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Applying Google’s 20% Time in Education

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

A recent thought piece in The Guardian’s  (UK) Teacher Network section about a teacher who adopted Google’s "20% Time" for use with the students in his classroom sheds some light on the value of student-centered learning and the motivational possibilities for learners when  they are given freedom to explore.  What is "20% time" and what are the implications for education?

Google’s 20% Time
Internet giant Google, provider of such innovative services as the search engine most people use, maps featuring street level views of your childhood home, a car that drives itself, a sleek operating system, and a free suite of cloud-based office programs, has developed some of these innovations, in part, because they offer their engineers free time from their regular duties to work on ideas that interest them personally (New York Times, 21 Oct., 2007). According to an article on the "20% time" policy in the New York Times, it is really that simple. If a Google engineer has an idea that they want to run with, they pull together some like-minded co-workers and create something (New York Times, 21 Oct., 2007). If their creation is worthwhile, it can be adopted by the company.

How It Has Been Applied
Educator Stuart Spendlow was inspired by the 20% time concept and decided to apply it in his own classroom to see what would happen if he turned his students loose to work on projects that met their personal interests. He began the experiment by giving his students two hours per week to dive into projects of their own choosing so long as they met the following criteria:

  • "It must be some type of learning and you must document it in your Homework Diary"
  • "This work, and all other work, must be of the highest standard"
  • "It may be continued at home"
  • "You have access to most resources as long as the use can be justified"
  • "You may work in groups of up to four people"
    (Spendlow, 2012).

Spendlow then observed a remarkable phenomenon of self-motivated students who were discussing project ideas with each other and their parents and then working productively and happily during their designated project time. In addition to working towards their planned learning objectives, Spendlow noted that there was a good deal of what he calls "serendipitous" or unintended learning that occurred organically during the course of the project work.

Students worked on projects ranging from film, automobiles, gaming, sewing, cooking, and many other areas, resulting in student produced books, magazines, guidebooks, films, artwork, and presentations , among others (Spendlow, 2012).

Ultimately, Spendlow noted that the students were much more intrinsically motivated to produce higher quality work than he had seen in his previous experience teaching the same children.  They solved complex problems, collaborated successfully, and demonstrated creativity and flexibility in ways not commonly seen in school children.

Big Implications for a Small Percentage?
What does this one small experiment, by a single teacher in the UK, mean for education in general? Is this instance generalizable to all K-12 classrooms? How about to higher education?

Working backwards from my graduate school experience, this model very closely resembles my own master’s and doctoral degree programs in which we spent class time learning theory and important skills that we applied to self-selected, team-based projects. For me and a majority of those I know from my graduate experience, this model was highly successful and made learning meaningful, enjoyable, and memorable.  In my case, at least, this proved to be a highly effective learning model. Knowing that my graduate experience was crafted by some of the world’s foremost experts in instructional design makes the likelihood that the experience is truly generalizable to many more contexts highly probable.

While such experiences at the undergraduate level and in high school are much less common, the implication of Spendlow’s experience and my own graduate program model indicate that this could be a valuable tool for students at all levels.  A larger implementation of student directed learning would provide many benefits that align with the need for students to develop 21st Century skills that make them competitive workers in the global economy. Author Thomas Friedman outlines several necessary mindsets that, while not commonly thought of in education, would be fostered in students participating in this model:

  • An artisan – In the past the best artisans took such pride in their work that they carved their initials into their creations. In an ultra-competitive global economy workers need to take pride in their work and strive to make every item they produce unique to emphasize their creativity.
  •  A starter upper – According to Friedman, in the Silicon Valley there is only one four letter word -"finished," and those who think that any job is ever done might just be finished themselves. Every individual should be in a permanent state of beta. There is a constant need for workers to redesign themselves and improve upon their work when the "glut of genius" is waiting in the wings.
  • An entrepreneurial waitress – No matter what position you are in, you need to continually maximize the resources that you have.  For example, as a waitress, if you have control over the fruit spoon, give your customers extra fruit. The idea here is that every employee needs to make any extra effort that they can to gain a competitive edge.
    (From Hyper-connectivity and the Future of Education).

These ways of thinking, supported by student-directed project work, if cultivated in our students at all levels, have the potential to create a new type of motivated, entrepreneurial, innovative student for the 21st Century. This is a pretty tall order, but one well worth pursuing. It is impressive to think that it started from an idea as simple as offering students 20% of their time to focus on their own interests. But then again, big surprises often come in the smallest packages.

Image courtesy of Grant Cochrane / FreeDigitalPhotos.net