I spent some time on my spring break going back over things I favorited on Twitter or put into my “read later” places. One of them was a great interview by Jeff Herb on his podcast Instructional Tech Talk, where he interviewed Jessica Pack and John Stevens about their 20% projects. It was great to hear the two of them discuss how they set up and ran the 20% project in their buildings and the wonderful results they saw with their students. I was lucky enough to attend a Google Apps For Education Summit in Edmonton in February and saw a session by Sean Williams on Google 20% time. He shared stories of people doing similar projects and had a teacher from California connect with us over Google Hangouts to share his story as well. Their are a number of great posts out there on why Google 20% time is beneficial in education (here and here) as well as posts about how it is going in schools all over the place (here and here).
The Google 20% model has a lot in common with what Gallit Zvi is doing with her Genius Hour projects, and what Josh Stumpenhorst is doing with his Passion Projects and Innovation Day. Students having choice in what they learn about, freedom to learn in their own way, not limited by schedule or structure, and students excited about the learning. Josh’s Innovation Day inspired us to run our own Innovation Week this past December. It was an overwhelming success and every day I am at school I am asked by at least one student when our next Innovation Week will take place (Innovation Week 2 coming this June!).
I don’t think there are many educators out there that are surprised by the success of any one of these initiatives. I believe most of us are well aware of the power in transferring the responsibility for learning to our students, and the impact that it has on the engagement of our students when they are given the responsibility. I do think that some educators are afraid of giving up so much of the control of the learning in their classroom. Most have made the transition from stand and deliver to guiding the learning, but this goes even further. We have gone from providing the information to providing the right questions, but with initiatives like these, we want the students to be asking the questions as well.
So what is it that we do as teachers when we undertake one of these learning initiatives?
What I believe we do is we help students to discover whatever it is they are passionate about and are excited to learn about. I believe our job goes from crafting the powerful questions that challenge our students to helping students find ways to challenge themselves. Katherine von Jan recently wrote in her post entitled “Pursue Passion: Demand Google 20% Time at School”:
Real break-through happens when we are free from others’ expectations and driven by individual passion.
I believe this includes us when it comes to the “others expectations”. We can’t judge what our students are passionate about, but we can help shape the experience to improve the chances it will have real depth and meaning. Katherine speaks eloquently to this idea as well when she says:
For example, if a child is inspired by bridges, why not start there and let the learning follow their curiosity? They may need to learn calculus to build a bridge, but then they have a reason to love and seek calculus, rather than calculus being a requirement. They may need to understand the history, policy and politics of getting a bridge approved. Or team-building to get all the right talent on board.
Our job can be to find the connections to deeper learning in the questions that come from each development in the project. During our Innovation Week, the single greatest commonality among all of the best projects was a shared moment of struggle. Every group that was able to take their Innovation Week project to amazing places found some time where they were stuck. What each of these groups also found was that they were able to overcome this impasse and stagnation by finding a way to solve the problem. It was in these moments that they sought out a new solution, consulted teachers, classmates, websites, pictures etc and they developed a plan.
Our group that built the functioning hovercraft began with a plan to use a lawnmower engine to power it. When they constructed the hovercraft and found it would not float, they tried increasing the number of airholes on the bottom, and they tried altering the position of the engine, but nothing worked. They realized after multiple tests and failures that the engine was too heavy, and in developing a new plan to use a lighter leaf-blower engine they learned far more than just physics. When our students choose topics they are truly passionate about, they will show greater resiliency than we could have ever expected. They will seek out further understanding and they will find solutions to problems that we may not have thought our students could solve.
We talk all the time about how our students can show us so much when given the chance, but then we subject them to learning that never provides that chance. What these projects all share in common is the ability to provide our students with as a great a challenge as they are capable of. Sure, it also provides us with just as many opportunities for our students to fail, but we all know these experiences are just as important as the successful ones. I think this is even more powerful when we distance the assessment as far from the project itself, as we can. We should assess our students skills and competencies during these projects but through observation and through the assessment of their reflections NOT by assessing the actual success of the project. If we can help our students understand that we want to assess their learning, and that failure is just as much a part of learning as succeeding, hopefully these projects can instill a passion for risk-taking, creativity and innovation.
I know how powerful these activities can be. Our innovation week was the most eye-opening and invigorating 5 days of my education career. I also know from experience that it can be a bit scary to undertake one of these activities. It all comes back to the idea of modelling for our students that we are learners too, and that we aren’t afraid to take risks and to chance failure if it is going to provide us the chance to grow. I know that if you are reading this, you are someone who wants to see the best education for our students, and knowing what these initiatives can provide them is reason enough to give them a try.