We had lots of different people try (and succeed) to escape our room; but we noticed some common things each group did and how many of these things made it harder for them to solve the puzzle and escape the room.
We also noticed that the same things people struggled with to solve the escape room puzzles were the same things that students commonly struggle with when trying to solve a math problem.
Here’s some of the things we saw:
An Overload of Information Leads to Confusion
One of the first things many of our participants did was to try and collect as much information in the room as they possibly could; even though they were told that only certain pieces of information were needed. This hurried collection of information lead to an overload of materials causing confusion and increased efforts to sort through what was necessary and what was placed there to confuse or distract.
We thought this was a great way to look at the world of information all around us currently; from news sites to Google searches to Wikipedia pages that have links to just about anything. The amount of information around us seems almost infinite.
This is why critical thinking skills are so important to develop. Being able to sort out what is useful, and correct, information from all the clutter helps us to focus on what is important and more effectively solve the problems before us.
You don’t want to decide you’re going to write a paper on Ada Lovelace only to find there is enough information out there to write a whole book on her when you only need 5 pages. Instead you want to decide what aspect you want to write about her remarkable life and start from there.
Order is Important
Participants were told that the order was important yet many jumped between clues all over the room. This made it very difficult to put all the pieces together in the right order at the end.
By skipping steps, or skipping around steps, it becomes very easy to miss the foundational or necessary stages of a problem.
It’s like trying to read the works of Shakespeare before even learning the alphabet; it might be possible but it would be very difficult to do!
Listen to ALL Instructions
Humans can be very bad at what is called ‘active listening’. This is especially true in high stress or exciting situations where we ‘just want to get to it’. This often causes us to miss important information because our attention is focused on the next thing. This is also really common in what is referred to as ‘multi-tasking’.
Similar to doing things in order, actively listening to and processing the full and complete instructions can be incredibly helpful when trying to solve a problem.
Think of building a piece of IKEA furniture; you could try to build it by skipping a few instructions, but all of a sudden you may find yourself at the end with a built bookcase but wondering where these extra screws came from… (and being very hesitant about putting any actual books on it).
Don’t Rush In
Do yourself a favour, take a minute, take a breath and give yourself some time to process where you are and what’s going on BEFORE you dive right into a problem.
Many of our participants started digging apart the room as soon as they were left on their own, hurriedly scrounging for clues and pieces of the puzzle.
The groups that did the best started by taking a moment to look around, take in what was there and look at the most obvious things first.
One of the most frustrating things for those of us watching and guiding/providing hints, was when someone in the room would get super close to an object that was required to solve the puzzle and then walk right past it, or worse, look right at it, even touch it, but not take the time to register that it was important.
In order to solve a problem you need to first be able to take in the context surrounding that problem, what tools you have at your disposal already and what barriers exist to you completing your task.
You don’t want to start fixing a car, get it all ready to go and be eager to drive out on the open road only to realize that you forgot the garage door was broken and won’t open to let you escape.
How Does This Relate to Math
All of these relate to mathematics and solving a math problem.
First, figure out what it is you are trying to learn or solve first and then get rid of, put aside, or ignore any information that doesn’t relate to it; at least at the start.
Second, mathematics is built on what is commonly called a scaffold principle where one skill leads to, or builds on, the last, leading to a set of skills that allow you to solve a problem. By jumping around in the order or not following the instructions you risk missing important steps and may end up making a mistake that will carry through to your final answer, causing it to be wrong. Instead start by thinking about what you already know, take a moment to read the question carefully and formulate in your head what tools you already have available.
Finally, don’t be in a rush to solve a math problem. Much of the enjoyment of math comes from taking it a piece at a time and following each piece through.
Think of it like a musician or an artist creating a song or a painting. They take it step by step, seeing the entire piece in their mind and then following the steps to create the final product.
It’s no wonder that mathematicians like Professor Kumar Murty refer to math as a beautiful subject, and even an art.