August 26, 2013

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


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There seems to be an element of Google's 20% time becoming more like 120% time, where engineers are able to still make use of the Big G's infrastructure for their own projects, but in their own time.

Successful teachers and students have often gone beyond the hours on the timetable or in their contracts to pursue their own interests, sometimes in school, sometimes beyond, with much the same true of HE. I guess the trick is creating a culture where more and more choose to go beyond that which is required and to choose to share their enthusiasms and insights with colleagues.

Ewan, I think you have missed the mark. Twenty Percent Time (or as it increasingly benig called—Genius Hour) is not about getting an amazing project 1% of the time. It is about giving kids a chance to follow thier own creative instinct and to have a chancce to try something that they really want to do, during school. If we can't spare an an hour or two a week for that, then we are misguided.

Your view seems to be filtered through a corporate lens, which is wrong for trying to understand and improve education. If every kid gets to complete a project or activity of their own choosing, and they learn something in the process, that is 100% success in my book, not 1%.

Thanks for your comments, Philip. I'm not looking at this through the lens of corporate land, beyond the fact that the very notion of 20% time comes from there. My point is that, entirely left to students' passions, without due consideration to what design constraints / structures one might use to direct those passions, students' work will be of a poorer quality and they will have learned less in the longer term than if the teacher helps them structure their thinking, structure their time.

A novice learner (i.e. a student who has little in their learning toolbox to 'learn about learning') will struggle with genius hour, and end up perhaps having a 'happy struggle' in their passion-based projects, but long-term these will have less impact. Looking to Hattie, for example, that much is clear, and goes without question, really. You can also find hints towards that in other research papers - this one was suggested as backup for my points above earlier today:

" entirely left to students' passions, without due consideration to what design constraints / structures one might use to direct those passions, students' work will be of a poorer quality and they will have learned less in the longer term than if the teacher helps them structure their thinking, structure their time."

Could not agree with you more. I find this especially true with the students in my alternative HS program. Many of them have had little success in school. Unlike younger students they struggle with developing questions since they have often not found any passion or interest in school. If they flail too much on their own something very positive can become more negative experiences in school. Skillful scaffolding is one of the hardest parts of teaching but it is great when you can find that "sweet spot" where they are learning new things and engaged and productive.

Perhaps definitions differ, but scaffolding under the guidance of a teacher is the antithesis of what I try to accomplish with Genius Hour. It is perfectly okay for students to struggle and get things wrong before they figure things out. Fail, learn, improve, repeat—that is the cycle I am after.

Sure we give some guidance on how to succed, but Genuis Hour is not a "class" where you get direct instruction and "training" in how to accomplish something. It's "opportunity" and "exploration" in how to accomplish something, and if you are working on something you are truly interested in, there is virtually no chance of the time not being well spent, no matter the outcome or how it is approached.

We have to stop thinking that school is a place where teachers always show you the "right" way to do something. We do enough of that. Keep the structure out of Genius Hour and amazing things will be allowed to happen.

Perhaps the corporate model of the classic "20% time" as instituted by progressive companies is the wrong comparative model altogether. Genius Hour at school, is not meant to be the same as "Bootleg Time" at 3M or "Hack Day" at LinkedIn, although such programs may indeed be the original source of inspiration.

And you know what? There is no one "right" way to offer Genius Hour. The movement is growing and the more we share and discuss ideas, as we are on this forum, the better it is for everyone who is interested in it. My approach happens to be highly free-form. Thanks.

That *is* great, but it's hard to justify and therefore spread any of the claims of genius hour, as one version of 20% time in schools, unless they SHOW student progress. I'm not saying they don't, but no-one has yet made the causal links between genius hour practice and student progression. We can do anything in class and it'll have an impact - Hattie has shown this - but we really need to spend time in class doing the things that outside school and 'just sitting there' don't achieve.

Let's see if we can't open a discussion around how genius hour does or does not offer that advancement over and above the status quo, and how it manages to do so when it does achieve that kind of advancement - if we're not prepared to open that up, then, frankly, there's no point in doing it, fun and engaging as it may be. Fun and engaging can also be done in ways that are also highly effective for student enhancement, after all.

Instead of trying to pour some magical creative oil into a very cranky and rusted teaching machine, empower students to build then drive their own. In the context of developing digital leaders, it is hard to see how we could not move forward without building in time for reflection, self-discovery and creative exploration. I like the term "genius hour" and it implies making time to invent and play.

Roland, thank you for your comment. You're right about pouring oil into an engine that doesn't work it, but I don't think adding a pulling rope (genius hour) is the answer. We need to scrape away the rust on every part of that existing machine so that it works again for our needs today. Genius Hour is a great start, but I think it's just that - a start. I know from the schools we work with that the result of a whole engine working better with creative oil is far more impacful.

Ewan, I was at a workshop you led in Michigan in February of 2012. I had no clue what I was doing there, since you wanted the entire school structure to change, and I was (am) low on the totem pole. What could I do? So… I worked on something I COULD change – as you asked us to. First we had to find a problem – I came to the workshop with my problem. I was sick and tired of quarterly independent reading projects. (Wrote about it on my blog already, but I could go on and on...) So I worked on my problem that day with a partner, and we came up with what we thought we could try. I’d let students choose what to read, and there would be NO quarterly book projects. Just “read what you want, and share what you read.” This has since evolved into my own version of Genius Hour. I explain it to parents here: We started the year off brainstorming our problems – with our families, our school, the community, and the world. We’ll go slowly from there.

I’ve read the comments above, and know you wrote this to provoke conversation. I’ve been thinking about what to write you all week, as I respect your opinion very much. I see that Anna suggests scaffolding, and Philip rejects it. I am of the opinion that we scaffold when students show a need for it. You say “it’s hard to justify and therefore spread any claims of genius hour…unless they SHOW student progress.” I feel that it’s not about the numbers. It’s about the engagement. When I cannot find a way to engage my seventh graders when I’m teaching curriculum I am told to cover, I am discouraged. I keep trying, obviously. But when I see an 18% rise in student engagement during this hour I am allowed to give them, I can feel good about school again, and so can the students. (Wrote about it here: Many teachers don’t get this luxury to give their students 60 minutes to choose what THEY want to learn.

I cannot redesign my entire school like I know you dream of. I am one teacher. I can, however, with the blessings of my administration, give 60 minutes of my week over to the students. It is TOO LITTLE time, I know. And I can’t make sure each project will change the world. But it is a start. And the lessons we all learn during this time seep into the other four hours I have with these students throughout the week, thank goodness. I don’t have numbers to show student progress. But I’m trying to create life-long learners. How do you measure that? Thank you for pushing my thinking again in this post…!


There are beautiful ways to "do" genius hour. One way doesn't fit all. It can't. That would be like designing a cookie cutter learning experience which I'm trying to get away from for an hour each week. I still incorporate standards and I outline for my admin and parents how I do it. is my website. There you will find ow I do this even in first grade. Respectfully submitted, Kimberly

Thanks for your comments, Kimberly and Joy. I think that both your comments reveal there are ways of doing genius hour that work well - both imply the teacher does something each time to make it work better than simply turning over an hour to students, and both imply success. The key to spreading more great practice in this format is quantifying, as you have done, the success students have (e.g. 18% more engagement).

What I want to provoke, though, is something I often hear in the US, that the tactics and overarching strategies that I talk of in workshops like the one you attended are to do with whole-school change. They are not. They are about building individual capacity in teachers, improving incrementally every day. The system isn't about systemic change - and we have little power over that anyway - but it is about the actions individual teachers take. We just need to make sure that, to teachers undertaking more student-led time, those actions that work best are shared clearly, and justified. They all can be justified, and that is a large part of my job - finding the backup and sharing it.

Wow! I could not disagree more. I normally like your articles and think you provide good insight, but I believe this article is way off the mark. Is this a practice that you have tried already in your classroom? If so, I wish you would have provided more concrete examples of what you thought went wrong during the process.
I have been using the 20-time concept in my classroom for several years and have co-founded an interdisciplinary program that revolves around some of the concepts. This has been the most productive learning time and the most relevant and authentic learning time that I have experienced. It has been absolutely wonderful and has opened my eyes to so many things that became possible in the classroom including helping some students who do not like learning to get more enthused, to find that many of our “great” students are not great when given autonomous and self-directed time because they lack these extremely important life skills, and that passion mixed with altruism can lead to absolutely amazing projects that everyone in the class learns from.
One of my main goals when teaching is to make sure that my students are ready to succeed in the future. I need to look these students in the eyes every day, so I really want to make sure I am preparing them for their future. I have thought about this for hundreds of hours, talked with over 100 businesses and organizations, researched, and discussed it with universities. There was a strong message that they need students who can collaborate, communicate, use inquiry skills, research, think critically and creatively, and most importantly…..”Learn how to Learn”.
I have never seen a greater opportunity to teach these skills than through using the 20-time philosophy. If I am trying to teach students to do research, collaborate, use inquiry skills, etc…. why would I choose the topic for them? I have found that a LOT more authentic learning takes place when they can pick something that they are passionate about.
The most common question that I am asked, is “How can you give up 20% of your class time, when most people have trouble covering all of the content within the year using 100% of the time”? My answer, is that I am not “giving up” 20% of my class time. I am using it to teach students how to think, ask, learn, discover and a ton of other amazing 21st century skills that I believe will better equip them for their future. After doing this, I have found that they ultimately know “how to learn” more effectively and are more empowered, engaged, and enthusiastic about learning so that I am able to accomplish way more in the remaining 80% of the time than I ever have in the past using 100% of the time.
If you have tried this and it was unsuccessful, maybe you were going about it incorrectly. If you have not done it, I am not sure what empowers you to judge and criticize it. One thing that we teach our students during 20-time is to make sure that you have all of the information about your topic before you go in and start trying to explain it to others. I think this would be an example in which that philosophy was not used.
20-time can offer an opportunity for some absolutely wonderful learning experiences if done correctly. I am positive.
Oliver Schinkten

Thanks for your comment. If you look at the work I do you'll realise that I do all the things you're talking about with about 80 schools at any one time, helping about 3000 teachers every month to understand how to achieve what you're talking about in terms of learning about learning. My talks on helping students understand the skills necessary to FIND problems, not just solve them (the Problem Finders TEDxLondon) have been viewed about 20,000 times online, and by about 80000 people at events in the past 3 years.

So I understand exactly what you mean, and understand the passion you and your students have in that 20%. I'm all for it.

But I don't want them doing it for 20% of the time. I want them doing it most of the time. That was the point of the blog post, above. And I think that was clear, too.

Thank you Ewan. Point taken. I definitely misinterpreted some of it. I know that you support this type of learning, which is why I was surprised that I thought you had a stance against this time. Although I disagree with some minor points, we both have the same overall concept. I had some blog posts that were viewed about 20 times and one time I spoke in front of 15 people (Faculty meeting Wisconsin)

Teachers have so misinterpreted google's 20% time. Not everyone at google was able to do 20% time, some some staff members like engineers. Sure there might have been someone who studied yoga, or volunteered at the animal shelter, but most worked on products that would have a direct connection to google's bottom line.

You do not become more creative by doing "anything." You become more creative by being put into a box and trying to figure your way out (that is research + years of doing 20%, genious hours, etc, before they had names).

But just like I would never "flip' my class but still support it, I also support 20% time because I think inevitably it will not make the kids into innovative little gems, but it will lead to the teacher making the other 80% more genius.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

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School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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