Designing 20% Time in Education
A.J. Juliani is a co-founder of Education Is My Life. He currently is a K-12 Technology Staff Developer overseeing a 1:1 initiative.
There is a movement happening in education right now. Maybe you’ve heard about it, maybe you haven’t yet. It comes in various shapes and forms but the end result is the same: students learning what they want to learn.
Yes, I said it, so let me repeat: Students are learning what they want in classrooms across the world.
What is truly astounding is how interconnected this movement is with the social web. It also is happening at the same time that inquiry-driven professional development movements, such as Edcamp, are catching serious momentum. However, the main difference between Edcamp and 20% Time is that one (Edcamp) can be done on the learner’s “own time” while the other (20% Time) takes place in school with all the stakeholders watching.
Right now (depending on who you are) there are three possible ways to deal with this type of news:
1. That’s awesome. It is about time that inquiry-driven learning became a reality in school. I want my class/child/school etc to have that opportunity!
2. That sounds great, but I don’t think it could really work. How does it tie to curriculum? The common core? What will parents say? What will my principal say? How can I hold them accountable for learning something?
3. That’s silly. Something like that could never work. Once again we are lowering the bar for kids.
I’ve heard all three “viewpoints” since writing “20% Time (like Google) In My Class” last January. It’s been a year and I’ve learned so much about personal learning time. I’ve also been able to connect with amazing educators who are doing similar projects in their classes: Kevin Brookhouser, Juan De Luca, Joy Kirr, Denise Krebs, Gallit Zvi, Hugh McDonald, Dr. Jackie Gerstein, Angela Maiers or in their schools: see SLA and Chris Lehmann, Matt Bebbington and Josh Stumpenhorst. (There are many other teachers out there who I’ve missed. Please add to the comments to share your story!)
This article is meant to address the three points-of-view above. I’ll share research, stories from other educators, my own experiences over the past year and how to get started on your own 20% project.
If you are a #1 above, this will give you the resources and connections to get started today. You’ll see what kind of projects elementary, middle school, and high school students are doing. You’ll be able to look through blog posts, articles, and handouts before designing your own project. You can skip to your section right here.
If you are a #2 above, this will explain how I currently have three teachers in my high school doing the project. How a first year teacher presented to the entire school, and got a needed discussion started amongst peers. How we are planning on writing Genius Hour and 20% Time into our ELA curriculum, and yes, we are using the Common Core (it connects perfectly). How administration can support taking risks like this without any fear. You can skip to your section right here.
If you are a #3 above, this will explain the research and methodology behind 20% Time in education. I’ll cover connections to the Common Core and how it is raising the bar for our students, not lowering it. This will describe ways to implement the 20% time without losing curriculum time, allowing students to develop the same set of skills through their chosen content. Finally, I’ll bombard you with a full list of resources that support this type of learning in the classroom. You can skip to your section right here.
First, before you do anything. You should read about the projects people have done in the past year. The Genius Hour wiki is a great place to start if you are working with elementary or middle school students. If you are working with high school or college students check out these great posts here, here, and here (and here for Innovation Day).
Next, after you have done a bit of research, I’m sure you are chomping at the bit to get started. It’s important to have a real purpose behind this project. My purpose was to enable my 11th grade students to start taking control of their own learning. They’ve been told what to do (for the most part) in school and in their own life for the better part of 16 years. This project made them make all the choices and have OWNERSHIP in their learning. Kevin Brookhouser has a well-crafted letter he sent home with his students that you should check out. The Genius Hour guidelines also set the tone for the project. Make sure you are comfortable with the set-up of your project before handing it out to students. There will be a lot of questions…blank stares…and happy faces. Be ready to handle each type of students.
My project had five main components that helped it run successfully. While other variables may change, these are my recommendations based on my experience.
1. Structured unstructured time
Students need to have their “20% time” structured in a way that makes sense with your schedule. For elementary classrooms that may be every day before lunch/recess and for secondary students it may be on Friday’s, or a specific time during the week etc. If you give them their 20% at random times without being able to prepare it may hurt the effectiveness in the short and long-term. This can even be a discussion with students at the start of the project of what time would work best.
2. Don’t Grade the Final Product
Hey, I understand the need for grades. They help us dictate to the students what they are mastering and what they need to work on; they help motivate many students; and they provide a measure for parents and other stakeholders in the educational process to view academic achievement. However, in terms of personal learning time, there should not be a grade for the finished product. This should be inquiry-driven, intrinsically motivated learning. Students can be assessed on their effort, but I would not do that with grades at the end of a project. This is when teacher conferencing (during the 20% time) becomes important and useful to touch base and help students move forward. Sometimes grading diminishes the intellectual curiosity from the project, and allows for external motivations. In terms of external motivations, I believe there should only be one allowed (see below). If you want to see how I handled students who might not work as hard without a grade, read this post. This is an area that has been debated and changed by other 20% teachers. It worked well with 11th graders, but might not work with 9th graders, middle school, or elementary students.
3. Peer accountability
Peer pressure is one of the best, and worst, types of external motivation. We tend to look at “peer pressure” as a negative external force that causes students to do things they normally wouldn’t do. Consequently, we sometimes forget that the flip side of peer pressure is “peer accountability”: students doing well and working hard because their peers are working hard and doing well. Ray Fisman wrote a great article in 2010 about “The Right Kind of Peer Pressure” in schools (particularly with girls) based on studies by Cornell researchers.
In terms of personalized learning time, you need to facilitate a collaborative learning space where students can see what other students are doing in real-time. Having students post projects up on the web is also another great idea because they’ll see what other peers are doing with their time. While the project itself allows for students to be individuals, sometimes seeing a friend moving forward will give a needed boost to others in the class.
I had the meta-cognitive part of the project be student journals. While these were not graded, I did routinely check what they were writing about the project and their own personal learning. Some students wanted guiding questions and I helped them, but did not require answers to those questions. I was happy to see the reflections and they could look back on what they learned throughout the project.
5. Presentation (sharing)
Periodically I had students share their journals (or a line or two about their project) on our classes LMS (learning management system) – which was Schoology. Students could then comment on what they thought about each others’ work, and give each other “likes”. This connects back to No Grade because I was assessing them through their work here without grades, and connects to the Peer Accountability and Reflection components as well with student feedback.
They also presented to the entire class at the end of the third and fourth marking period. This was an “informal” presentation, but I had each student stand in front of the class and speak about what they did. Other teachers have done TED style presentations, and you can decide what will work best for your grade level. Some students spoke longer and brought in props or slides, while others talked about what they did as if they were telling a story. It was obvious which students were proud of what they did, and which ones wish they’d spent some more time/energy on their project. I think it would have been even better if this was started in the beginning of the year with four presentations throughout.
Finally, I’d recommend that students have some type of “product” at the end of their 20% time. This is something I did not stress during my project, but now that I’ve helped start two other projects at my school, it is a big help to the students in framing “what” they are going to do.
1. Collaboration (Are you going to allow students to work in groups if they have similar interests and/or passions?)
2. Technology (Is this a requirement? Can students bring in their own computers to class if need be? Think about your technological needs.)
3. Standards and the Common Core (Being an English teacher I was able to connect many of our state standards to the project. Check out section 2 of this article for more connection to the common core)
4. Parental involvement (I didn’t send a letter home to parents, but it might have been beneficial. Is this something parents can get involved with and help? Wouldn’t it be nice for them to see what their kids are interested and passionate about?)
Steps to Success
1. Prepare yourself as a facilitator (See what others have done and connect if you can. Be a model for your students and get started with your own 20% time.)
2. Preparing the class (Have your ducks all in a row before starting. There should be a way for them to share and collaborate if need be, and a way for them to understand all the reasons you have for them to do this project.)
3. A plan (When and how often will they have 20% time?)
4. Conferences (Plan to meet with all of your students 1-on-1 about their learning.)
5. Sharing (Build in time for students to share with each other regularly.)
6. Reflections (Meta-cognitive piece is so important! Students should recognize what they have been learning.)
7. Facilitating success and failure (Many students will “fail” to reach lofty goals they set for themselves. But this is not a failure, it is the best learning experience to have. Make sure you share great stories about success and failure while following your passions.)
8. Presentations and feedback (As students present to the class they should hear feedback from peers and you. Don’t let the learning stop with the presentation.)
I know, I know. 20% Time can seem like “just another fad” in education. There are plenty of excuses and reason to NOT do it in your class/school. I want to take the time to dispel a few of these MYTHS that may arise about 20% Time. If you still have questions about running this type of project at your school, please send me an email to discuss in more detail.
Debunking the Myths
Myth #1: 20% time isn’t supporting my curriculum
Chances are you don’t have the same curriculum I did, but most of us have “similar” types of curriculum. For instance, most Language Arts classes read a mixture of fiction and non-fiction texts. Many times teachers are pressed to find non-fiction pieces to support their class. Why find one non-fiction article for the entire class to read, when your students can find many articles that they would actually want to read! You can cover the same reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills during 20% time that you cover during your normal curriculum. In fact, this can even enrich some of those learning experiences.
Maybe you are an elementary teacher, or middle school teacher who covers a wide range of subjects. Have you ever heard of an ‘I-Search’ paper? Do your students write research papers in your Science, Math, or Social Studies classes? Do you teach health and cover a wide range of topics? Let 20% Time make learning be a personal experience for these students, and one that they’ll want to share with you, their classmates, and their family.
Too often we cover a wide “breadth” of topics in one subject area, but fail to get into a depth of knowledge (check out Webb’s Depth of Knowledge). 20% Time allows students to go into depth on a topic that they are already interested in, so they are intrinsically motivated to learn.
Myth #2: 20% Time is just for enrichment students
Yes, this could be a great way to motivate enrichment students, and something to add to an enrichment curriculum, but it should not be limited to those students.
Instead, 20% time is actually beneficial to students with an IEP because the pace and level of the subject material can be tailored to their specific modifications. This is a valuable learning experience for every student.
Myth #3: The Common Core Anchors and standards
Take a look at the Math CC Standards and the ELA CC Standards. Let me know what you think. But personally, here are some of my favorite Common Core-20% Time connections:
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.1
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.10 Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.
“Students also acquire the habits of reading independently and closely, which are essential to their future success.”
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.3 Follow precisely a multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks.
Research to Build and Present Knowledge
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.7 Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.8 Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.9 Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis reflection, and research.
Range of Writing
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for reflection and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.
Standards for Mathematical Practice
- CCSS.Math.Practice.MP3 Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
Mathematically proficient students understand and use stated assumptions, definitions, and previously established results in constructing arguments. They make conjectures and build a logical progression of statements to explore the truth of their conjectures. They are able to analyze situations by breaking them into cases, and can recognize and use counterexamples. They justify their conclusions, communicate them to others, and respond to the arguments of others. They reason inductively about data, making plausible arguments that take into account the context from which the data arose. Mathematically proficient students are also able to compare the effectiveness of two plausible arguments, distinguish correct logic or reasoning from that which is flawed, and—if there is a flaw in an argument—explain what it is. Elementary students can construct arguments using concrete referents such as objects, drawings, diagrams, and actions. Such arguments can make sense and be correct, even though they are not generalized or made formal until later grades. Later, students learn to determine domains to which an argument applies. Students at all grades can listen or read the arguments of others, decide whether they make sense, and ask useful questions to clarify or improve the arguments.
- CCSS.Math.Practice.MP4 Model with mathematics.
Mathematically proficient students can apply the mathematics they know to solve problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace. In early grades, this might be as simple as writing an addition equation to describe a situation. In middle grades, a student might apply proportional reasoning to plan a school event or analyze a problem in the community. By high school, a student might use geometry to solve a design problem or use a function to describe how one quantity of interest depends on another. Mathematically proficient students who can apply what they know are comfortable making assumptions and approximations to simplify a complicated situation, realizing that these may need revision later. They are able to identify important quantities in a practical situation and map their relationships using such tools as diagrams, two-way tables, graphs, flowcharts and formulas. They can analyze those relationships mathematically to draw conclusions. They routinely interpret their mathematical results in the context of the situation and reflect on whether the results make sense, possibly improving the model if it has not served its purpose.
In any case, you can NOT use the Common Core standards as an excuse to dismiss 20% Time in your class/school. If anything, it ties in perfectly to many of these new standards. Andrew Miller does a great job talking about Project-Based learning and the new Common Core standards in this ASCD Webinar. You can also read this: Igniting the Common Core with Inquiry.
Myth #4: Parents won’t get behind it
This myth can be true in the beginning of the project. Parents may be wary that this isn’t good use of instructional time. Some parents might even think you aren’t “doing your job”. That is, until your students prove them and everyone else wrong. If you truly believe in inquiry-driven learning this can be one of the biggest obstacles to overcome in some school settings. In order to combat it, make sure you are open and up front with parents. Share examples of what students in other places have done, and make sure you let them know how you are supporting, teaching, and facilitating their students throughout the process.
Here are some great examples of past projects for Genius Hour.
Watch this video of Juan De Luca and Kevin Brookhouser discussing how they run “20% Time” with older students. It is a fascinating discussion between two passionate teachers:
Myth #5: Administration won’t let it happen
Similar to parents, this can be a major obstacle in the beginning. Again, make sure you show your administrators the research behind inquiry-driven learning. You can recommend books and articles on user-generated learning. Show them examples of past 20% and Genius Hour projects. Heck, buy them a copy of Drive by Daniel Pink…it’ll be worth the $14.99.
Show how this type of innovation in learning can lead students down the path of achievement. Be honest about your purpose for the project in your class, and maybe connect them to other administrators who have supervised over projects like this in their own school.
If you are still feeling a bit uneasy about starting this project, get connected on Twitter during #GeniusHour chats. Or join a 20% Time in Education community (here and here) on Google+ to talk with other educators. Whatever you do, make sure that these myths don’t stop you from starting.
I’d urge you to read the second part of this article, and maybe even the first, because what is probably stopping you is attitude. There are three problems I see that are all interconnected and they start with how we learn in school.
Problem #1: Students don’t get to choose their learning experiences in school.
Problem #2: Many students leave school (graduate or drop out) without a true passion for something in life.
Problem #3: Many adults work at jobs they don’t like, in fields they are not passionate about, just to get by.
Can you see the direct correlation between each problem? Too often the system of schooling sends students down a path to follow direction and be rewarded. Do we teach our best students to “play the game of school”? 20% time combats this issue by still providing rigor in school, but with chosen content. When facilitated correctly it allows students to first find, and then develop, their passions.
Have you heard of companies like 3M, Google, HP, and Yahoo? Each of these successful companies have used some form of 20% Time to spur innovation. And guess what…it worked! According to Marissa Meyer, almost HALF of Google’s products originated from 20% time, including the widely popular Gmail (HT LifeHacker).
But…don’t just listen to me. Read and watch the below resources to get a better feel on why inquiry-driven learning and 20% Time is needed in our schools today:
- Dan Pink’s book Drive
- Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us
- Sir Ken Robinson’s book The Element
- Sir Ken TED Video
- List of inspiration for Genius Hour
- Google’s 20% Time via Life Hacker
- 80/20 Principle book
- Chris Lehmann on Structuring Inquiry
- The 20% Doctrine
- Google Founder’s talk Montessori
- Jackie Gerstein on User-Generated Education
- Angela Maiers great post on “The Guidelines of Passion Based Learning”
Are you interested in learning more? Sign up for the “20% Academy“.
Special thanks to Kevin Brookhouser, Juan De Luca, Joy Kirr, Denise Krebs, Gallit Zvi, Hugh McDonald, Dr. Jackie Gerstein, Chris Lehmann, Matt Bebbington, Josh Stumpenhorst, AngelaMaiers, Dan Pink and Sir Ken Robinson for inspiring this article and my own journey with 20% Time.
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