20% Time in Education


If you were given 20% of your work time complete your own project, what would you be able to accomplish?

Several years ago, Google had a plan that gave employees 20% of their time to work on a project that they felt would benefit the company. While it’s debated whether or not Google still enforces this, many leaders have taken this business plan and developed it for their own companies. Now, schools are starting to utilize this 20% time inside their classrooms.

How could giving students free range of 20% of the academic days actually benefit their educational process? I actually had the experience first hand.

When I was a sophomore in college and taking my final music theory course, we had a professor who lived and breathed everything Google. Thus, we were given 20% time (just like Google was) to work on a project pertaining to music. At first we grumbled about it; a project that was not really going to count as a grade doesn’t seem like a bad idea, but when you have an upcoming test to determine whether or not you could continue it the program it seemed like a huge waste of time. I remember thinking that if this isn’t going to help me get an A on my transcript, then I shouldn’t have to bother. As a collective group, we marched to his office after class with sheer determination to destroy this 20% percent time nonsense and get back to learning real things! We had note cards of excuses:

  • This won’t be on the exams.
  • This will not help us become teachers.
  • This is replacing our valuable learning time.
  • This is not what my parents are paying for.

You name the excuse, he heard it. He was resilient and during the next class our 20% projects began.

Begrudgingly we picked groups and topics. My group consisted of me and another sophomore who played clarinet. We got started researching potential topics and ended up settling on music and it’s effect on students in the autism spectrum. We soon found ourselves tirelessly researching the topic during each class. When our 20% time was over for that class, we were not nearly as far as we expected. Half way through the semester, we started meeting in the library Thursday nights to continue our research. It wasn’t just my group that was taking their free time to work on the project. Almost every group was meeting outside of class time to work together.

The end of the semester came and every group presented their projects. I remember being awestruck at how diverse everything was and how much we all had accomplished within the realm of our topic. My partner transferred to a different school that summer so she could become a music therapist. She now specializes in music therapy with students on the autism spectrum and she spends her free time researching more about how music affects the brain.

I on the other hand, stuck out my degree in music education. I took several classes on special needs strategies and found myself trying to develop different approaches based on what I had learned through the 20% time research. This year, the special education program at the elementary school I work at has doubled in size. I have also taken on the task of working with our early childhood education programs. I find myself sitting in on IEP meetings during my preps and observing the autism classrooms when I can. I continue to research and develop best practices and techniques for my classroom.

The 20% time project I was so adamant about not participating in, has seriously changed the way I teach; not just students on the spectrum, but all of my students. While I do not necessarily give my students 20% of the class time to work on projects, I do make sure they have time to explore and create on their own. It is amazing what little minds can come up with when given the opportunity.

If you are looking for more information or ways to include 20% percent time in your classroom, check out these articles and websites:

20 Time in Education

20 Percent Time by AJ Juliani

Google Time Classroom

20 Percent Projects – 7 Ideas to Think About

Ask yourself, what could my students accomplish this year if I gave them a small amount of time to take control of their education? Who knows, maybe one of your students will learn how to change the world.
– Kiri, Staff Writer

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