Google 20% Time or ‘Genius Hour’

In Uncategorized by Alex Quigley13 Comments

(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!



  1. Within the Welsh Bacc there is a component that includes 4 Key issue areas: politics, social issues, economic and technological issues and culture. Students were given the choice to address any of the four areas. They had to pitch their idea in a ‘gallery walk’ of sorts. We set up the gallery in the A-level work room and for one lesson fellow students and adults walked through the pitch boards or presentations and the students had to explain what their project was and how they would proceed. Students then had to research their project, (all with certain requirements within the research i.e. email or phone an expert in the field among others) analyze the sources for reliability and whether it was pertinent to their project. They had to carry out the project within six weeks, ending with a Pecha Kucha presentation over two lessons (all individual) They were required to write up the project, with several drafts that were annotated and re-drafted. This is a very brief idea of what we did, but some of the projects were quite ambitious: First Aid classes were arranged by the students for students in the college, free of charge; one student began, (but hasn’t finished) a children’s book on climate change; two students set up a blog in which they posted Pictures and quotes from different people of varying ages and how they responded to questions about their lives as teenagers, (Story Corp fashion)
    The idea of this ‘Genius Hour’ was to allow students to choose a topic they had an interest in and delve deeper and present what they learned and how it improved their views on learning, the issue itself, etc…
    Was it 100% successful for every student? No, some really struggled with the freedom of choice and they needed much more guidance, but overall the feedback from students indicated that, although they struggled with some aspects, they felt their skills in communication, oral and written, had improved and some of them were able to give a voice to issues that really meant something to them. Body image in the media, female objectification in society, LGBT issues, climate change, carbon footprint……. Anyway, as a Biology Tutor tasked with teaching the Welsh Bacc, I felt that this was a chance to move away from everyone learning the same information in a very teacher directed fashion, and allowing them to explore an area they were interested in. It was a hell of a ride for me, as I had 20ish projects to look after, but by the end I was pleased with how it all turned out. And the Pecha Kucha presentations were what the students struggled with the most, but the part I enjoyed the most, because the topics were so varied. Definitely thought it had real value.

    1. Author

      “Was it 100% successful for every student? No…they needed much more guidance…”

      For me, this is the issue. I would challenge critically and ask, how successful was the approach opposed to much more explicit insturctional in subject domains? If we don’t really know – if we haven’t trialled it with some controls and measurable outcomes, then surely we are guessing and risking less supported instruction that may hamper them when it comes to their educational outcomes. ‘Discovery’ instruction is commonly weak in comparison to more traditional explicit instruction – I’ve yet to see this disproved and be confident in a project approach.

      I think that extended essays/presentations for mature students, with guidance and evidence of some substantial prior knowledge, can certainly have benefits. If you are embedding that into a weekly curriculum – a la ‘genius hour’ then you are really stretching – then I would want real definitive evidence of impact. Feeling confident in public speaking has real value; research skills (really well guided) have value etc. But then again, you can learn all these skills within traditional subject domains. Then we are back to how children really learn – supported by cognitive science – in subject domains with a body of substantive prior knowledge.

      I have taught the Ib extended essay myself, and it has real value, but it is for mature students, is tightly structured and the degree of choice is still limited to their different academic subject domains.

      Thanks for your detailed reply. Knowing more about the Welsh Bacc is clearly helpful. It isn’t genius hour in many ways, but some parallels are clear.

  2. Hmm… I have now added you to my Twitter feed, as I need educators who think differently from me. 😉 First, I’d love to know – have you read DRIVE by Daniel Pink? If I remember correctly, this time has been given to employees long before Google ever did (or didn’t) give it. Anyway, I’ve written a post awhile ago defending Genius Hour-type learning –

    I think it’s about the relationship with children. People ask, “What’s your favorite project?” I don’t value the projects. I value the time spent one-on-one, getting to know my students, and garnering their trust. As far as curriculum goes, we are here to teach children first. Once we can make that connection, the curriculum comes easier – to all involved. Post on this point here:

    I’ve been called a “genius hour evangelist.” I don’t care what people call it, but I am a strong believer that teachers need to give over time to children IN school. If for no other reason than to create relationships that will help the “lessons” we teach sink in. Children these days are not like us when we were kids – they do not all have time after school to do their own thing – many are busy with clubs, sports, and more schooling / lessons. If students DO have the time, they might enjoy sharing their passions with their classmates during school – sharing what they’ve read, written, or created. Giving time for students to share what they love is also beneficial in a classroom, as student-to-student connections are created, as well. I have a lot of students in my 7th grade ELA classes who “don’t like reading or writing” (at least at the beginning of the year) 😉 and find it difficult to succeed, but when they can show their particular “genius” bent, they glow, and other students get a chance to recognize their (math, science, athletic, artistic, etc.) talents.

    Just my two cents! I intended on just leaving the blog posts – sorry so long-winded. Let’s keep this conversation going!

    1. Author

      Hi Joy,

      I appreciate you adding me to you feed and I will do likewise. It is important to challenge our biases and be critically challenged – no doubt. I’ve read Drive, but it is a few years ago, so I cannot cite exactly the detail. I think we can over-interpret some evidence too – what may be good for workers in an organisation may not be good for students in school. I think that we should be very circumspect with any evidence before applying it. I’m sure that you have done so for students in your context.

      Yes – we are of course teaching children first. I would never want to employ a teacher who was only interested in their subject and who didn’t really want to teach children (I know that, sadly, this isn’t always the case). Crucially, however, cognitive science shows us that children/people learn in subject domains. In depth knowledge of those domains is required to build yet more knowledge and skill in that domain. When we let twenty different students loose on their own interests (of course, I value intrinsic motivation and curiosity, but I would look to foster them outside of curriculum time where ever possible) many students lack the prerequisite knowledge and understanding to learn deeply. They may be motivated and feel good (that has value I know), but it is unlikely to improve their educational outcomes when compared to students who are receiving expert direction instruction and who are undertaking supported inquiry within a subject domain.

      I understand your point about developing relationships. Trust and belief in the teacher is a crucial prerequisite for a student to learn (I have written about this on my blog more an once), but I don’t think that instruction in ‘traditional subjects’ inhibits building that relationship. I am inferring that you see students building their confidence in ‘genius hour’. Confidence is really important – no doubt (I am writing a book called ‘The Confident Teacher’!) – but authentic confidence comes from competence. We need to develop confidence in reading and mathematics etc. first and then students will be better prepared in their future to exercise their passions. Having a shot of confidence from delving into your passion can too easily be dashed by then failing to do quadratic equations in mathematics. Underperforming in such subjects, relative to peers, quashes confidence quickly and limits life opportunities.

  3. Like most educational practices, there are both strong and weak examples of the concept of 20% time in schools. I have seen, for example, dreadful examples of ‘direct instruction’ and equally powerful ones. I work in the primary school sector and one of the things I do is to support teachers who wish to implement a routine like this within their school week. The successful implementation of what we call “Itime” is actually very structured. Students prepare proposals, give and receive feedback on those proposals, plan their time, set personal goals to strengthen skills as learners as they work on their current project, work to an agreed time-frame and self assess against criteria we have co constructed. It is a sophisticated and layered approach that, amongst other things, recognises the challenge of building new skills for changing times. Teachers are highly involved (far from leaving the kids to it!) conferring with individuals and small groups, supporting students in their research/planning skills as required, doing lots of one-one, quality teaching within the context of a project that has, importantly, been selected by the student. Students are often engaged in wonderful discourse with people outside the school that have expertise in their chosen area. These workshops are all about building on the skills and dispositions at the centre of an inquiry classroom. We are constantly amazed by the high engagement – and the deep learning – that we see when even very young students have an opportunity to select an avenue for personal inquiry. And none of us is interested in squandering time. I think a great deal of my time was squandered when I was in primary school (a long time ago….) making endless posters of information I copied from an encyclopaedia!

    The way we approach opportunities for personal inquiry is not to see it as an alternative to more teacher guided or shared inquiry – rather, as an important addition. Of course, I’ve seen it fail too – as I have seen other worthwhile innovations fail in the hands of poorly informed or under-skilled teachers. I think your post is such good reminder of the importance of continuing to consider why we do what we do. Like Joy, I value the opportunity to view things from multiple perspectives – thanks!

  4. Alex,

    Your post is thought provoking, though I am not convinced that genius hour is a waste of valuable time. The longer I’m a teacher, the more I believe learning must be student-centered. Genius hour is not about being an expert, like we might expect an engineer at Google to be an expert. I believe the novice’s learning experiences become the seeds that grow into good metacognition, knowledge acquisition, and commitment to lifelong learning.

    I’m sure it wasn’t only direct instruction that helped you learn so much as a student. You said you were glad to do your 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.” I would argue that you have become a powerful learner not because teachers filled you up with knowledge, but because they helped you learn to learn. Genius hour is just a way to help students learn to learn. It doesn’t neglect curriculum at all.

    I like Shelley’s comment about her students doing meaningful work in genius hour—practicing research, writing, and presenting, all on topics of interest they chose. They weren’t really doing it independently, but like Joy said in her comment about her one-on-one conferences, interdependently with the teacher. They probably also received input from classmates, as well.

    I re-read the three links you shared as examples of this type of learning, and again I am reminded that this learning is powerful.

    I do like your suggestion that we do trials with controls and measuring outcomes. I agree more research is needed so we can have some concrete evidence to point to in discussions like this.

    Thanks for the challenge.


    1. Author

      Thanks for the feedback Denise. I’m sure I became a successful learner with those building blocks of teacher knowledge, supplemented by my own inquiry and motivation. I think we must be very careful in getting the balance between stimulating inquiry and supporting direct instruction so the foundations are in place to do so well. In terms of the projects – research skills etc. are of course useful and need to be directly taught, but our prior knowledge is so crucial to understanding so we need to ensure it is broad – by using the schemas of subject domains – thousands of years old! – we make that knowledge ‘stickier’ and easier to learn and remember. Balance is so crucial here. Again, thanks for reading and engaging.


  5. Ah, Alex. That’s it! You’ve hit the nail on the head with this line: “I’m pretty sure I grew up undertaking countless 20% time, or repeated ‘genius hour’ sessions, at home.” My household didn’t read. It was just not something we did or talked about. Space for self-directed learning is not necessary for every student. Student’s like you who have examples of people in their life at home who make it a habit to do self-directed projects/learning/reading and discuss it with others need teachers to teach knowledge. I needed teachers to talk with me and to say, just once; “that’s what you want to do? go for it” or “here’s a suggestion…” or whatever.

    When I finally split from education, with excellent qualifications and no interest in the industry that was beckoning me with Masters Degree sponsorship, I accidentally started reading. Inspired by Michael Faraday I got my brother, who’d given up on school after GCSE’s, to do what I call ‘Apprentice Yourself’ which just means to move yourself into the virtual community of people you identify with; aviation, gaming, comics, whatever it is, for me it’s education. He’s now close to completing commercial pilot training on a shoestring income from his supermarket job. He’s amazing. When I wrote and shared my first real (not-for-a-grade) poem it wasn’t long after when my dad wrote one too, I never knew! It’s breathtaking and still makes me cry. My mum’s seen how I’m fearlessly connecting with people now so she’s gone and been fearless too and done what she’s always wanted; make fairy dolls! Here they are:

    I’m wishing I could have given my schooling the credit for awakening my household with creativity, by just allowing me some space and support as a student to start. But I had to wait until I was out of the system to accidentally stumble on authors, examples and time to do this. Some students don’t need to do their own thing in school time but, for those of us who do, this chance is as important as air. And we’ll breath this life back to our households. Promise.

    P.S. Sorry for the length!
    P.P.S Just to say, Alex, you’re being requested:

    1. Author

      There is no doubt a huge amount to be said for the stimulation of independent inquiry. At GCSE age my development was similar to yours. By A level I wasn’t reading my course texts, but I was reading a huge amount! (That doesn’t work out by the way!). Back to genius hour, we can develop that independence with a good grounding of prior knowledge and basic skill. I worry we dismantle the ample skills of the teacher to do that by eschewing subject knowlege and undertaking ‘genius hour’. I understand there is a balance to be struck.

      Nice to be requested! Thanks!

      1. Great reply Alex, it’s got me thinking… it serves no one to dismantle or deny the skills teachers have in developing student knowledge. You’re completely right and I hope nothing I say suggests this would be in any way good, and I’ll be more careful with my wording in the future. If we accept there is a balance to be struck then my message to students, parents, teachers, schools e.t.c is that individual students are the only ones who can find their own balance (to deny students this is, I propose, damaging) and schools can support this by allowing some real flexibility for students to decide what they need and teachers can support this by declaring what they do in the main: developing student knowledge OR opening space for student directed work. I’ll keep thinking. Thank you for your thoughtful posts and replies Alex.

  6. I am not sure what I can add that has not already been covered in the previous comments, but what concerns me is that although students are not necessarily capable as they are not ‘experts’, when do they learn how to learn? Learn to reflect and wonder? When they are 30? I used Genius Hour in my Year 7 ICT class in a structured manner as Kath Murdoch touches upon. ( My reason was that I wanted them to use their devices, I wanted them to explore blogging, as well as planning ahead. I gave them feedback and support on each of these things. I did not assess their products, but I did assess their process. Maybe your answer is that it was not really ‘Genius Hour etc …’ then. Not sure, maybe it wasn’t. In part, maybe the subject of ‘ICT’ should not even exist. I have my thoughts about that. In the end though I feel that Greg Miller touches upon something when he suggests for minimum not more mandated curriculum hours in his dream about education for the future (

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