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For Teachers Updated November 13, 2017

No-Plan Lesson Plans: 20 Percent Time Projects Make Room for Engagement

By Monica Fuglei December 17, 2014
Increase engagement with 20 percent time projects

As I put the finishing touches on my spring teaching schedule, I did something radical: A full three weeks of it are completely empty. This was no mistake — I made a deliberate decision to leave space for something called “20 percent time.”

The long-standing-yet-radical business concept of 20 percent time, begun by 3M and popularized by Google, FedEx, and other corporations, wasn’t necessarily designed for education. However, in a world where educators seek engaged and active students, it is a natural fit.

How do 20 percent time projects work in the classroom?

For those unfamiliar with the concept, 20 percent time in education is about making room in the schedule for student autonomy. Under high-stakes testing and the deliberate rigor of Common Core State Standards, educators struggle now more than ever to align academic expectations with a desire for student involvement and creativity.

How ‘Genius Hour’ benefits students

20 percent time, sometimes called “Genius Hour,” seeks to marry achievement and engagement by carving out space in the schedule for students to ask and answer their own questions. This project gives students the opportunity to:

  • Develop autonomy, mastery, and purpose
  • Experience failure
  • Ignite (or reignite) a spark of creativity
  • Increase commitment to the learning process
  • Advocate for their own education

Students choose whether to work individually or collaboratively, make and meet their own deadlines, journal their experience, and ultimately, create a project to showcase their journey to their classmates. It is dedicated free time with access to all of the deep resources a school can offer.

In my English composition classroom, I might have a group of students who engage in a service learning project with the local floodplain park or an individual who creates a blog linking contemporary young adult fiction to revered canonical texts in order to encourage YA fans to read the classics.

Setting expectations for 20 percent time projects

Although there are few limitations to their 20 percent time, this does not mean there aren’t any expectations. As students progress through the semester, a variety of journaling and reflective assignments communicate to me their ability to meet or exceed the standards and objectives of the course.

Sharing work along the way enables students to inspire each other

More importantly, as we share our work along the way, students will engage and inspire their classmates. The final requirement, that they present their 20 percent time project to their classmates, gives them an opportunity to show off what they have learned. It also sets an expectation for their 20 percent time to be spent deliberately.

20 percent time project resources for K-12 teachers

While this sounds like the kind of project uniquely suited for higher education, K-12 educators everywhere are incorporating 20 percent time into their own schedules. Educator A.J. Juliani, founder of the blog Education Is My Life, is one of them. He has taken the time to explain the importance and ease of incorporating 20 percent time, even showing how these projects often easily meet or exceed state standards.

The website can help K-12 teachers add dedicated “free time” into their schedules. Teachers who are already incorporating 20 percent time or Genius Hour into their classrooms can reach out to each other for ideas and support on Tweet chats, message boards, or Google+ as well.

Genius Hour projects help students become their own learning advocates

My inspiration for embracing a 20 percent time project this semester came from reading Daniel Pink’s book “Driveand watching Ken Robinson’s “Bring on the Learning Revolution.” I wanted to tap into 21st-century motivation for my students and teach them to be advocates for their own learning.

To do that, I have to cede some control to students and give them autonomy. I have no clue what one-fifth of our time together will look like, but after looking at the number of inspiring 20 percent time projects posted across the web, I am excited to find out.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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