The Strange Case of Dr. Rachel Veil: Course-Specific Puzzle Room Creation

By Tripp Reade

Having found and opened the secret door in the archaeologist’s study, the four detectives stand momentarily awestruck by the humming rift in space-time before them. They know, from clues deciphered in a journal, and more in a calendar, that stepping through will land them in Jerusalem, 39 A.D., in one of the Holy Temple’s outer courtyards, where hopefully they will find both the time map, and the biblical archaeologist to whom it belonged, before the portal closes. Nearby, a clock counts down the time remaining. A quick search of the portal room turns up priestly garments and sandals, which they don for disguise, knowing there are harsh penalties for outsiders who violate the sanctity of the temple. One by one, they step back in time.

The above scene took place in early 2019, and again in 2020, in the school library, with a few props to set the stage of an archaeologist’s study (a table with books and other objects scattered about), a secret sliding wall (movable fabric screens), and a rift in time (a black fabric panel stood upright).  For weeks, ninth-grade students in a theology class had studied the time period, the construction of the temple, the laws, customs, rituals, and prayers of the period, and I had visited the class several times for 5-10 minute lessons in code-breaking–in case, you know, such were encountered in the near future, maybe in a puzzle room. Excitement about the adventure built among the students through January and February. My excitement, however, started much earlier, with these steps:

  • Met the previous fall with the teacher to identify what she hoped the students would learn about the Holy Temple of Jerusalem.
  • Developed a mystery narrative that would logically require students to call on their knowledge of the era.
  • Identified non-theology-content knowledge, i.e., codes and how to break them, that the students would need in order to be successful. Also, discussed the concept of “Theater of the Mind,” so they wouldn’t expect a fully constructed, commercial-style escape room.
  • Gathered objects both essential to the narrative (journal, calendar, LEGO temple model, specific books, locked boxes from a kit, soft drink can with secret compartment) and non-essential (game board, other books on bookshelf, actual soft drink can, etc.).
  • Divided classes into teams of 3-4 and pre-assigned them to different parts of the mystery. This was the least successful part of the project; in a future iteration, each team will work on a pared-down version of the mystery, rather than needing to coordinate with several other teams.

That second bullet point is particularly important. At no time during a puzzle room should the students feel they are simply answering questions to unlock a box. Scott Nicholson, a games-in-libraries pioneer, says, “This is where a number of educational ‘games’ fall short, in that they are really drills in a game form and fail at the aspect of providing play. Without the aspect of play, games also lose their motivational power to inform” (Everyone Plays at the Library 3). By the time students reach high school, they are hip to the fact that school runs on extrinsic motivation, accustomed to being manipulated by that 800-pound gorilla of extrinsic motivation called grades, and are appropriately cynical about the entire charade. An interesting narrative that allows for player choice–agency!–gives you a fighting chance to shift the students, at least for a moment, away from the extrinsic mindset school has over the years ground into them, and toward the far more productive state of intrinsic motivation. That’s when actual learning has a chance to happen.

So, the narrative, the desired experience, was the first design decision, and that guided all subsequent decisions, much as a thesis statement helps students decide what belongs in a paper and what must be cut. Nicholson calls this approach “Ask why,” in his article of the same name. Why is this puzzle here? Why are the students re-arranging these gems to match the pattern on the high priest’s jeweled breastplate? If the answer is ever, “Because this is a puzzle room, and that’s what puzzle rooms are expected to have,” that clue or puzzle should either be cut or rethought. 

This “ask why” is the process that led to the Holy Temple narrative: a biblical archaeologist/cryptographer buys an old map at the Dr. Henry Walton Jones, Jr. (the students sadly didn’t get this film reference) estate auction, which, upon further study turns out to show the location of time portals (another film reference Easter egg that went undiscovered by the students: ancient history, indeed!). The portals prove invaluable in her research but incur the jealousy of a colleague; she takes to hiding the map somewhere in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, and seeding her journal, calendar, bookshelves, and so forth with clues that only another biblical scholar–not her rival’s area of study–could solve should she for any reason disappear. 

Notice how this narrative explains why the clues, hints, and codes are there in the first place and why they involve deep knowledge of the time period: not to reward the students for getting the right answer but to allow the detectives to solve the mystery and find the map and maybe, also, the archaeologist. The motivation skews toward the intrinsic and away from the extrinsic. A well-made puzzle room incorporates Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory, with its emphasis on autonomy, competence, and relatedness, to put the students more in charge of their learning as they explore the world and story laid out before them, making decisions that have consequences.

Which brings us back to those students in the opening paragraph. They put on the sandals when they shouldn’t have, forgetting that footwear wasn’t worn inside the temple, and so were caught before they could get to the map. Foiled, yes, but the process seemed to have worked as we hoped: when the teacher surveyed her students in June about the three topics they most enjoyed during the year, 70% named the Holy Temple project. I’ll take that!

Tripp Reade is the librarian at Cardinal Gibbons High School, in Raleigh, NC. He would like to thank theology teacher Pat Gallagher, for taking a chance on using this puzzle room for her students, and his library colleague, Terri Ingraham, for helping him implement this grand experiment.

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