Google 20% Time? Just Say No!


I knew it would happen… Google 20% time has infiltrated England! The Guardian has a headline emblazoned with the following:

“Bring Google’s ‘20% time’ to your classroom with passion-based learning”

Not only do they recommend ‘Google 20% time’ – more on that in a moment – they brand it as ‘passion-based learning‘. How could we reject ‘passion‘, or advocate learning without this aforementioned passion? And yet, it sounds rather like an empty phrase. Which is rather apt really, as ‘Google 20% time’ is a dodgy notion that is provides a mode of learning that could prove little more than a waste of time, or worse, a thief of high quality subject specific instruction.

I wrote a skeptical post about Google 20% time, or ‘Genius hour’ here. Now, the notion may sound a bit faddish, give over a few hours for students to pursue their interests – or their passion (like passion is incompatible with reading literature, art, the wonder of science and all the other strong-holds of our typical curriculum that has stood the length of time).

My original post shared an article that exposed the mythic status of Google 20% time from a CEO who actually worked at Google – see here. The fact that it is a rather intriguing deception and that much more structure was imposed by Google on their experts (remember our students lack the independence of a professional who has reached the pinnacle of one of the world’s largest technological companies.

Google’s secret, according to CEO, Marissa Meyer?

“I’ve got to tell you the dirty little secret of Google’s 20% time. It’s really 120% time.”

This sounds a lot like homework – or maybe ‘passion-based homework’?

The Guardian article in favour of Google 20% time states the following:

“This isn’t about standards or grades, it’s about empowering students to own their learning. When we care or are excited, we do more and we do it better. Too much of students’ learning is micro-managed and controlled.”

Now, I find this notion problematic. One, that we needn’t be concerned with standards or grades. I don’t think schools need to be an exam factory, but if we select Google 20% what may happen to technology on the school curriculum? When students flounder in their GCSE exams, will their excitement carry them on through their future lives?

Let’s not confuse excitement with correlating with achievement nor superior learning. Take a study from Sung and Meyer (2012), on When graphics improve liking but not learning from online learning. It showed that students really liked seductive and decorative online graphics over instructional graphics (plain diagrams etc.) and having no graphics at all. And yet, the post-test showed that this liking didn’t correlate with any more learning. It is akin to the many findings where students prefer certain lecturers at university, but that liking doesn’t correlate with more learning.

My fifteen year old self would have liked exploring football statistics, or playing Sim City and the like, but I’d have been better off getting some excellent mathematics teaching so that I gained more competence and confidence (maybe even some passion) in that aspect of my learning that has followed me throughout my life.

I have stated, in my previous critique of such Google 20% Time, that we should no doubt consider our students’ motivation and embed elements of choice where possible, but by forsaking our opportunity for teacher led instruction for the independent learning opportunities offered by the likes of ‘Google 20% time’, we may risk far more than we could gain.


And finally… If you want to tackle some more learning myths and debate the value of educational strategies like ‘Google 20% Time’ then do consider coming to ResearchEd York, at Huntington School, on the 9th of July – you can buy a ticket for a minuscule £17 then pick one up HERE.

12 thoughts on “Google 20% Time? Just Say No!”

  1. Hi Alex – I was too shy to tell you straight away, but I quoted your last blog piece on 20% time in my ResearchED presentation last November (video is on this page: – as you’re against this, for your own well thought through reasons, it would be a shame for you waste your precious time being forced to implement this in your classroom. There are teachers though who see things differently, perhaps because they grew up more like me in a family that didn’t know how to encourage ‘big dream’ kind of passion. So this is what I needed in school, and this is why I support this kind of teaching… but only from teachers who feel their time is wasted now, teaching content to students who really need to know they and their innate interests actually matter.

    1. I still don’t get any sort of rationale if I am honest. I can teach English literature and still know and encourage that the innate interests of my students matters. Doesn’t ‘big dream’ passion comes from knowing the big ideas from the world, science, history, great literature and more? The notion of building a robot and finding out about the characters from our favorite computer game fosters ‘big dreams’ doesn’t make sense to me. If I am caricaturing such 20% time, then I think 20% time caricatures learning.

  2. As a google certified teacher/ innovator, I ought to disagree with Alex, but I don’t.
    The better schools in England already permit 20% innovation time built into the weft and weave of school life.
    Creativity does not happen either to order or to time scale. Writing this as the adjudication occurs at the end of an evening of Claires Court has Talent everything was innovative and creative. School Google time this week was enabled by teaching and support staff 6.30 to 9pm tonight. But the hours of practice and independent study was in addition to class time, not instead of
    Please stop suggesting new silver bullets for Education. We don’t need anything other than a rational acceptance that amazing things already happen every week, and that teachers already give that extra free ‘time’.

    1. James and Alex. We’re on the same page. I’m coming from a place of finally accepting that my own feelings of confinement, as a good student in a good school, were real and trying to understand this. What if I’d have known that, even as a student, I didn’t need to keep waiting to know every single school worthy excellent lesson of our culture to begin acting to improve things I saw were wrong? Just a little validation from someone who understands how it feels to think we have to wait to be worthy, and a bit of time would have been wonderful. Not all students will need this. Not all teachers see the need. And that’s OK.

  3. I have seen the myriad benefits of 20% Time – for students, teachers, and supporting the lessons/learning the “rest of the week.” I’ve also seen the students who don’t benefit from it. I’m worried for those students who will become adults who do not know how to work independently when they are grown, because many teachers have not given them the chance IN school. (My comment on your last post about 20% time was long – I decided this one had to be short if I were to leave it.) Keep the conversation going. Not every way of learning is right for every learner, and not every teacher is cut out to implement 20% Time successfully.

    1. I’m still unsold. I’d want evidence that it did benefit students in terms of improved outcomes. Until there is evidence of that, I will remain skeptical. The notion that you don’t learn to become independent learners by learning through the subject domains of science or English literature. The notion that students can only exhibit passion or develop skills by pursing their own interests in school time has no basis for me. I am always open to be convinced by evidence that challenges my assumptions.

  4. Hi, Alex, and other commenters. I’m happy to jump into a really intelligent discussion about Genius Hour and similar trends. I wrote the article that you’re responding to here, and I wanted to add my own thoughts to the debate at hand.

    Teaching approaches like Genius Hour, in my experience, can and are often embedded with content and skills that are essential for students’ academic success and development. I’m not advocating abandoning anything teachers think valuable for their students, but rethinking how we address their learning experiences. For example, my students research, write, develop arguments, evaluate sources, etc. within their work (all traditional curriculum and standards-based skills); but we additionally address essential 21st century skills like collaboration, creativity, innovation, and more. There’s simply more to education that the subjects we (the educational establishment) deem worthy; we do more and do it differently without losing learning.

    You reference my quote above: “This isn’t about standards or grades, it’s about empowering students to own their learning. When we care or are excited, we do more and we do it better. Too much of students’ learning is micro-managed and controlled.” I’ll stand by this idea but add that I don’t think we can afford to (or should) ignore standards or assessments, but I think educators need to do more than teach to them, and it’s possible to do both together. I can’t speak for the many other teachers using genius-hour approaches, but I know that my students skills and test scores are typically at or above the level of their peers where classes don’t undertake passion projects. Do I have the research to prove the positive effect? No, and I do think more research would be valuable. But I believe that my students aren’t successful in spite of genius hour, innovation, and choice, but because of it.

    If that means they’re really working 120% of the time, but are enjoying their learning more, learning in new ways, and developing interests–all while gaining necessary skills and content–then I couldn’t be happier. It’s certainly not a success for every student, and nothing is, and I’m not suggesting we embrace every educational fad, but seeing how young people grow from these experiences makes me confident in my teaching and these ideas.

    Looking forward to reading more from you.

    1. Hello Adam,

      Thank you for your response. My fundamental argument with ‘Google 20% Time’ or ‘genius hour’ is that it flies in the face of how novices learn best. There is a reason why subject domains survive beyond just ideology. We develop our knowledge in patterns of knowledge – schemas – and these provide the foundations to move beyond novice status. The ‘traditional curriculum’ is our centuries old attempt to best select the foundations of knowledge our students need. It has served us pretty well so far, though we should always reflect critically upon it.

      You state you aren’t advocating abandoning anything, but there is a simple opportunity cost here. By selecting genius hour we are removing a subject or topic. We should therefore take this decision with care a good deal of evidence, such is the importance of our choices. We cannot ever do everything within school hours, so choices about what knowledge is most powerful is crucial. You say we don’t “lose learning” but I am circumspect because with ‘genius hour’ I think we might be.

      Is ‘creativity’ and ‘collaboration’ not part then of teaching English literature, or Biology or mathematics? You imply that these aren’t compatible if you need to undertake ‘genius hour’ instead. When Einstein described “combinatory play”, or what we see as creativity – sometimes aided by collaborating with others, and sometimes hampered by collaboration – he make such ‘eureka insights’ based upon a tremendous amount of subject specific knowledge and deliberate practice. What is schooling if not the training ground for such learning. ‘Combinatory play’ emerges from good learning – like independent learning, it is an end for school, not the means.

      Indeed, what do you mean by creativity? The famous anecdote goes that Shakespeare was taught a highly traditional curriculum and yet he displayed near unparalleled creativity with language, form and theatre. Is creativity not then something related to learning the foundational rules of language, or science, or mathematics, and then breaking those rules, or combining ideas and domains that aren’t typically conflated? Your post it note invention example isn’t the best foundation for developing our curriculum. Yes – there was clearly some divergent thinking, but the foundations of all the technology and science to develop the sticky paper was founded upon ‘traditional’ knowledge from our existing curriculum. They followed the rules, realized there was an issue and thought about a novel application. Of course, the inventors were expert adults, not novices developing their knowledge. I like Alexander Graham Bell’s apt quote on creativity: “Our most original compositions are composed exclusively of expressions derived from others.” In short, for creativity, we need to know lots of stuff – a good argument for our existing curriculum of powerful knowledge.

      I cannot argue with your personal beliefs that it is better for your students (we don’t typically change our beliefs) but you preface that saying there is no evidence. That is where I stand. To make such a change, where you could lose learning, I want better evidence than some personal anecdotes. Kids enjoying school is very important, but enjoyment doesn’t cause learning. Nor is enjoyment incompatible with a ‘traditional curriculum’.

      I’m all for our students working ‘120% of the time’ but having thought long and hard about it, one more, our students having a great deal of prior knowledge gives the best foundation for well directed independent learning – or more accurately, interdependent learning. Once more, I think the 120% is compatible with an excellent ‘traditional curriculum’. I would like to add the caveat, that by traditional, I mean the Arts, Physical education, literature, the sciences, mathematics and the humanities. There is such breadth and opportunity for creativity, innovation and powerful, passionate learning therein, I am wary of spurning the opportunity!

      I hear many ‘genius hour’ or ‘Google 20% time’ advocates say that there is lots of structure and lots of teacher input and lots of the traditional curriculum therein. Well then, we needs to be very clear what we are advocating. How much choice? What we mean by passion? Why the inter-disciplinary work is more effective than domain specific learning? Are

      Thanks for engaging in debate Adam.

      In terms of evidence, I found the following useful:

      – On why minimal guidance during learning does not work:
      – This is good by Dan Willingham on why critical thinking (non-subject specific learning) is difficult to teach:
      -This is good on why students often fail with self-regulated learning, like ‘genius hour’ style approaches:

      Best wishes,


      1. Alex, I just did an unscientific experiment with a sample size of one so feel free to ignore . I asked my Year 9 daughter if she’d like this in her school. Her answer was a loud NO!

        1. 😀 I’d have said NO too when I was in Year 9. Exams were looming and I needed to be ready, so I needed my teachers to prepare me for them. I trusted them to do that, to teach what they had to.

          Would I have trusted them to slow things down enough that I could be honest about what I cared about doing, beyond doing well in exams (and ultimately what I’d end up doing on my own terms once formal education was done)? No. I wouldn’t have liked them to try getting us to do our own projects only because someone told them this would be a good idea. There’s too little trust for me to have found it enjoyable or done anything worthwhile.

          I’d have rather them stuck to their subject so we all know where we’re at and I could continue trying to get the most I could from those lessons… which is what happens in school, which is why I care about sharing how I went through the glass ceiling people hit once we’ve done all the good-student things by suppressing what interests us for so long, in the hope these other lessons will pay off.

          There were some school teachers though, who could have done this well. I’d have been forever grateful if they’d stepped up to lead/encourage this self-directed work, only for students who wanted/needed it. Oh well. Those who aren’t born into a circle of connections who’ll help us move forward with our own education in our won time while we’re students will eventually find those people, even if it means waiting till school and university is done.

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