And just like that…it was over. I’d pitched the 20% time project to my students with only a few days of planning, but it turned out to be the project that redefined my view of what teaching and learning could look like in today’s modern classroom.
If you had walked into my classroom during the days we devoted to 20% time, you would have seen teenagers engaged in conversations about their passions. You would have noticed a girl in the corner, headphones on, quickly scribbling lyrics on a piece of paper before pressing the rewind button on her latest Garageband beat. You could of eavesdropped on a planning session between an engineer re-building a computer, and a programmer set to make the device work differently. You might have bumped into our resident artist, meticulously designing the latest logo for her t-shirt company. Or you may have turned around…walked straight out of the classroom…and thought to yourself what a mess that looked like…
After the 20% time project, and after watching our entire 9th grade team of teachers take on Genius Hour projects, there are a few things I know for certain:
1. Learning is messy. Creating, making, and building are of course messy…but so is thinking, planning, and sharing. The messier…the better in my opinion.
2. Play (however you define it) leads to deep learning experiences. We may not notice it in the same way we do traditional learning, but that is because we can’t measure the learning that comes from “play” with traditional standardized ways.
3. Choice is the secret-sauce to student engagement. Why? Because it allows students to take ownership of their learning and choose a path based around their interests.
Maybe you are like me. Maybe you don’t want inquiry-based, passion-based, and choice-based learning to end after you’ve seen the results.
For a while, I thought that was it… There was Genius Hour and 20% Time, and then there was every other type of learning experience. In my mind, you really couldn’t compare the two.
As usual, I was wrong about that…and I learned a very important lesson that would change my perspective: Always start with the fundamentals.
The Fundamentals of Learning
I was listening to an interview with Elon Musk (the Tesla and SpaceX founder), and he said something that jumped out to me:
I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there.
This “first principles” way of thinking shocked me a bit. As a writer and English teacher I tend to think in analogies and reason by analogy. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized as a coach, I had always started with the fundamentals. Because the basics matter regardless of how deep you’ve gone into an area, subject, or activity.
Although my 20% Time project came out of an analogy (like Google), the first principles approach led me to boil things down to the fundamentals. We, as human beings, learn best through experience. We also pay attention when we care about something (because it interests us or otherwise). Choice is fundamental learning block that makes Genius Hour, 20% Time, Passion Projects, and Inquiry-Based learning so powerful.
Where (I asked myself) could we bring choice into other aspects of the learning experience besides a project like genius hour?
The Genius of Choice
I wrote my book, Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom, out of an excitement about 20% time and genius hour and the impact it had on not only my classroom, but thousands of other classrooms around the world.
As I began to ask myself about the role “choice” plays in our learning experiences, I started to notice how choice could be used in a variety of ways in the classroom.
More importantly, I saw how the benefits of choice in a 20% time and genius hour projects could be relayed into the every day instruction and learning of students.
In a powerful 2011 study published in Psychological Science, researchers were able to see the connection between choice, power, and satisfaction in your activities:
“People instinctively prefer high to low power positions,” says M. Ena Inesi of London Business School. “Similarly, it feels good when you have choice, and it doesn’t feel good when choice is taken away.” Inesi and her coauthors suspected that the need for personal control might be the factor these two seemingly independent processes have in common. Power is control over what other people do; choice is control over your own outcomes.
Choice, it seems, is the driving factor in the workplace and the classroom, for true ownership of one’s work and activities. When choice is taken away, people instinctively feel less satisfied with their role…and grasp for power.
Whether or not you’ve run a 20% time project or genius hour project in your class…the need for choice in our schools has never been higher. If we are to offer a true “student-centered” learning experience then choice needs to play a big part.
So, the question always is…how can we bring choice into the classroom when there is set curriculum, standards we have to cover, and a range of policies and procedures already in place that tend to prohibit choice?
I began writing an answer to that question…and it turned into a blog post…that eventually turned into a chapter of a book…that finally evolved into my new book, Learning by Choice: 10 Ways to Transform Your Classroom into a Student-Centered Experience.
I’m really pumped about this new book for a lot of reasons. The #1 reason I’m excited is the format. The chapters are a bit shorter (around 2000 words) and walk you through a step-by-step process of bringing choice into your classroom. Each chapter has a focus (i.e. Chapter 1 is all about having choice in content) and you’ll move onto the next chapter with a clear idea of how to implement it into your classroom right now.
I’m releasing the book in a few weeks, but right now I’m giving away the first chapter for free, when you sign up below:
I hope you check it out, and I can’t wait for us to move “choice” to the forefront of student learning experiences around the world!