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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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.

Students

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.

Teachers

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.

Parents

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.

Administrators

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

moumita de roy's picture

wow! nothing has voiced me more accurately till date but this article. It is only yesterday that I roughly coaxed my students, rather mildly insulted them in a humorous way, to think what are they doing in their lives. Is education mugging up formulae, flipping through pages without understanding even a dot and running to all coaching centers within reachable distance? Do they enjoy this run for mediocrity? why are they happy living an illusion? Do they know what they are and what actually hold their interest? They are all victims of mediocrity because they are not doing what they are made for or what they should do. s
I LOVE THIS ARTICLE

Lisa's picture
Lisa
4th grade

Thanks for this article. I read it over the summer and implemented 20% in the fall. It was a wonderful use of our time, taught me a lot about my students, and helped set up a classroom climate based in mutual respect and listening to each other! Thanks!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal

Love this- but I think it's important for teachers to really get how their role is different during 20% time (or, like Ricky says- 80% time) than it may be during traditional instruction. I see a lot of teachers trying to move to a more facilitative stance, but it's not intuitive for everyone. I think I spend about half of my time trying to help them figure out how to shift towards coaching and guiding rather than directing. It's a process- for both the kids and teachers.

Jami's picture

Great article! I am a pre-k teacher and work with young children. What are some ways this can concept can be implemented in the early childhood years? Specifically, pre-k children?

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
K-5 Instructional Technology Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

Hi Jami,
I think that Early Childhood Educators have always been doing 20% time...they just called it free play time. I worry about the fact that so many K and pre-K programs have been completely eliminating imaginative play to focus purely on academic pursuits.

zep's picture
zep
Education Specialist

Dan, I couldn't agree more; its tragic that somehow the connection between free play (see Peter Gray, Free to Learn) and higher level learning has been lost in the movement towards scripted schedules and curricula for younger and younger children.

zep's picture
zep
Education Specialist

For specifics, pick up any book by A.S. Neill or the good people @ Sudbury Valley Schools. In general, remove all mandates on what your children learn and provide them with the availability of outdoors, books, sand, water, etc., anything that they may wish to explore. A great start would be to ask them what they play with at home, or what do they wish they had at school to play with. They will learn more from following their interests than any curriculum could ever accomplish.

Ralph Grant's picture
Ralph Grant
Tech consulltant, CSViamonde

In my job, I have the privilege of working on various projects alongside teachers. The biggest obstacle to going even further for most of them is the time-consuming aspect of some of the projects (such as editing video!). This idea enables both teachers and students to take the time you sometimes need to turn something adequate into something you can really be proud of.

Don Eckert's picture
Don Eckert
I teach middle school and live to tell about it!

Not only does 20% Time allow for kiddos to learn some content but they also learn a tremendous amount of secondary skills, including many 21st Century skills. My teaching partner and I conduct 20% Time with our students and it's been an amazing experience, both the successes AND failures. See our journey at harmonizedlearning.blogspot.com

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