(Image via Wikimedia Commons)
Mention the word Google and you summon visions of an unassailable Internet behemoth. They are all things futuristic and modern – spanning the globe with an electronic grip. They are synonymous with success, creativity and devastatingly potent innovation. Who could question their success*? Most organisations, schools included, may well ask: why can’t we all be a little bit like Google?
One of the strategies that supposedly makes Google so creative, so innovative, is – allegedly – Google 20% time. It is credited with the innovation of Gmail – now so easily pervasive in our lives. The notion is that for one day in the working week Google employees work on their own side projects, developsing upon their technical interests.
It captures the imagination for sure. Wouldn’t all like some time at work to follow our passions, to explore our innermost interests? It all feels very attractive and desirable.
Over the last year I have observed the interest in Google 20% time in schools. Of course, the most interest is largely centered in the schools from the home of Google – the USA. It has been given a snazzy title: “genius hour”. It symbolizes lots of fuzzy warms notions of children being wholly creative and innovative, exercising their passions. I have seen and read articles about students being creative, building robots, or mobile apps, undertaking projects and more. The teacher stands back and students develop upon their interests…then genius ensues.
Take a look here, here and here for a flavour Google inspired ‘genius hour’ learning. The last post linked, a guest post on Angela Maiers’ hugely popular blog, cites Dan Pink’s excellent book on motivation, ‘Drive’, that the volition of students should extend to their curriculum time in school.
So what is the problem here? Well, students are not expert workers at Google, near the top of their respective profession, after years of training; they are novices, and as such, they require a great deal our our expert guidance. Even twenty percent of the curriculum time of our students is huge and not to be squandered. Put simply, we misunderstand the development of knowledge, or the parameters of creativity by forsaking the knowledge of subject disciplines. Let’s first simple define an expert: they possess a deep knowledge of their field. They are able to draw upon a wealth of crucial background knowledge and skills. They create vast frameworks of prior knowledge – or schemas – structured around a subject domain. Complete freedom for for our students is likely to diminish their ability to learn and remember what they have learnt.
We should not waste the precious time of our students by not guiding them within the best that is what is thought and known within our subject. Great learning requires interdependence – the independence conferred by Google 20% should be confined to the realm of our most experienced students (the structured play that is so integral to early years education is a different proposition all together)
Choice and agency matter for successful learning no doubt. We want our students to be highly motivated and we know that choice is an important part of that subtle personal relationships that define our students’ learning. Still, we can embed choice within our directed instruction that is connected to the rich structures of subject knowledge. I would, of course, need to experience the reality of such time in schools to make a full judgment, but I fail to see how knowledge and skills unrelated to subject knowledge can be better than guided instruction within such subject parameters.
The the final kicker to the tale? Google have only gone and imposed some structure upon 20% time – see here. Proof, if it were needed, that learning, indeed creativity, requires structure and expert support to flourish. Not only that, Marissa Myer, CEO of Yahoo, and former Google employer (yet, there is potential bias here), argues that 20% time doesn’t even exist – it is really 120% time – where employees pursue projects in their own time, above and beyond working hours.
We should consider the motivation inspired by giving our students choice and trusting them to learn with increasing degrees of independence, but we mustn’t sacrifice the precious curriculum time we have.
I need to end on a note of honesty. I’m pretty sure I grew up undertaking countless 20% time, or repeated ‘genius hour’ sessions, at home. They were flagrantly and rampantly unguided…many people call it reading!
I have to say though, I’m glad I got to do my genius hours at home, so that my teacher could help teach me stuff and exercise every hour of my time at school to learn the powerful knowledge I now possess. Unfettered Google 20% time: not in my classroom, not on my watch.
* I recognise that many people may well question the means by which Google have attained, and sustain, their success!