For years I have wanted to offer the students what Google offers its engineers–20% of their time to pursue a passion.  I finally decided to implement it today at the midpoint in the year.  There are a few catches and “rules.”  They have to connect what they do to one of the disciplines commonly included in “Social Studies” and they must use skills that are listed in our curriculum.  It is a catch, but in reality almost anything can be connected and any work they do can be linked to many of the skills listed.

When I met with the kids there were many blank stares…the concept of academic freedom was foreign.  I have already had one kid tell me they were opting out.  I thought I already gave them a lot of freedom in my class but after seeing the stares, I realized that I still dictate the parameters of their learning.

To say I am worried is an understatement.  They will get the Friday of every five day week…we will negotiate for other weeks.  That is approximately 20 days.  They have been asked to keep a record of what they are doing, present once quickly at the mid-term, and share in more detail at the end of each quarter.  No rules for what they have to produce or how much.  Now I don’t have students who are begging for this.  At this point in the year every project we do is still a shock to their system.  Many kids are not sure how they will think of something to learn about.   I do expect intellectual wandering the first couple of weeks, and my guess is that I won’t see full engagement for at least 3-5 weeks.

I have read some accounts from other classes doing this and how their room quickly fills with the products of their 20% time.  I am not being pessimistic, but simply realistic when I say that won’t happen in my class.  Whenever I read posts from folks that write about how they just let the kids onto piece of technology and watch them lead the way I always think about how reality is a bit different for me.  It takes months and months of purposeful unschooling before my kids can just bust out and be amazingly creative historians on their own.   This is a project that I am not doing to allow them to pursue their passions, but to begin to find a passion.  I am not expecting a photographic exhibit, or 3-D models of new waste water treatment plants.  I don’t think there will be any novels published, or robots made.  I think there will be a lot of dabbling in this and that.  Have you ever seen a documentary of a sea turtle coming out of it’s shell?  It is a slow process that can take days.  That what I hope they do…slowly chip and break away at their “shell” and by the end of the year emerge as an independent kid who can drive their own learning…and maybe they will have discovered a passion along the way.

I am really excited about starting this.  As I ended the meeting I simply told the kids, “You have 20 days of freedom, do something spectacular with it.”  I may have been a realist above, but I am also a bit of a dreamer.  That’s why I am positive in June you will be reading a post about how this project changed my kids, changed me, and how along the way some pretty spectacular things happened.  I can’t wait to get started.



    1. I just intro’d it today and expect the question about groups at some point before the first day. I think my response will be “What do you think?” Throw it back to them and will assume that we will decide that group work is fine. What I am also thinking about doing is first making them work individually for 2-3 weeks first. Just so that some individual juices get flowing instead of just jumping in with a friend or the first person that asks.

      1. Question I got from my kids, “What if we find an overall topic, but we each work on a different part?” My answer was that if they could find a way to show me that they were each thinking independently for part of their work and documenting their work, I guess so.

        Two related pieces:


  1. Are you their sole teacher, or is the “20 days” really “20 hours”?

    Twenty hours is not a lot to do an awesome project, even if you start with a clear idea for a project.

    A good high school science-fair project typically takes 100s of hours, as do things like robotics projects (which are often done in groups).

    1. It is 20 hours…which will hopefully also include out of class time.

      You are right, a really high quality project takes a lot of time–more than 20 hours. I guess I am stuck in school time and what is awesome for school. That’s why they will probably just scratch the surface of whatever they are going to do. I also don’t see an end to what they would work on…there is no time limit…whatever they start they might have to present to the class but I am not expecting finished, polished final products.

      When I wrote “do something spectacular with the time” I wasn’t really referring to a “product,” but the process.

      Can’t remember who, but someone wrote that it takes at least 30 hours to put together a decent presentation that will last an hour on a topic you already know about. Since I have read that I have realized as I have prepared presentations that it is darn close to being accurate.

      So as a school teacher in a traditional school I am struggling with the fact that maybe for 20 hours they will just explore, and maybe in the end they won’t find anything, or be able to show any concrete results of what they have done…still wrestling with that.

  2. I have been struggling with doing this exact same thing with my five Science classes. I am close, this week or next, to actually introducing this idea to my students. I like your idea because I was going to go so far as to let them work on anything they want even if it’s not Science. Maybe that’s why I’ve been so hesitant. How can I defend giving up 20% of Science instruction when my 8th graders have a state Science test this year? One reason I’ve even considered doing this has been that I still have disengaged kids in my classes. And others that I have to encourage daily to work and learn. And this after I have gone gradeless AND offer them choice in being able to go off on tangents and in how they demonstrate learning. Having iPads and iMacs can be more of a distraction from Science learning than a tool! I’m still unsure which way to go but I an willing to try something.

    1. Although I don’t use the term 20% time, my class is completely project-based. We are working on something similar to this, off and on, all year. I call it the Make a Difference (MAD) project. Students are picking something to do that will improve their world, at the local or global level. All they have to do is include ELA skills — writing, reading and some sort of public speaking. I have constant access and will be supplying feedback all year. Obviously, we have one-day activities that help us grasp all of our course objectives, but for the most part, we’re working on the projects.

      My students are not all great at getting on computers and self-directing. You have to do a lot of coaching. I’m constantly walking around, looking in, making quick, harmless suggestions. Sometimes the suggestions are simple and really meant only to re-engage the students. It’s not easy, but in the end, it’s always worthwhile.

      1. Okay, Mark, so you too tie their MAD project time to your ELA skills so that they are still learning what you are supposed to be teaching.

        See therein is my biggest obstacle. I already offer choice and flexibility but students don’t take me up on it. I either have very few students who are interested in Science or they just aren’t used to having this type of freedom. So the choice I now have is to stay with my program the way it and do pretty much exactly what you described in the last paragraph of your comment or go with my gut, scary as it is, and offer them a truly free passion day every week where they get to explore their passions and use the technology in my room to explore and create whatever they want.

        I think I will run this idea by my principal. On the one hand we will lose 20% of Science instruction time if one takes it at face value. But I can easily argue if I free up 20% of their time for them to explore their passions I will have happier students who might just be more on task and learn more during the other 80% of their time.

  3. [I’ve tried posting a reply to Mark’s comment but am not sure it’s going through so I’m going to try posting my replay as a comment to see if it will work.]

    I like your idea, Mark, of tying your MAD projects to ELA skills. So you and Paul are still having this 20% or MAD time tie into your curricular aims.

    I’ve been trying to do just that but it’s been mainly me coming up with the topics of study. Whenever students ask about something related to what we’re studying I offer them the choice to go off in that direction but they don’t take me up on it. So I’m offering them the freedom and choice option but few if any take me up on it. That is why I was considering making that one day a week a true passion day where kids can study anything they are passionate about.

    That raises the question/concern of how we could afford to give up 20% of Science learning time to learning of anything. Even though I am not in favor of high stakes, standardized testing my 8th graders are taking the Science state test this year and people will be looking at those scores. If they don’t do well then this 20% passion time will be a great place to lay blame.

    I have put things in place to make my classroom a learning environment. I don’t reward or punish my students with grades, offering them feedback instead. I provide iPads, Netbooks, and iMacs for research and for the creation of different products to show their learning instead of giving tests. With all that in place I still end up doing exactly all the things you mentioned in your last paragraph! It takes time to untrain students from traditional classroom “learning.”

    So now I’m not so sure. Maybe I just keep plugging away at what I’m doing. I can easily argue that by offering students some time, 20%, to explore their passions during Science class with the high tech tools we have that they will be more motivated to engage in the work we’re doing in Science during the 80% of their time. But I don’t know that for sure. I’d be testing out that theory on this year’s students. And even if they score well or poorly on the Science state exam how can I say 20% of passion time had anything to do with it one way or the other???

    I guess if my goal is to have happy, engaged, learning students, regardless of content or standards, then I should go for it. Otherwise, I should stay the course. If I had a group of students for more than one year at a time, maybe a multiage model, then they would have the time to get used to having the freedom to learn and explore WHILE learning Science!

    So now I’m less sure than I was. lol
    (But that’s not a bad thing.)

  4. The Encienda talk I’ll be giving at Educon tomorrow is titled, “Choice That Matters.” Sadly, a bit part of it is admitting that I haven’t figured out how to give my first graders meaningful choices most of the time. This resonated with me because it does offer meaningful choice. I am really looking forward to hearing how this goes over the next few months.

  5. Dear Paul,

    This is straight from the pages of Daniel Pink’s book Drive. I struggle with the same thing. Yes, it’s ok for you to find and follow your passions. Now is your chance to find out how social studies and history is relevant to your life today. I’m excited for them!

    My own students have had some amazing luck with social media this past year. I’ve had students interacting with authors, television producers, even the main character of a fun documentary. I’d have them start rooting around their favorite books and movies. See if they can’t learn something from the people who made those. Have them contact historians and scholars. I’m sure there are plenty out there who would love to interact with a curious kid.

    I’d have them reveal their hopes and fears, then delve into the hopes and fears of kids their age from the past. Don’t you think it’s critical for them to learn that even though things from the past seem like ancient history, in fact not much ever changes in humanity. We go through the same struggles over and over again, with different names and faces on them. I wish I could be a fly on your classroom’s wall.

  6. I love this idea! I am also thinking of rolling something similar out to my 5th graders. I tried to get it started at the beginning of the year but it is a particularly immature group this year. I was calling it a Curiosity Project. Thoughts on just opening it up to them by saying, “Be curious about something.”? Do I ask them to do a plan before they start to keep them accountable? Do I ask them to do something at the end of each time they have to work on it?

    1. To answer to your questions…I don’t know 🙂
      It really depends on the kids and where they are and what you can get away with in your building. My classes have slowly built up to this. There is a lot of freedom in the units we do, and so this was a natural progression. At the start of the year we did start with plans and daily reflections. I haven;t asked for a plan simply because I don’t want them to have one–I want them to wander and explore if that is what comes naturally at first. My kids were asked to jot something done everyday. I left it very open as to what they could write down and reflect on. My guess is that for most it will simply start off as just a here is the topic I looked at. Again, we worked up to this very methodically. If we were not doing this it would still be the time of year were I would start throwing out topics and they could self-regulate how they would go about researching and what products they would produce. So I would say start off with the structure and slowly take away pieces of it as they go along.

      1. Thanks Paul! Since I teach elementary school kiddos, I can easily pull a project like this into the mix of what I do.
        It makes me sad that kids have lost their curiosity. By the time they reach me in 5th grade they are like little robots that have no idea how to be curious or wonder.

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