessary to create an experience for their parents that involves logistics, a storyline, problems (that the students created themselves) to solve, a sequence of events, a need to procure supplies, interact with different adults to obtain those supplies… but the manner in which the workshop is constructed is an opportunity for students to take ownership of a project, to be responsible for its outcome and accountable to each other, thereby honing self-self-direction and social interaction. They are only limited by their imaginations and yet they are applying the skills from almost every discipline, seamlessly. I am proud that I have minimal input, that my role as a teacher is to guide and engineer the learning process, while the learners are driving this experience. No matter how the project turns out, assuming responsibility is a critical metacognitive milestone. 

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