Escape the room, take the facts!

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By Chris Roche, Senior Research Partner of the Developmental Leadership Program
School of Government, University of Birmingham

Back in June 2019, the DLP team participated in a team-building exercise in Birmingham – an escape room in which the team had to escape the Lab. After we had successfully saved the world, we wondered if we could share our research findings in equally engaging ways.

And so the idea of a DLP Escape Room was born.

That same night, we drafted an abstract for the Australasian Aid Conference 2020 explaining how we wanted to try and ‘gamify’ our research findings, and see if that might engage people in more effective ways than a traditional presentation. Little did we know how much work was involved!

The DLP escape room

It was with mixed feelings in November 2019 when we heard that the conference organisers had accepted our ‘panel’. And so began our crash course in escape room design.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the content of the escape room as we plan to keep on experimenting with the idea, and don’t want to spoil the surprise. But suffice to say we learnt a lot of lessons about trying to engage people in this sort of way, notably:

  1. There are some fantastic resources online to help you design escape room exercises. As our initial shock at having to go ahead with this idea subsided, we turned to Google with some trepidation. However, we found a wide range of resources often from primary and secondary school teachers about the use of games in general and escape rooms in particular as a means of engaging students in learning exercises;
  2. Have a practice session with trusted colleagues before going public. We had an invaluable meeting with the curious Governance Team in DFAT before the event, which helped us hone our ideas and adjust the process in ways that improved the quality of the experience;
  3. It is an art to get the balance right between fun, puzzles and content. Some people are pleased on day two of a conference not to be confronted by four power-points in a row and there to be ‘no time for questions’ in a 90-minute session. Others are hungry for an in-depth understanding of research methods, approaches and findings. Initially, we focused too much on the fun and puzzles and not enough on the content. The practice session helped us correct this.
  4. ‘Case in point’ learning encourages participants to reflect on the dynamics of what is going on in the room, which can be extremely powerful. We tried to set up the process in ways which mirrored the research findings and then drew out these issues -potentially the most crucial part of the exercise.
  5. Planning an escape room requires a lot of work! If you are the kind of presenter that writes your slides or your presentation in the car on your way to the conference, then think twice about an escape room or gamification process. The areas we needed to consider in the planning phase were the design of puzzles; the estimations of timing; the logistics of working with up to 30 people individually or in groups; the effective integration of content and much, much more. Top tip: don’t let people enter an escape room if you haven’t done your homework!
  6. It was fun to run, and feedback was good! Feedback from participants was very positive. Participants found the session ‘engaging’ and ‘different’, with some enjoying ‘the confusion which created teamwork’, while others thought the exercise was not ‘quite closely enough linked to the learning’. Overall we feel it was a worthwhile ‘safe-fail’ experiment which we are keen to evolve. Does anyone want to start up a franchise operation for us?

Our recent findings are available in the publications section of the website. You can also meet the DLP team at the DSA conference where DLP will be presenting our Build-a-leader workshop.

Read the original post on the DLP website.

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