Foster Executive Function Skills with Digital Breakouts

Students in the 21st Century need opportunities to develop a wide variety of executive function skills to prepare for success. Among these are crucial abilities like collaboration, task management, prioritization, and flexible thinking.

While there are a variety of ways to target these skills individually, digital breakouts are an engaging and fun way to tackle them together.

What is a Digital Breakout?

Digital breakouts are the virtual equivalent of an escape room game. In an escape room, participants are locked in a themed environment where they have a set period of time to search for clues and puzzles. Following the clues and solving the puzzles leads to the keys needed to unlock the door and escape the room.

In a digital breakout, the “door” is typically a Google Form that has a series of virtual locks. In order to be opened, these locks each require a specific response to be typed into a text box. Students follow clues across a curated set of web links and puzzles, interact with the content, and search for the information required to open the locks and complete the activity. Teachers create a simple website as the launching point (this can be done quickly and for free using Google Sites) and share the link with students when it is time to start.

This may sound simplistic, but the fun is in the details. Great digital breakouts require students to explore and experiment. Useful links may be hidden in website images or locked behind formatted cells in a Google Sheet. Students could be led to a custom Google Map where they need to extract information from the information provided on a specific landmark. The possibilities are nearly endless! The only limit is your own creativity.

Why Digital Breakouts Work

Regardless of their complexity, the beauty of digital breakouts is that they put students into situations where they need to wield their executive function skills as they make decisions, work together, evaluate situations, and think critically. As nothing is ever truly straightforward, completion is a goal that requires teamwork and a multi-faceted approach to engaging with the content inside the activity’s structure. Adding in a beat-the-clock element can even add an extra layer of gamification to help keep students focused on the multifaceted task.

Another great fringe benefit of having students work through digital breakouts is the way the activities naturally fold digital literacy into the learning experience. Students cannot help but interact with a variety of web tools and environments in their pursuit of their ultimate escape!

When well crafted, digital breakouts can be a great way to get students reading, listening, and interacting about curricular content in a way that is more problem-based and stimulating than a worksheet or photocopied packed could ever hope to be.

Getting Started

If you’ve never experienced a digital breakout, it can be tough to wrap your head around at first. Start by trying out some examples shared by digital breakout masters like Brian Costello or Tom Mullaney (…and follow Brian and Tom on Twitter if you haven’t already!). Working through their exceptional breakouts can lead to ideas about ways to pull information together and hide clues in your own creations.

Starting Simple

For novices, consider starting with a template. As you gain experience with digital breakouts, you will be surprised at the number of different and creative ways you will come up with to hide clues for students. At the start, however, keeping it simple may be best.

Whether you decide to use some supports or dive in creating a breakout experience from scratch, don’t lose focus on the content. Just as when you plan a lesson, start with the standards or understandings you want your participants to achieve. Find or create the readings, videos, diagrams, and media you want your students to engage with. Students will need to work through this information to find the clues needed to open your virtual locks (and inevitably learn along the way).

Creating the Breakout Site

With the content in place, it all comes down to creating the breakout site, hiding the links, and setting your locks. No matter how simple or complex your creations, students will be working together, flexing their executive function muscles, and grappling with content. It doesn’t get much better than that!

It is worth mentioning that many of the best tools at your disposal in creating a digital breakout are included in the Google Suite. Ensuring both you and your participants have Google accounts can help make the process go a lot smoother.

Still seem too daunting? Just as digital breakouts require your students to collaborate to “escape,” creating digital breakouts can be a collaborative process as well. Rather than diving into the deep end alone, partner up with a colleague and create together. Since digital breakouts live online, you could even partner up with someone and work together in the cloud on platforms like those in the Google Suite.

Especially in the beginning, digital breakouts can take time to create. This makes the summer a great time to get a few under your belt so that you have them ready to go for the new school year.

However you choose to approach digital breakouts, whether you take advantage of the examples already available across multiple content and grade levels or make your own, your students will be engaged, inquisitive, and strengthening their executive function skills.

Sheldon Soper is a New Jersey middle school teacher with over a decade of classroom experience teaching students to read, write, and problem-solve across multiple grade levels. He holds teaching certifications in English, Social Studies, and Elementary Education as well as Bachelor's and Master's degrees in the field of education. In addition to his teaching career, Sheldon is also a content writer for a variety of education, technology, and parenting focused websites. You can follow Sheldon on Twitter @SoperWritings.

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