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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 (36)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

D'Angon Academy for Language Acquisition's picture
D'Angon Academy for Language Acquisition
English learning summer camp for foreign children 9-12 years old

Great and very insightful post.

The best educators are those who focus on the individual, not the need to grade and pass. 20% time is a prime example on focusing on who matters - grades and passing will be a by-product of these students loving the environment in which they are taught and interacted with. Experiential learning at its best.

A.J. Juliani's picture
A.J. Juliani
Tech Staff Developer and Education Author from Philadelphia, PA

Yes! Learning is not about grades...it's about critical thinking, understanding, applying, creating, and evaluating. I don't want our students to love learning but hate school. School should be a place where learning is on steroids, and choice is the default.

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

It is a critically important activity in this age of standards and testing. My teaching partner and I have been doing it for two years now and it has been amazing. We call it "Personal Learning and Creation Time" but I have also heard it called Genius Hour.

We recently made a video discussing how we do it and showcasing some of the accomplishments of our learners.


Nina Smith's picture
Nina Smith
Mentor, Teaching Consultant

This is exactly what is needed in schools! It helps us to emphasize the learning process and students' engagement in their own learning (i.e. increase their accountability for their own learning). Communicating about the importance of continuous learning process empowers students to learn - where ever they might be. This is a known habit of successful students. To help all students achieve better learning results, we should be sure to communicate openly about learning being an intrinsic and internal part of students' personality - not just something we do at school with the teacher.

Brian Reid's picture

These are the types of projects I did 30 years ago in my 4th grade classroom where we devoted time to enrichment for all kids. Two frameworks are Creative Problem Solving (Don Treffinger) and Type III Projects in the Schoolwide Enrichment Model (Joe Renzulli). Both focus on creative and critical thinking.

see www.gifted.uconn.edu for resources

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