20% Time and Schools: not the best of bedfellows
With the start of term in the Northern hemisphere, several of the schools we're working with have brought up the notion of offering their students "20% time", a version of what Google famously offer their employees to undertake their own, personal projects. But in schools, it often seems to fall short of our expectations of creative genius.
Post-it manufacturer 3M pre-date Google and a multitude of others in applying 20%/10%/5% time, the idea being that moments of genius, in personal creative time allotted to the workforce, can become the company's next core product. In school, it's often seen as a highly manageable way of introducing student choice and student-led learning in the classroom, sometimes without having to worry too much about the remaining 80%. It's a first step, a way to immediately programme in 'student-led' without having to take on the whole game of one's semester or school year.
The problem is, that students given this open stretch of time often don't know what to do, or beyond their initial couple of passions they run out of steam. Their end-products are largely under par of their capacity. Sure, there are moments of genius, just as in Google, 3M or any other corporation that introduces 20% time. But, just like them, they are by a small proportion of students, with the vast majority of ideas failing to hit the mark.
Is this use of time - and so much of it - worth trying in school? I don't think so.
It's interesting to note that even in cash-rich Google, the inefficiencies of offering so much undirected time to employees are now being curbed. Key to this is not killing off individual creativity - far from it. In corporate speak business leaders talk about aligning 20% time to the vision of the company, making sure it has something to do with the core business.
In schooling, this is equivalent to making sure that student-directed time is nonetheless tied to the vision of the project in hand, the core business of the class in that semester or term. Freewheeling results in what I saw as an investor in tech and media products: 1% success rates. The rest is chaff, mediocrity, not because the people behind those developments are fatally flawed, but because the process is: you can't expect 100% of creatives to be 100% creative all the time when there is no common vision. You up the stakes when you're vision is clear, something that never was, frankly, in my investment unit five years ago.
So 20% time and its variants are indeed a great way to introduce a manageable, constrained version of student-led learning, without having to change all your practice at once. But treat it with caution. The same principles of clear, shared objectives stand to make the most of it. Any piece of creative genius generally stems from some healthy design constraints set out at the start.
If it were me, I might start with this for a term, but I'd be concentrating on the next semester, and seeing how, using robust self- and peer-assessment techniques I can introduce more student autonomy throughout everything I do.
Photo: George Armstrong