20 percent projects: 7 ideas to think about


Teaching | Monday, March 25, 2013

20 percent projects: 7 ideas to think about

20 percent projects

Google’s 20 percent project idea has started to take education by storm. The gist of it, as outlined in this New York Times article: Google allows its employees to use 20 percent of their “on the clock time” to pursue projects that interest and inspire them.

This 20 percent project idea — also called “Genius Hour” — has taken my brain by storm, too.

I think how much I would have loved to do this as a student. In junior high and high school, I dabbled in some computer programming just because it interested me. A friend and I even built a nice-looking computer game despite the limitations of technology at the time.

I wonder how my life would be different now if I had 20 percent of my day in one class to teach myself how to program. I might be living in Silicon Valley instead of Indiana.

I’m thinking hard about instituting a 20 percent in my classes next year. Here are some of the issues I’m working through as I plan:

1. When to work on it: 20 percent of class manifests itself as one day a week, 10 minutes a day, one month a year. I’m leaning toward making Fridays my 20 percent days.

2. How it connects to class: Some teachers want the projects to reflect the content in their classes. Others turn students loose to pursue their passions. My advanced Spanish classes could pursue any concepts that inspire them and report back about it in Spanish.

[RELATED: 20 percent projects: 10 must-have tools]

3. What checkpoints to assign: Blogs appear to be a great way to keep students on track through a long project. Jessica Pack and John Stevens tell how students log their learning on blogs in this interesting Instructional Tech Talk podcast.

4. How to motivate: I worry about my “just tell me what to do and I’ll do it” students with 20 percent projects. In fact, I asked a class about this cool new idea that educators are trying. A few almost yawned and said it would never work. Angela Maiers writes that many unmotivated students fail to see the relevance of our classrooms. These projects could regain that relevance.

5. What tools to use: Google Docs seems to be a natural choice. It’s web-based. It’s free. It’s collaborative. Kidblogs or Edublogs would be great places for students to write about their learning.

6. How to grade: This one totally depends on your philosophy. At a recent #PATUE chat on Twitter recently, J.D. Ferries-Rowe (@jdferries) had a hugely insightful answer to this question. “Student: How will this be graded? Teacher: I don’t know. Why don’t you get together and show me some options tomorrow?”

7. How to wrap it all up: Presentations in front of the class or an authentic audience. Websites. Displays. The options are limitless, and this part seems the most fun to plan to me. I’d like to plan a 20-percent-plan conference. I’d schedule the multi-purpose room. Set up a presentation schedule. Maybe a keynote speaker. Just like an education conference.

Are you thinking about 20 percent projects? Why or why not? Have any good ideas for how to do them? Leave us some ideas in the comments!

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  • Barb says:

    What might be some ways a middle math teacher can do 20% projects?

  • […] 20 Percent Projects – 7 Ideas to Think About […]

  • Steven Line says:

    I’ve noticed its been a few years since posting this, how has it worked for you? I am interested in starting this up in one of my classes.

    • Matt Miller says:

      Hi Steven —

      Finally last year, I did 20 percent time in one of my classes. It was interesting to see what interested my students and how they wanted to express it. It was tough trying to crack the old “school is where you do what the teacher tells you to do” mindset. Eventually, they created some cool projects. One did a YouTube channel in Spanish teaching people how to play the guitar. It was well worth the time we spent. Let me know how yours goes as well!

  • James Dittes says:

    I did 20% in my German class 1st 9 weeks, and the presentations counted for midterm exams. For a first-year class (and first-time try) I made it really general: students had to research a topic related to Germany that interested them. I had two boys reading about Hitler, three looking up German cars & the Autobahn, Grimm’s fairy tales, a broad mix.

    Blogs are a great way to keep up week by week, but some students will need guidance on an appropriate blog post format. I didn’t give them one, but if I could go back, I would require at least four elements: what students looked for, what they found (and where), what they learned, and what they might look for next.

    The tough thing is just keeping up with the blogs on top of all the other grading that we do. That was a task for me.

    This nine weeks, I don’t want to go back to researching Germany. I want to experiment with ePals and building a network of German-speakers, so students’ 20% Projects will focus on building cross-cultural relationships and reporting on what they learned from their contacts.

    Here’s a link to the evaluation I used, if you’re interested. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1tEJuV2fSI9P-c3eXlM8IAitfA-ji0FyKi9L4gHycrHw/edit?usp=sharing

  • Rebecca Huberty says:

    I am wondering if you have talked with anyone who had done this with elementary aged students? I teach 3rd grade and would love to do this with my kids but want it to be well thought out. Any advise?

    • Matt Miller says:

      I have not, but there’s a GREAT resource about all things 20 percent time — http://www.livebinders.com/play/play/829279 — that has “grade level stories”, where teachers of all levels share their 20 percent time stories. I counted 17 teacher stories for third grade on that page. Go to the link above, click on the “grade level stories” tab and select the grade level. Let me know what you think and how it goes if you try it out!

  • Michael S. Wolski says:

    Well, after discussing this with some of my colleagues and reading up on 20% time, I am going to take the plunge. I have a week to set things up but I don’t want to give too much direction to start, other than “It has to be related to American Government.” (and it’s AP) I think I am going to hand them the course content and give them minimal directions. I have ideas planned but I think too much would limit them. Some of my students might freak out with such an open ended proposal. I am doing it anyhow!!! #happymess

    • Matt Miller says:

      Good for you Michael!! Less direction is good, I’d say. I like your hashtag at the end — happy mess … It feels like that when you turn over control to students, but it does produce amazing results. Best of luck!

  • Kellye says:

    I am just discovering this idea and thinking about trying to implement it this fall (overwhelming on 3 weeks notice – my usual pattern). More research is needed for me to figure out how to present this to students so that it motivates and inspires. I like your ideas on having them present in Spanish. While I’m fascinated by the idea of having them explore anything they want, the constraints of content keep me from fully embracing that idea. I only have one semester as well….to teach a survey on U.S. Government….however, if I can tap into their curiosity about something related to government, this might work.

  • Great post and blog Matt. I’m looking forward to exploring your ideas in more detail later tonight. Thanks to Denise Krebbs @Mrsdkrebs for guiding me here.

    I’ve done these projects for eighteen years now long before they were called something else. I have a feeling teachers before me probably did something similar as well.

    As Denise said you can read about them in more detail here, but for me the keys are:
    1. Don’t tell them too much at first otherwise you will limit their creativity.
    2. Eventually share with them some successful projects so the kids who need idea scaffolding can wrap their head around it.
    3. It’s got to be a big chunk of your grade.
    4. Make it as open-ended as possible. I’ve never done blogs or check-ins, but I might try it next year.
    5. I have some students who don’t want to present, their projects are personal. I allow that.

    Share your passion, believe in them and remind them continually how awesome they are going to be and it should be awesome. PS my kids do it all at home. I might try class time, but I don’t think I have all the tools they need.

    • jmm7574 says:

      David — Thanks for taking the time to post such thoughtful comments. I’m glad you mentioned that it should be a big part of the grade. That’s one part I was still unclear on. I know my students are so creative and have fascinating interests. I can’t wait to see how it all works out! — Matt

  • Matt,
    You are welcome! I also meant to give you the name of another educator who does something similar, but it’s a graded project. He’s done it for 16 years. It’s called the 150 point project — worth 1.5 big tests or projects, so it has to be great. David Theriault, also in California, (@MrTheriaultFVHS) is an English teacher whose students turn in really neat projects, even though he gives very little direction. You can check out his blog post about it.

    I’ve heard the length of projects done both ways. Usually shorter term projects for younger children. High school often does semester-long and year-long projects, with one big presentation at the end. Our presentations are quite informal and done as needed.

    And, oops, I meant “peer pressure at its finest” in the above quote. I teach English, and I hate it when I do that!

    Thanks again,

  • Matt,

    Yes, I’m thinking about 20 percent projects, quite often! We have been doing what we call genius hour for a year and a half.

    I just have a few comments about your post. First, I think that advanced Spanish students doing a 20 percent project and reporting in Spanish is brilliant! Wow! I’m not a Spanish teacher, but it makes great sense to me.

    Your how to motivate point is well-taken. I am afraid there are a few who have a hard time with it. However, that is the fault of the broken educational system. We can’t blame students who have a just-tell-me-what-to-do-and-I’ll-do-it attitude. By the time they come to you, they’ve probably had ten or more years of doing just that. It takes time, support from an innovative teacher, and a long walk on the journey to unlearn those bad attitudes. Teachers have to continually tell students WHY they are learning through a 20 percent time project. (For instance, I’m preparing you for a future that is made for innovating. You are geniuses and the world demands your contribution. If you fail to contribute, you’ll be left behind. The world is not multiple choice, and on and on like a broken record inspiring those who are unmotivated.)

    Some of your questions are easily answered. Tools — whatever works. Let students decide.

    Grading — no. The best grade of all is the presentation. Peer-pressure at it’s finest. You will have students so proud of their work, they can’t wait to show it to the oohs and ahhs of their peers (and maybe family members.) I like your idea of getting a keynote speaker, maybe a former graduate working at a software company. Have him/her tell the students what kind of learning it takes to get into a position like that.

    Kevin Brookhouser in California does end of the year TED Talk type presentations. I heard another teacher recently who has a red carpet and popcorn and calls it a premiere.

    In 8th grade whenever students finish one project they present before going on to their next. I continually have students ask when we’ll have time to show the video/presentation they just finished.

    Good luck with this! You will not be sorry for incorporating this into your curriculum!


    • jmm7574 says:

      Wow. If I wasn’t excited enough about doing this, your comments have now pushed me over the edge! I think my apathetic students didn’t grasp how it would work and couldn’t see the bigger picture. I’ll bet they can see it after it’s all over and done. And you’re right — the ed system produces these kinds of attitudes and they won’t be changed overnight. I will stick with them! I like you insight about presentations. That was my first instinct with this kind of project. And I’m glad you touched on what to do when someone finishes their project … they present and move on to the next one. They don’t have to work the entire term on one project.

      Thanks, Denise, so much for your encouragement and ideas!


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