The 20% Project (like Google) In My Class

20% Project In My Class

*Update: If you’d like to learn more about running your own 20% Project – check out my free video course on 20% Time and Genius Hour.

I recently assigned a new project to my 11th grade English students: The 20% Project. Although it’s called a “project”, that term is merely for student understanding and lack of a better word. This project is based on the “20 percent time” Google employees have to work on something other than their job description. It has been well documented, and Google has exponentially grown as a company while giving this 20 percent time.

An Influential Idea

Katherine von Jan explains how Google’s idea came to be in her article, “Pursue Passion: Demand Google 20% Time at School”:

“Google’s “20% Time”, inspired by Sergey Brin’s and Larry Page’s Montessori School experience, is a philosophy and policy that every Google employee spend 20% of their time (the equivalent of a full work day each week) working on ideas and projects that interest that employee. They are encouraged to explore anything other than their normal day-to-day job. As a result 50% of all Google’s products by 2009 originated from the 20% free time, including Gmail. Real break-through happens when we are free from others’ expectations and driven by individual passion.”

When I read her article, and finished Dan Pink’s book Drive, I had to seriously reconsider what I was doing with my students. Extrinsic motivation can only go so far in education, and above everything else I want my students to be people who enjoy learning. However, as educators many times we are constrained by curriculum and standards. This idea came and went during the fall months before resurfacing this December.

In December two things happened that made me decide almost immediately that this had to happen. First, I was part of the curriculum process at my school and really started to delve into the “why we do what we do” questions that allude me most of the time during the daily grind. I also was reading texts about “inquiry based learning” and the “understanding by design” framework. Most teachers would be ecstatic if one of their former students got a job at Google. So…were we preparing students to eventually get this type of job?

Second, I was challenged by Thomas Gaffey (he’s the best math teacher I’ve ever met @tgaffey) to do “new things in new ways” at the Microsoft Innovative Educator program. The 20% time seemed like a new way to engage and motivate students to learn. If we want to prepare students in high school to be life-long learners, assets to their communities, and able to take a successful next step in their academic lives (i.e. college)…then this project would not only change my pedagogy, but also their view on learning after high school.

20% Project In My Class

Assigning the 20% Time

The day after winter break I “assigned the project”. In essence, high school students have spent most of their academic lives being told what to do. Their grades are then dependent on how well they completed the assigned tasks. Most teenagers spend their free time doing things they are “not told to do”. For example, most parents aren’t yelling at their son to play video games, or at their daughter to spend three hours on Facebook. These actions are done because teenagers want to do them (and in part because they are told many times not to do this). My class agreed that most teenagers “want to do what they want to do, and not what others tell them”.

So this project, I said, was me telling them to do something that they want to do, with their time that it is usually spent doing what other people want them to do (that’s a mouthful). The guidelines were simple. Here is the handout:


The 20% Project*

1. For the rest of the year, 20% of your time in my class will be spent working on something you want to work on.

2. It has to be some type of learning, and you have to document it (journal etc).

3. You’ll present your accomplishments to the class twice (and will not be graded on it).

4. That’s it. Have fun. Find your passion. Explore it. Enjoy learning what you want.


Mass confusion set in. Most of my students were trying to figure out what the catch was, asking questions like: “So what are we getting credit for?”, “What kinds of things can we do?”, “Why aren’t we being graded?”, and “I don’t get it Mr. J, what are we supposed to be doing?”

After a few minutes more of explanation my students began to come around. I was not going to grade them on this project, but I am going to keep them accountable. Many times in education we believe the only way to hold students accountable is by giving some form of assessment. For this project, they’ll be documenting their learning through writing (also, possible podcasts or video journals), and they will present to the class their “accomplishments” at the end of the 3rd and 4th quarters.

Accountability, Standards, and Curriculum

This type of accountability covers the five major standards of Literature Arts: writing, reading, speaking, listening, and viewing. Even better it hits on most of these specific Pennsylvania 11th Grade Reading and Writing Standards.

Finally, I’ll also tie in their next two “independent reading assignments” to this project, having them choose texts that will help them during the 20% time. We won’t be missing out on any curriculum because of this project, rather it will be a supplement to the learning already taking place in my classroom.

Are some of my students still confused? Yes. Are many of them excited? Yes. Will this idea/project be a success? I don’t know.

I do know that in a year and a half my 11th graders will be faced with the prospect of “doing what they want to do” whenever they want. Many students can’t handle the freedom given at college (or real life) and struggle. Many students also excel with this freedom. The 20% time should give my students the small opportunity (I’m only one class out of their busy day) to explore their individual passions before they graduate. I’m excited to see what this time brings, and whatever happens…I’ll keep you posted,

Hear more about this project and how you can get started with my FREE video course on 20% Time projects and Genius Hour.

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