Education for the Real World: 20 Percent Time Projects

By Esther Wojcicki and Lord Jim Knight, I4j Leadership Forum

We are  suggesting “20 Percent Time”, one day in the school week when students can work on a project of their choice, like the Google 20 Percent Time which gave rise to one of the most creative companies on the planet.  

Main Reason
For more than twenty years, we have been trying to change education through the use of digital tools and to tie education to the job market.   In fact, we have had little success. Our test scores are stagnant and we have millions of unfilled jobs because people don’t have the required skills.  Technology has not proven to be the silver bullet we had hoped for.

We continue to focus on teaching to the test to rectify the situation. Even the new federal policy of Every Child Succeeds Act focuses on testing but this has not provided us with the kind of workers we need. We see the same focus in the UK, and the same poor outcomes.  

The main difference between the classroom today and the classroom of  20 years ago is that the worksheets are now online and there may be an accompanying video, but it is still lecture based.  Today the lectures are online….see the Flipped Classroom pedagogy.   Research shows that people do not learn from lecture.  They learn about the idea but they do not learn the skill.  Learning takes place from peer to peer interaction and from doing. Employers are looking for people with tech skills, critical thinking skills, communication skills, and innovation skills. Students don’t get these skills through memorization or lecture. They get them through hands on authentic projects based on the real world.

Policy Sought and Rationale
We are  proposing to change the way we, citizens of the world,  see the school week. We are  proposing that the Secretary of Education, the Future Ready School program, the U.S. Congress and the Parliament in the UK suggest one day per week or 20 percent of the time when students can work on projects of their choice and apply the learning they get in the other 80% of the school week.  Instead of having five days of lecture and worksheets, have four days.  

Each state, district, and school should decide independently what application of 20% time works best for them. Community members need to know that learning takes place by doing.  This may not need to be a requirement. It is simply understanding what works in education and what learning really is. More than 100 years ago, education philosopher John Dewey said people learn by doing; it is time we followed this pedagogy.   In order to do so, teachers and school districts just need to have the permission to change the way they see learning.  They need to have permisson to change the way the classroom is structured….for just a small percentage of time to give students some exposure to authentic real world projects.   A program like this would give students time to use computers and digital tools in the learning process instead of just in the memorization process or the testing process.

Memorization is not learning; it is just memorization.  It is not thinking.   The OECD ranking by country shows both the US and the UK in the top four countries for memorisation in school, but relatively low for elaboration – deep learning and critical thinking.

We are  suggesting 20 Percent the Google 20 Percent Time which gave rise to one of the most creative companies on the planet.  Even if employees don’t participate, just knowing that they could participate, gives them a psychological sense of empowerment.

In their 20 PercentTime, students can work on a project of their choice supported by the school and the teachers.  This teaches student the skills employers are seeking:  communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.  Students can design apps, work on gardening, develop a new toy, build a new website, game design,  write blogs, set up a workshop, do a group art project….or anything that they are interested in (within reason, of course).  Teachers still have 80% of the time to teach in the traditional manner but now students have 20% of the time to work on projects they care about related to the real world.   It needs to be in the school day and not after school because many low income students do not have time after school.  They too need to have this opportunity to be creative and be engaged in their learning.

Having a project increases engagement, increases learning, and increases creative thinking and provides the kind of worker that the we need today. We need education for the real world, education that connects to problems that we face as a planet.   The 20 Percent idea would build this kind of education into the curriculum and ensure that all students have this opportunity to create.   

Studies show that AP exams do not produce the kind of learning that transfers to the real world and does not have a positive impact on college performance.  However making learning engaging and social improves attainment scores and subsequent performance.

Role of the School and Government

The school can help provide the structure and resources for the 20 Percent Time. They can provide a platform where teachers and students share ideas.  They can support teachers creativity.  This is vital because today teachers are very concerned with test scores and teaching to the test and covering all the  material for the year.  In many cases, less is more learning.

Teachers need permission to be creative one day per week and this creativity will be passed on to their students.  The program will need teacher professional development to restore professional confidence in how to coach learning through creativity. It is a simple idea that can easily scale so that we can produce workers that employers want to hire and employees who can help solve issues facing the planet.

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