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Why "20% Time" is Good for Schools

A.J. Juliani

Tech Staff Developer and Education Author from Philadelphia, PA

Have you ever met an adult who doesn't really love what they do, but just goes through the motions in their job and everyday life? Have you spoken with men and women who constantly complain, showing no visible passion for anything in the world? I'm sure that, like me, you have met those people. I've also seen the making of these adults in schools across our country: students who are consistently being "prepared" for the next test, assessment, or grade level . . . only to find out after graduation that they don't really know what they are passionate about. These are the same students who are never allowed to learn what they want in school. Forced down a curriculum path that we believe is "best for them," they discover it is a path that offers very little choice in subject matter and learning outcomes.

Enter 20% time.

What 20% time allows students to do is pick their own project and learning outcomes, while still hitting all the standards and skills for their grade level. In fact, these students often go "above and beyond" their standards by reaching for a greater depth of knowledge than most curriculum tends to allow. The idea for 20% time in schools comes from Google's own 20% policy, where employees are given twenty percent of their time to work and innovate on something else besides their current project. It's been very successful in business practice, and now we can say that it has been wildly successful in education practice.

With 20% time, we can solve one society’s biggest problems by giving students a purpose for learning and a conduit for their passions and interests. If you listen to Sir Ken Robinson or Daniel Pink talk, you'll discover this is an issue that starts with schooling. We spend 14,256 hours in school between kindergarten and graduation. If we can't find a time for students to have some choice in their learning, then what are we doing with all those hours? There are many in education who are questioning "why 20% time would be good for schools," so I've made it easy for each stakeholder to see the benefits.


It starts with the students. They are the reason we teach, and the future of our world. My daughter is four years old, and soon to be going through our public school system. I want her generation to have opportunities to explore, analyze and create projects that have unique meaning to each of them. Instead of answering a multiple choice test on The Great Gatsby, why can't my daughter have the opportunity to write, collaborate, sing and produce a song that explains in detail the major themes of the story. Through 20% time, we give our students a voice in their own learning path, and allow them to go into depth in subjects that we may skim over in our curriculum.


We've got a tough but extremely rewarding job. Great teachers inspire and make a difference, but great classrooms have students inspiring each other. I've never received a better response from my students than when we did 20% time. Our class came together and learned everyone's true interests and passions. We got over the fear of failing together. We cheered for each other during presentations, and picked each other up when things didn't go as planned. We had conversations about standards, skills and learning goals. Using 20% time allowed me to "teach above the test," and my students finally understood that learning doesn't start or end with schooling.


Remember that conversation starter, "What'd you do in school today?" It will lead to an actual conversation during 20% time projects! I talked to a parent (who is also an elementary teacher) just last week about her daughter's experience with Genius Hour. She said, "I always knew my daughter liked design and fashion magazines, but what girl doesn't? When she came home making and creating her own clothes, I was shocked. I went to the store with her to pick out patterns, helped her sew, and actually make a few outfits!" We want our children to be successful. Sometimes we equate that with an "A" on a test. But what 20% time does is make success something tangible. It drives their hidden passions to the surface, and reinvigorates conversation about purpose in their lives.


Go watch the project presentations. When you see a tenth grader try to "clone a carnivorous plant," or a ninth grader learn sign language to communicate with her deaf younger cousin, or a fourth grader produce his own movie, then you'll know why 20% rocks. Sometimes as administrators, we can get lost in the numbers (test scores, graduation rates, etc), but 20% time and Genius Hour projects bring us back to why we got into education in the first place: to make a difference. My principal said those were the best presentations she ever saw -- not because of the content, but because of the conviction the students had for their work. As an administrator, it is important to lead through support. Let your students and teachers make you proud by supporting these types of inquiry-based experiences.

Finally, take a minute to look at all of the great projects students have done in the past year or two during 20% time and Genius Hour. The research backs experiential learning and user-generated education, but the projects show what research cannot: the passion and purpose of our students!

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Comments (31)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

zep's picture
Education Specialist

Philip, if you would like to see what this looks like when its done 100% of the time, take a stroll over to Jefferson County Open School in Lakewood, CO.

S Hogan's picture
S Hogan
Middle school social studies teacher in Idaho

Do the schools listed teach the average population, or are the more selective private schools? I'm not trying to cast stones, but would your model work in a public school?

Philip McIntosh's picture
Philip McIntosh
7th Grade Learner-in-Chief, Room 129, Challenger Middle School, CO

I am familair with Summerville and appreciate what they do. It will be a rare public school (not non-existent, just rare) that operates the way they do in the U.S. But I certainly believe many schools can be a bit more like them, without having to go all in.

Philip McIntosh's picture
Philip McIntosh
7th Grade Learner-in-Chief, Room 129, Challenger Middle School, CO

Re: Jefferson County Open School.

I am not far from there and will see if I can visit. Thanks for the heads up.

zep's picture
Education Specialist

Philip, I hope you find the visit richly informative! Please keep us informed of your perceptions post-visit.

zep's picture
Education Specialist

Gordon, if students have 20% of a 180 student day calendar then they have 36 days of creative time; if we had this time 100% of the day we could do as the Finnish have done, shorten the day, shorten the year and grow our kids exponentially!

ctarter889's picture
Instructional Coach

I love this idea. What a great way to get kids excited about school and owning their learning! I also agree that getting them excited about their own "20%" will spill over excellence into the other 80% of the day.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Community Manager at Edutopia

There's been talk about Google stepping back from 20% time, but Ryan Tate just wrote an interesting article for Wired about why the idea of 20% time won't die:


Here's a relevant quote: "The core idea behind 20 percent time -- that knowledge workers are most valuable when granted protected space in which to tinker -- is more alive in Silicon Valley today than it ever has been before, reports of Google killing its program notwithstanding."

Lessia Bonn's picture
Lessia Bonn
co-founder I am Bullyproof Music

Our two sons attended a progressive elementary school (public) in Santa Barbara. It was extraordinary! I so agree, as a teacher and a mom, that allowing students room to breath creatively is a fabulous approach. My sons are perfect examples of what happens when kids are given more space to be themselves. I have been hearing for years "Your sons are so deep!" They also both did great in strong colleges after never even having grades in elementary school. My oldest, who attended Berkeley, told me once "Many kids burn out at this school because they don't know how to be self directed. I don't have a problem with it." Not to be a gushy mom, but both of my sons are also funny, positive, and care about the world. I TRULY believe that first school they attended planted all those seeds.

I just wrote their old teacher a letter of appreciation last night after all these years. Funny I should happen upon what you've written today of all days. SO agree with everything you say here. Thank you for saying it :-)

I listened to your student's song. How wonderful! Naturally, since I teach SEL with music, I must give you and your sweet student a standing ovation!

Rick Ackerly's picture
Rick Ackerly
Author, speaker, consultant

Right idea. Correct use of the word "genius" (the "element," our calling, our teacher within, our guiding spirit). But great schools have always know that they should be spending 100% of the time engaging each child's genius. No problem covering the curriculum, getting good test scores and engaging the whole child. THAT is education. Why should we devote 80% to the time- wasting work.

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