Many readers are probably familiar with Google’s innovative 80/20 approach to work time. Unlike more traditional employers, Google embraces “off-task” behavior by dedicating 20% of work time for workers to explore company-related ideas that interest them. These interests might lie outside an employee’s official work title but the 20% “innovative time off” is designed to foster creativity and increase employee ownership and buy-in. As Google engineer Bharat Mediratta discusses in the New York Times, “it sounds obvious, but people work better when they’re involved in something they’re passionate about.” Some may worry that Google is wasting a lot of time by dedicating one day a week to innovation. Keep in mind, however, that GMail and Google News (and probably a bunch of other cool technologies) were borne out of the 20% innovation time that developers were afforded.
What if educators approached their courses the same way? What if instructors provided 20% of their class time for students to explore interests related to course topics? I have a colleague who has approached his courses with an “open syllabus” and allowed his students to co-develop the course schedule and topic list with his guidance. While I see the potential for building student ownership and increasing buy-in for course content through the use of an open syllabus, I worry about handing over complete control of the schedule to the class. Students enter some courses as complete novices in the content area. How would they know what topics were the most critical in a specific discipline? How would they know which areas would help prepare them for other coursework in a program?
The 80/20 approach, however, sounds like a good middle ground. Following the 80/20 rule, instructors develop 80% of the course and students develop 20% on their own. This approach can build the conceptual foundation needed for new learners in a course while still providing opportunities for students to examine topics related to the course but based on their own interests. If the 80/20 concept sounds far fetched instructionally, schools across the country are currently adopting this at all of levels. Take English students in Arlington High School in New York. Here, students are given one day a week to choose their own topics to study and the manner in which they want to demonstrate their learning to teachers. “It’s been exciting to see students take ownership of their own education process, and I’ve been humbled as a teacher to really see what they’re really doing on their own,” Arlington teacher Julie Jee said in an interview with the Center for Digital Education.
If you’re considering trying out the Google 80/20 approach with your students, check out the project that Dr. Laura Guertin uses with students in her Environmental Resource Management course at Penn State Brandywine. Dr. Guertin is an Associate Professor of Earth Sciences and has students dedicate 20% of their class time on a project of their choosing. Dr. Guertin provides a timeline for a completion and an assessment rubric for the project, but the students have complete ownership to develop creative and original works on their own. Just like the engineers who work at Google.