Get my 52-page guide for free: Teach Above The Test!

The 20% Project (like Google) In My Class

*Update: If you’d like to learn more about running your own 20% Project – check out our latest post: Designing 20% Time in Education

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.

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.

X___________________________________________

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

57 comments… add one

  • Really curious to see how this works out! Great that you’re trying something really new :)

    Reply
    • Thanks, I will keep everyone posted periodically.

      Reply
      • Time for a follow-up post, perhaps? :)

        Reply
  • Would want to know how this turns out with such young subjects.

    Reply
  • Did you see this NPR story about how college physics teachers would like to drop the lecture format? I thought of it when I saw your article. http://www.npr.org/2012/01/01/144550920/physicists-seek-to-lose-the-lecture-as-teaching-tool

    Reply
    • I haven’t seen it, checking it out now.

      Reply
  • I am also curious. In fact, I have implemented this as part of the BA Honours program, and have been receiving much flack regarding the assessment criteria. I have created general competency requirements, but admit I am driven more by watching the students ignite their passion than worrying about pleasung our exam board :-)

    Reply
  • Awesome idea. I teach World History and I think that this “project” would translate well to my curriculum. Please keep us posted on how it works out!

    Reply
    • Will do!

      Reply
  • “And not be graded,” is the line I like best. Years ago, when I was a classroom teacher I also created a project and told the students I would not grade it. I asked them to create a video depicting a scene in American history. Some said, “So why should we do it?” My simple answer was, “Because I am asking you to do it.” One group created a video about the Triangle fire. Another did a revolutionary scene. All were GREAT! Given the chance kids can, and will, do things that are far beyond our (at least my) expectations. Creativity counts more than ever!

    Reply
    • I guess you’ll love reading this :
      http://youarenotsosmart.com/2011/12/14/the-overjustification-effect/
      It’s a bit of a long read, but trust me it’s worth it.
      If people are rewarded for doing things they love, they eventually start thinking that it’s the reward which is driving them, not their love for the activity.
      By eliminating the reward part (the grades), you engaged your students to do what they loved doing and hence the brilliant results on their part.

      Reply
  • How will you ‘enforce’ (or some other word) ‘accountability’? If Johnny doesn’t do some/ any work, how will you get him to do work and/or make up for time lost doing nothing?

    Reply
    • This question did come up in my class. I said “if you do not want to take this opportunity seriously and would rather be graded on an assignment, I’ll gladly assign you a different project for the rest of the year that I will grade you on.” He stayed with the 20% project.

      The accountability is in the documentation and the presentations. More of a peer accountability than anything else (which I think is powerful). I’d be happy to hear any suggestions!

      Reply
  • I do something similar to this with my undergraduate education majors. They freak out. They are so used to being told what to do, how to do it and how they will be graded (with a very detailed rubric) that they have so much difficulty deciding on what they are interested in. So many students resist it and a few tell me after it is over that they loved it and wished they had more freedom in their college assignments.

    I can only hope and dream that my own child will have teachers who believe in more than the set curriculum & status quo…

    Thanks for the thought provoking post and I, too, look forward to following your project.

    Reply
  • Thanks for sharing this, Aj. I have been working on weaving the 20% time into my classes. It works in some groups, not in others. It works with some kids, and not with others. However, the more of us that do this, the better all students will do. I will also get better at it as a teacher. We all need to see it in action. I figured that in a perfect world, I would ‘conduct’ about 2/3rds of the class – texts I choose, skills I focus on, ideas I draw them into. The other 1/3 would be theirs. My main vehicle has been the Multigenre Research Project. The work that has occurred during these projects has been the most exciting and inspiring for me and my students. However, it has not occurred to me to eliminate the assessment piece. Are you assessing the journal piece, communicating with parents if students are non-productive, or just letting go?? I look forward to seeing how this works, and also hearing about your own struggles as you move outside the traditional model. Good luck, and thanks for your courage and willingness to share.

    Reply
  • The International Baccalaureate middle years programme has this feature.

    See here:
    http://www.ibo.org/myp/curriculum/project/

    Examples:
    http://www.fcps.edu/SouthLakesHS/myp_assets/Personal%20Project%20and%20Certificate%20Information%20Night.pdf

    It is a great experience.

    Reply
  • When you think about it, the 20% time is pretty funny considering most Googlers are salaried and work 50-60 work weeks (at least from the Googlers I know)…

    However in the real world example of Google, who owns what you do in that time? If you create a new application or web service does Google on it?

    Reply
    • You’re still being paid by the company and using company resources to produce the work. Even if it’s an original idea, ownership is Google’s.

      Reply
  • This is great! There are students who fail at school or just get by with low to avarage grades as they are forced to think inside the box and follow a ‘rule’ based on the teacher’s expectations. Few of these students discover their real ability once they leave school but most don’t as they are fixated on their grade…it’s the small ‘few’ that end up working for places like google.

    Reply
  • Hey, goodluck with “The 20% project”
    I am an undergraduate student and it took me 2.5 years of my college life to realise my passion.
    You are helping your students realise it much earlier!
    This project sounds really exciting to me.
    I am curious to know what the students finally come up with! :D
    Keep updating!

    Reply
  • I started this exact same project with my 7th and 8th grade Accelerated English classes just this week. I had a lot of questions too, but not one student asked how they will be graded and I never said one way or the other. I’m having them blog their weekly progress. The kids were very excited. So excited, in fact, that they immediately started working on their 20% project and ignored their other work. I’m going to give them a small grace period to find the balance. I use this with a flipped classroom and thought it would be an excellent fit. I’m anxious to see your updates and I plan to blog about mine soon.

    Reply
    • Please do share! Let me know when you blog about it and we will share it out. Keep in touch, and I’ll do the same.

      Reply
      • Here is my blog post: goo.gl/gh65T

        Reply
        • Awesome! Keep in touch and we will have to share down the road.

          Reply
  • I’m a Positive Developmental Psychology graduate student and I’m exploring the idea of “initiative” in high schoolers and adults. American high schools tend to not only not provide opportunities to develop initiative, but actually drive it out of many students. I love this project and hope it goes well for you. Perhaps we can talk in more depth somewhere further down the road once your kids have delved into the project a little more.

    Reply
    • Thanks! I’d love to chat down the road.

      Reply
    • I’d love to talk. Send me an email anytime.

      Reply
  • Great idea, l love it!

    How many hours is 20% of your class? Just wondering, because I guess the problem with a business firm is that if people get excited about the idea, they start working too much time on something that it’s not on the business interest. I’m not sure if that would be a problem at school, but if a teachers receives as an excuse for not doing their homework “i was working on my 20% project”, that wouldn’t be good, although it results your plan was a total success haha

    Anyway, I’m just wondering how this great idea can manage time, a scarce resource everone has.

    Reply
    • No excuses allowed :) – This will end up being about 22 class periods (40 min each) and it is reserved for my class and during my class time. This is a supplement to our curriculum not a substitute. Still, it will be interesting what happens when a student becomes enamored with their learning (but I think that is the point)!

      Reply
  • Awesome
    This is just the kind of thinking we need in schools!
    I applaud you and your administrator for supporting your ideas!
    Good luck, I know your kids will do amazing things!
    Dave

    Reply
  • I’ve been toying with the idea of an “A-Level” project and a “B-Level” syllabus based on very similar motivations. (nb: the A, B terminology is for the sake of conversation, not an investment in “giving” “grades”.) As I’ve been articulating it to folks, students lack agency. They’re neither called upon to make choices nor expected to make significant contributions in much of the massified educational setting.

    The B-Level syllabus is a claim on my part that, if students do everything in the syllabus, they can at best receive a B grade in the course. In order to get an A, they must propose, implement, and present an A-Level project… in effect, they must take responsibility for being creative in their own learning.

    So, I very much like your idea and look forward to hearing what your experience is with it.

    Reply
    • This sounds interesting, a very well thought out and unique way to tackle the same problem. Keep me posted!

      Reply
  • Nice work. We have recently started this (to a degree) on my teaching team. Every Friday we have a 50 min period dedicated to personal projects and invention time. Not sure exactly how to proceed but we should keep in touch and share ideas and results.

    Reply
    • That sounds great. We should definitely keep in touch.

      Reply
    • Please keep in touch, I’d like anyone doing something similar to share out…could be very worthwhile to the teaching community as a whole.

      Reply
  • Awesome!!
    I had many of the same thoughts/concerns about how we teach after reading “Drive”, but didn’t know how (or have the guts!) to implement it in my class. Kudos!!
    One question that I’m thinking about… Since this is an English class, do you limit their project to “English” learning or could they spend their 20% time learning about Math, it that’s what interests them?
    I am thinking about implementing something similar in my Grade 12 Anatomy & Physiology class….should I limit the “learning” to anything related to A&P that interests them or keep it totally open? Thoughts?
    Thanks!

    Reply
    • They can use their 20% time for anything (any type of learning). I have one student who want to learn a foreign language (or at least get started), another who wants to Code (he joined codeyear.com), and another that want to learn to sing a difficult song. All of these seem worthwhile to me. The documentation and the presentations are more “English focused” and deal with our subject’s specific standards. If you do it let me know how it goes!

      Reply
  • Kudos to you and others for trying this with your students. I’m thinking it would also be great to create a collaboration space where students from various classes engaged in 20% projects could share, collaborate, and give feedback to each other. Does this seem like a needed or worthwhile component? Or are you focusing on purely independent projects?

    Reply
    • Hey Honor. FCP represent :) – Yea, I’m thinking about having a final “student summit” so to speak at the end of the year. I don’t want to get “ahead of myself” or the students as I know there will be speed bumps along the way. But this is a great idea. I think student feedback and peer accountability are the key to this project’s success.

      Reply
  • I wish I had been given this opportunity when I was in high school. That has been almost 10 years ago. Since then, I went to a smaller, 4 year college that was close to home. I didn’t have the discipline to keep up with my work. I goofed off, stayed up late, cheated on tests, failed-out, had to get a “real” job, spend 4 years chasing something that I eventually found out, wasn’t what I wanted to do. Today, I just started the last half of a Bachelors program in Network Security and Forensics. Something I WANT to do, and something I LOVE doing. I can’t get enough of it!

    I started out thinking that I would spend too much time inside, so I didn’t choose to pursue the computer field. If I had been given this opportunity, I could have researched the career more, learned some programming languages, or even built a computer.

    I commend your efforts and will definitely be keeping an eye out for your progress reports!

    Reply
    • My colleagues and I are in our second year of a 20% Time experiment with our entire freshman class. I just blogged about our version this weekend.
      http://thereadingzone.wordpress.com/2012/01/08/free-form-friday-or-googles-20-time-in-high-school/

      It’s amazing to watch the confusion and nervous energy transform into excitement as the students become more and more engaged with their subject of study. I can’t wait to hear more about your project!

      sarah

      Reply
      • This is great! We really need to stay in touch and compare notes :)

        Reply
  • Hey AJ,

    The book by Jim Collins…..Great by Choice is one that you might want to have the students check out for their independent reading. It addresses this issue. He shares stories about people and companies working consistently in controlled periods, highlighting what they do during that time to create and maintain success. A great read when you have the time.

    Reply
  • Thanks for sharing, have taken this great project and have begun trying to apply the concept to Grade 6 students. Needless to say, they are very excited.

    Reply
  • This is a great way to get kids to explore their own interests! My only concern for something like this is for the kids who have trouble with self-direction. I’d be concerned that they would talk about a project they like, but end up falling short and wasting the time given. Would your involvement still be fully engaged? I’m currently working towards my online Master of Education degree at this site: http://www.cu-portland.edu/ and as a future teacher I like the concept, but think more would need to be addressed.

    Reply
  • AJ,
    Thanks leading your students into this exciting authentic learning! My class is working on what we call Genius Hour. They love it, and we have experienced some of the same confusion and excitement that your students are experiencing. I love that you are doing it in high school. I teach middle school, and our high school teachers have not got excited about it yet! Can’t wait to read more about it!

    Thanks again!
    Denise
    http://tinyurl.com/geniusindex

    Reply
  • I wrote up something along the lines of a plan or procedure for implementing “Personal Learning and Creation Time in Middle School.” Comments and suggestions are welcome at:

    http://www.instructables.com/id/Personal-Learning-and-Creation-Time-in-Middle-Scho/

    Phil…

    Reply
  • You know, this is something that I will be really interested to see the outcome of. Could we ask you, the teacher, to produce a report of what your kids did by the end of this? Not an reflection on “did this work” but a sort of showcase of “This is what they did”.

    Sorry I found this late, but I just found your site through Reddit.

    Reply
  • Great article. I’m in elementary SPED., but a 4th grade teacher and I have brain stormed some ideas of incorporating it with the kids social studies curriculum. They were completed confused by having the option to “choose their own adventure” but then it began to click.

    How have the parents taken to this idea? And what limitations have the kids run into in class while reasearching? I’m also interestd in the technology aspect for kids to do this work.

    thanks
    matt

    Reply
  • I teach 9 and 10 year olds in New Zealand and I am looking at trialling a 20% project in the next few weeks. I am excited to see where the kids will take this and how we all cope with the lack of success criteria etc.

    Reply
    • Hi, just wondering how it went and how you went about the outcome? I teach the same age level in NZ.

      Reply
  • I guess I’m REALLY late to this conversation! I do 20% time with my students (started in Feb of 2012), but we call it Genius Hour. Denise Krebs (@MrsDKrebs) and Gallit Zvi (@Gallit_Z) started a chat on it the first Wed. Of the month, at 8pm CST.

    Anyway… I have Genius Hour because I despised my independent reading projects! I developed my website, http://geniushour.blogspot.com , so I can reflect on how it’s going, and other teachers could help me along the way. If you look at it, check the February posts, first! This coming year it will be a blog to tell what the kids are researching or reading for their Genius Hour!

    Thanks for the detailed post – it’s now on my list of teachers trying this out!
    Sincerely,
    -@JoyKirr

    Reply
  • I have recently begun working at an alternative school site for kids who have “worn out their welcome” at their regular schools. My students and I have been talking a lot about what motivates kids to learn, and I think the 20% Project is a great idea. Allowing the kids (who are largely ‘low level’ readers and writers) to focus on things that interest them will also help with the behavior issues that come from boredom and the frustration of not understanding the curriculum.

    Reply
  • Hey AJ,
    My Innovative Psychology class at Penn State is doing a major project on the 20% rule, and we’re including success stories from real-life blogs. I was wondering if I could contact you via email for more information on your experience with the 20% rule in your classroom? Please let me know ASAP, I would really appreciate it! My email is nchaykin@gmail.com.

    Reply
  • I, too, suggested the 20 % percent time project to colleagues at a meeting recently and a few if us are eager to begin when our 2nd semester begins on the 22nd. Here’s to exploration!

    Reply
  • Thank you for this. Anything that avoids standardized testing is healthy in my book. Now, let´s go to work on the other 80 percent.

    Reply
  • How did you decide when to take your “20% time? Was is the same day every week? Was a whole class, part of class, or did it vary? Di you make time to at least have a little bit of the 20% each week? I know I’m late on here ,but I hope you still keep up to answer these questions. Thanks!

    Reply

Leave a Comment