The story of the 20% Project goes back nearly a century.
In 1923, while at an auto body shop in St. Paul, Minnesota, 3M engineer Richard Drew noticed a car painter struggling with tape that ineffectively kept paint from bleeding into areas where it didn’t belong. Although 3M was primarily an abrasives manufacturer, Drew was sure that the company could create a product to solve that problem.
His commitment to creating a superior ‘masking tape’ earned him a warning from 3M’s then-vice president, William McKnight: He should confine his efforts to sandpaper-related projects. Drew continued the project in his spare time, eventually pairing cabinetmaker’s glue with treated crepe paper to create what we now call Scotch TM tape.
As a result, McKnight, who went on to become 3M’s president, incorporated ‘The 15 Percent Rule’ into his core management principles. It empowers 3M employees to use up to 15% of their time to pursue seemingly out-of-left-field ideas about which they’re passionate. McKnight later wrote, “Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it's essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.”1
Building on McKnight’s approach, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin implemented a strategy called ‘20% time.’ In the company’s 2004 initial public offering letter, they noted, “We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google. This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner.”2 Developments resulting from the so-called 20% Project include Gmail, Google News, and the Google Teacher Academy.3
Today, educators are utilizing the 20% Project in their classrooms, hoping that it fosters creativity, innovation, and intrinsic motivation4. Read on to explore how the 20% Project works in education.
Creating Autonomous Learners
Kate Petty is a former high school teacher, now a Director in EdTechTeam's Teaching and Learning division. She curates a website about 20% time in education, where she asserts that we need to teach students to be autonomous learners.
“Our students' workplaces will be places with teams at tables, not individuals in cubicles,” she says. “They will be asked to be innovative and create the next tool, not to push bureaucratic paper. We must teach them how to think on their own without being told what to do.”3
She promotes 20% time as an effective means of teaching autonomy. In it, students are afforded 20% of class time, or one hour per week, to work on and explore one topic of their choosing.
The 20% Project and the Genius Hour
To provide context and direction for the work done in 20% time, teachers may choose to undertake the 20% Project. Within its framework, each student selects a goal or accomplishment to pursue. Teachers guide their students through the process of realizing them—through research, written documentation in the form of blogging, and multiple presentations to classmates and the school community. Students learn experientially about setting, implementing, reflecting on, redirecting, and showcasing their goals.
20% Project ideas are as varied as the students who present them, with past projects including these, among many others:5
- Write a novel / children's book / book of original poems
- Learn my family's recipes and cook with my grandmother / aunt / mother
- Create, market, and sell protein drinks
- Raise money for schools in Afghanistan
- Learn how to fix my car: oil, tires, filters, etc.
- Invent an iPhone charger that works using kinetic energy
- Run a marathon
- Construct a computer
A less structured use of 20% time is known as Genius Hour, which gives students one hour each week to work on any learning goal. There is no formalized project involved, and the outcome is largely dependent on the teacher’s chosen requirements. Students learn how to learn autonomously, motivated by working on topics that interest them.
Petty relates these goals to Genius Hour endeavors:6
- Master: practice a skill
- Create: use your imagination
- Learn: gain knowledge about something
- Innovate: solve a problem
- Produce: make something
- Serve: do any of the above for someone else
Performance Goals and Learning Goals
In drawing a distinction between goals based on learning and those based on performance, Petty recalls a student who trained all semester to reduce—by two full minutes—the time in which she could run a mile. The same student largely wasted her 20% time in class.
“She had created a performance goal, not a learning goal. Had I known better at the time, I would have prompted her to study how to take two minutes off her mile—a learning goal.”3
The student’s project would have been much productive, Petty notes, had it involved these steps:
- Create a workout for the next week
- Learn what kind of workout she should be creating
- Evaluate what worked and what didn't from the previous week's workout
- Examine the type of diet that would be ideal for her situation
She encourages educators to guide students to create their 20% Projects based on learning goals.
Widespread, Long-Term Benefits
A.J. Juliani is an educator, author, and proponent of 20% time. In an article for Edutopia online, he wrote, “We spend 14,256 hours in school between kindergarten and graduation. If we can't find a time for students to have some choice in their learning, then what are we doing with all those hours?” Through 20% time, he says, “we can solve one society’s biggest problems by giving students a purpose for learning and a conduit for their passions and interests.”7
He sees four groups of people benefitting from this practice:7
“I've never received a better response from my students than when we did 20% time. We give our students a voice in their own learning path and allow them to go into depth in subjects that we may skim over in our curriculum.”
“Great teachers inspire and make a difference, but great classrooms have students inspiring each other.”
Juliani praises the use of 20% time for bringing his classes together in environments where everyone learns each other’s true interests and passions. Together, he says, they overcome the fear of failure. “We cheered for each other during presentations,” he says, “and picked each other up when things didn't go as planned.”
He sees long-term advantages to using 20% time, as doing so allows him “to ‘teach above the test.’ My students finally understood that learning doesn't start or end with schooling.”
According to Juliani, 20% time makes “success something tangible. It drives [students’] hidden passions to the surface and reinvigorates conversation about purpose in their lives.”
He recalls a parent of one of his students saying, ‘I always knew my daughter liked design and fashion magazines. When she came home making and creating her own clothes, I was shocked. I went to the store with her to pick out patterns, helped her sew and actually make a few outfits!’
While lamenting that administrators can get buried in numbers (test scores, graduation rates, and so on), Juliani believes that 20% Projects “bring us back to why we got into education in the first place: to make a difference. My principal said [the 20% and Genius Hour projects] were the best presentations she ever saw—not because of the content, but because of the conviction the students had for their work.”
Use your time to its best possible advantage.
Prepare for your successful education career in the University of Kansas School of Education and Human Sciences. Learn to engage students of all ages in our Department of Curriculum and Teaching, share your gifts with students with disabilities in our Department of Special Education, or keep motivation strong in instructional teams in our Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. We offer online master’s degrees, graduate certificates and licensure endorsement programs, and our admissions advisors are here to answer your questions. Get in touch with us today.
1. Retrieved on April 20, 2021 from aem.org/news/giving-employees-permission-to-fail-is-a-formula-for-innovation-at-3m
2. Retrieved on April 20, 2021 from businessinsider.com/google-20-percent-time-policy-2015-4
3. Retrieved on April 20, 2021 from 20timeineducation.com/home
4. Retrieved on April 20, 2021 from thetechclassroom.com/20-project/what-is-the-20-project-in-education
5. Retrieved on April 20, 2021 from 20timeineducation.com/20-project/20-time-ideas
6. Retrieved on April 20, 2021 from 20timeineducation.com/genius-hour-20-time/20-community
7. Retrieved on April 20, 2021 from edutopia.org/blog/20-percent-time-a-j-juliani