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Student Engagement and 20% Time: What We Can Learn From The Technology Sector

March 15, 2016

Few K-12 students have time to pursue independent inquiries during the school day, even when these questions might help them better understand the academic material presented. This lack of time for additional research and making real world connections concerns K-12 educators, many of whom are seeking ways to increase engagement and provide school time for deep-thinking activities. Because there is an on-going need in the technology industry for ways to encourage innovation and creativity, educators are looking to this sector, exploring strategies used there to keep employees pursuing and developing new ideas. One tactic that has gained traction among educators is called “20% time.”

What is 20% time?

20% time is a practice where personnel, usually knowledge workers, may spend one-fifth of their regular work time tinkering with their own projects. Although Google often gets credit for originating 20% time, this practice has actually been embraced for years in various formats by an assortment of innovative companies. For example, 3M has encouraged employees to use a percentage of their paid time to pursue new work-related ideas since 1948.

20% time is not a formal program. Participation is optional and many employees never participate. In fact, many participants are workers who are restless or consumed by a project that is related to company business but outside corporate goals. Cultural norms are used to rein in employees who stray too far from company interests. For example, supervisors or co-workers can withhold support of a 20%-time project, making it difficult for individuals to pursue ideas on their own.

How does 20% time relate to education?

Early adopters of this strategy are carving out opportunities for students to work on individual or small group projects during the school day. Often called “Genius Hour,” these programs may also go by other names such as “Passion Projects” or “Wonder Workshops” – but ultimately it’s about engagement of today’s digital students.

In most classrooms these “Genius Hours” provide roughly 60 minutes per week for all students in the class to work on individual projects of their own choosing. Students may also be permitted to team-up to work on small group projects. The time is set and flexible scheduling allows for self-directed learning that is not normally an option.

Skeptics fear that self-directed learning is a waste of time, particularly if an exploration results in an unsuccessful project. Proponents of “Genius Hour” counter that our current system of education squelches ingenuity and creativity by casting failure as lost opportunity instead of as a challenge that can be resolved using problem-solving skills. They contend that when teachers incorporate time and support for students to deal with unanticipated results, they are being offered opportunities to learn critical life skills.

Critics also point out that opportunities for creativity should be incorporated throughout the school day. They fear that Genius Hour programs excuse educators from planning more engaging activities the remainder of the time. Supporters counter that once teachers see how this approach to learning works, they are more likely to expand its use beyond 20% time. For example, one primary teacher recently progressed from weekly Genius Hour to opening every school day with a 30-minute window for her students explore their own inquiries.

It’s a rare classroom where the teacher can simply turn students loose to work on whatever project they want without laying some critical groundwork first. In large part this is because most students have little or no clue how to deal successfully with this level of freedom. Students love the idea of being able to pursue individual interests, but for this to work teachers need to be comfortable teaching skills students need to be productive in this environment.

What are some Genius Hour implementation tips?

Structure the program to meet the specific needs of your students. Self-directed learning time for primary-aged children will look very different from a similar program for older students. Here are a few tips that can help insure that self-directed learning time is a good experience for everyone.

  • Self-directed learning is not a free-for-all.
    Establish guidelines for students to work within. For example, you may say that inquiries need to be related to topics studied in class, or require that all projects include a tangible product and some type of presentation.
  • Design a schedule that works for you.
    One hour per week may work with older students whereas younger students might gain more from two or more 30 minute blocks of time during the week. Or, you may decide to adapt the hackathon approach and schedule blocks of time quarterly or each semester.
  • Individual projects may serve unique needs.
    Small group projects can allow students to accomplish more than they can on their own. Do insure that part of the procedure-planning process includes setting expectations for group members’ responsibilities.
  • Require students pitch their ideas to the class.
    Getting feedback before committing to their final research question and procedures plan, can improve results.
  • Remember to be flexible.
    Even the best plans can be sidetracked by unanticipated challenges. Part of the beauty of self-directed learning is that there is no right answer. Students may end up learning that things don’t always turn out the way they expect. Sometimes learning how to overcome an obstacle is the most valuable lesson.

Where can I learn more about Genius Hour?

1. Genius Hour Resources
2. Genius Hour Wiki
3. 6 Tips for Getting Started with Genius Hour

Opportunities for students to learn and practice skills for self-directed learning are a good fit throughout the curriculum. Therefore, the premises of “Genius Hour” and similar programs can be expanded far beyond 60 minutes per week.

How could you apply these principles in your classroom?

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