Scratch Your Itch Education


“Scratch Your Itch” Education is my favorite way to describe the inquiry-based learning process. It always starts with an itch, and you never know what is going to happen once you start scratching. I’m writing a book called “Scratch Your Itch” and this post started my journey towards that idea.

When I was in high school I spent most of my time playing sports (football and basketball) and worrying about my so-called social life. In school, I rarely was allowed to explore my interests, and thus set up a mental block against “caring” about anything academic. Even when we would do something cool or exciting in class, I would never fully allow myself to embrace the activity or follow-up on my own time. In this pre-Google world, if I wanted to explore an interest it would require finding and reading a book/article, and then possibly finding something online. This seemed like a lot of work to the 16-17 yr old me…(a bit lazy), so my wall stayed up and I went through the motions in school as so many students do.

Then I took a computer programming class during my junior year. It was so different. I’ve never been a math or numbers person, but this gave numbers and formulas power. Instead of getting a “right answer” on a test for getting a formula correct, this set things in motion. We learned Pascal and Basic programming languages. It wasn’t that hard, but it was challenging enough that I had to focus and pay attention during class, and could spend some extra time at night or during study hall to get better.

As a semester course time was also limited so we had to hurry through the curriculum. This (in my mind) is always a plus. It calls for urgency in the learning process, which makes learners and teachers more effective if they are on the same page. My final project was using this programming language to build a “football” game that looked and functioned similar to the famous Nintendo Tecmo Bowl. I spent a lot of time on this. So much that I did not realize how much time I spent. In the end my football game was not fully functional, but had many of the same features and abilities as Tecmo Bowl. My classmates and I were able to play it. It was awesome.

I went through the rest of high school still worrying about the same things; but, my outlook on learning was changed forever. When I got to college I spent more time on “side-projects” than ever before, and it lead me to be the type of learner and teacher I am today.

I tell this story because too often we fail to let students or employees “scratch an itch”. I would never have learned the math or formulas needed unless I had to program that game. It was the interest and final product that had me learning on my own time at a rapid pace. We need to let others find their passion through this four step “scratching process”:

1. Pay attention to the itch

We all have things we would like to do or learn, but like me, we tend to put them on the back burner and put up a wall against learning. Once you’ve identified an itch, don’t let it stay “un-scratched” for too long. It needs your attention. As teachers and leaders we need to provide time for this attention, which is why I’m such an advocate for 20% time and Genius Hour.

2. Scratch it a little

Like I said above, sometimes when you scratch the itch it feels great and you want to keep scratching. Other times just a little bit of time will do. Often we confuse “hobbies” for “passions”. They are different. A hobby is something you’d like to do on your free time like playing video games or hiking (very different sides of the activity spectrum). A passion is something you NEED to do with your time. It keeps you up at night, and you find yourself thinking about it at odd times during the day. One way to find out if this “itch” is really a passion, is to scratch and see how long you can keep scratching!

3. Set a deadline

Urgency is key. You want to set a deadline for when you will “finish” whatever you are working on. Inquiry-driven education can’t continue to be the “inquiry” part without the “creation” part. After researching and learning about whatever your “itch” is…then you should be taking it to the next level by creating something of value in a specific amount of time. Remember to keep the time short, and at the end of this creation process you’ll have a better idea of what matter’s most to you.

4. Reflection and Sharing

When a student made a video game in my class for his 20% Project, I shared it on Twitter and with the world. We sent it to other students and let them play etc. This students was able to share their work with the world, which is a great validation for all that scratching. It makes it real, and the feedback is authentic. Similarly, you should reflect on your experience. I never did sit and write down my thoughts after making that game. But I did think a lot about how fun it was to create something. Since that time, I’ve been a builder. And will be a builder for the rest of my life.

So that is “Scratch Your Itch” Education. It’s a simple process that we all should do regularly. I know our lives are “busier” now than ever before, but if you don’t make time for new experiences then you will never have new opportunities.

I’m currently writing a book called, “Scratch Your Itch“. It’s a short book about finding purpose through these learning experiences. If you’d like to get a a free copy when it is released, sign up for my newsletter here and I’ll keep you updated!

Let me know if you’ve ever “scratched an itch” or allowed students to scratch in your class!


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  • I like the way you put that, A.J.
    I definitely have scratched my itch for creating lately by using photography, photo editing, and making graphics with my pictures. There is always something new, as well. I’m trying more and more to lead my junior highers to feel the itch, first of all. Some of them have become so checked out, it’s hard for them to even acknowledge that they like to learn or do anything in school.

    Like you, I’m sold on 20% Time / Genius Hour. It is at least part of the time when all the students are engaged.

    Thanks for sharing this post, and for keeping us thinking!

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks for the comment Denise! Lately I’ve been diving into learning Ruby On Rails, specifically because I want to build a web app. I love having that end goal in mind that drives my scratching 🙂 — It’s sad to say that many students are checked out (just like I was). But that is the system we currently teach in. All we can do is continue to give students opportunities when we have them…

      • This time of year makes me sad because of grade point averages and valedictorians. They so often tell little of the story. The best learners, the world-changers, are often not honored at awards ceremonies.

        Right now my students are working on an engineering problem. We are building a wind turbine for a KidWind Challenge. (It’s an awesome program you all would like in Texas.) Anyway, my best learners and problem solvers are rocking this. Some of my “A” students are wandering; they don’t even know what to do.

        I just caught your comment today, and it made me think of that!

        Thanks again for all you do to push education to greater heights,


  • Joy Kirr (@JoyKirr) says:

    On Mondays during Genius Hour / 20% Time in my classes, I often think I need to bring in my banjo and practice… I need to scratch that itch. 😉
    I’m so excited I get to see my students start itching, then get going on their passions!! It’s such a great sight to see them engaged for an entire hour!!
    Thanks for the post, Joy

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Hi Joy, thanks for the comment! You should bring in the banjo, or at least take some video of yourself playing and show your students. It is so powerful for them to see that we have other interests in life, and especially when we are at the beginning stages of exploring those interests. Keep scratching!

  • sacher says:

    thanks for this word, is very inspirate for me. never thing about pasion similar you, but very easy to understant form to find the pasion.

    Nunca habia entendido realmente como encontrar la pasion o como debera uno darle sentido al conocimiento, y hoy me ayudaste un poco con este articulo. Gracias.
    Un abrazo desde Colombia

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  • Helen says:

    Love this post. I see my son’s response to schooling and it makes me die a little inside. He’s a curious-minded boy, interested in anything and everything, outstanding in many areas, and I see him being boxed in with the things he’s learning. I understand there has to be some degree of ‘boxing in’ but its good to hear of initiatives such as this that allow children some time to ‘scratch their itch’ and have some free time to just explore….[which could, also, lead to making mistakes, which is really important too]….as one of the commenters said above, “The best learners, the world-changers, are often not honored at awards ceremonies”….I’m so pleased I stumbled across your blog (from searching for ‘The Waiting Place’ images) – I’ve been looking for an education blog written by an educator with an open, creative, mind….

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks for the comment Helen! I know the educational system sometimes takes that curiosity and wonder away from our kids…which is why my next book I’m writing is for students and parents (on just that topic). And I love the Waiting Place!

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