20 Percent Time Introduced

I recently attended a conference called the Google Apps for Education Summit.  It was fantastic.  I met innovative educators from all over the country, explored all sorts of new ways to engage students using technology in the classroom, and found out about a beautiful concept called 20 percent time that I’m hoping will shape the culture in my classroom.  On my way home from the conference I bought a book that was highly recommended by several 20 percent time gurus – Drive: The Surprising Truth About what Motivates Us by Daniel Pink. I devoured the book over over the next few days and I’ve since been busy pouring over various blogs (thanks especially to Kevin and Kate as much of what I’m planning to implement has been stolen from them) and other resources with the goal of figuring out how to best implement 20 percent time in room 307 at Del Oro High School.  Today is the day it all begins.

The Introduction

“Okay guys, today and on every Friday for the rest of the term, you will be working on your 20% Project.  Go… (blank stares) Any questions?”

That’s how it will start in just a few hours.  I’m sure that I’ll have all sorts of confused faces staring at me.  I’ll likely see some eye rolling – Mr. Zerwas is being crazy again.  Students will then spend 15 minutes researching 20 percent time and developing a list of questions – things they need to know in order to get started.

In their research, students will soon discover that 3M pioneered the concept in the 1950’s with what they called the 15% Project. 3M employees spent 15 percent of their work hours working on something they were interested in but that wasn’t directly related to their current work.  It was revolutionary at the time, but Post It notes and masking tape were developed by 3M employees during this 15% Project.  Students will also discover that Google has run with this concept (adding an extra 5% to make it 20% time) over the past several years and we now have Gmail, AdSense, and Google News as a result.  They will learn that the 20% concept has worked its way into classrooms all over the world – instead of teachers pushing out information to students through lectures and demonstrations, students are playing an active role in deciding how they will engage with the world around them.

After the 15 minutes of research, the class will come back together and share what they’ve discovered about 20% time and what questions remain (there will certainly be a lot of questions.)  I’ll then show Daniel Pink’s TED Talk

The Process


Starting right away students will brainstorm ideas for a 20% project.   They may work alone or with a group.  They will choose a project that is new to them and something they wouldn’t normally do in an academic class.  If they find themselves stuck trying to find an idea, I’ll push them to take a quick look at other educational 20% projects and focus on what they are passionate about.  Their 20% project must produce a product – they can’t just stay at the idea stage for the entire term.  We’ll have a more formal brainstorming session during week 2 of the project.

Proposal/Elevator Pitch

Once a student or group of students settles on an idea to pursue, they’ll develop a project proposal. This proposal is how students will pitch their idea to the rest of the class. In this proposal, students will answer questions like:

  • Why did you choose this project?  Why is it important to you?
  • Who is the audience for this project?
  • Why is this project worthwhile?
  • What do you anticipate learning from this project?
  • How will you determine if you are making successful progress?
  • What is your timeline for completing (or launching) your project?

Students will present a memorized 30 second elevator pitch and a concise 1 page document to convince me and the class that their project should be approved.

The Blog

Each student will set up a public blog for their 20% project.  Every week, each team member is required to write a blog post to discuss their progress.  They will reflect on what they’ve done in the past week, what they have learned, and what they will be doing next. Each blog post must be at least 150 words and contain a related royalty free image.

20% Days

For the rest of the term, students will have the entire class period each Friday to work on their projects. Some students may choose a project that requires off campus work.  Students are welcome to do the off campus work on weekends or afternoons and use Friday class time for productive planning, research, meeting or writing.

The Presentation

At the end of the term, each team will give a five-minute TED Talk Style presentation to show off their work. This will be carefully written, choreographed, and rehearsed to produce the best presentation they’ve ever given.


Students and parents often care deeply about grades and I’m sure that several students will have questions about how this will be graded.  Based on what I’ve read about this 20% concept and what’s been recommended by other educators who are successfully pulling this off in the classroom, I’m going to try hard to deemphasize grades for the 20% project.  Students should be inspired by the project itself – they are going to be working on something they’re passionate about.

With that said, there will be some elements of the process that I will grade.  They include:

  • The Proposal (Is the proposal on-time, and does it address the required questions appropriately?)
  • The Elevator Pitch (Does it include all of the required elements, and is it effective in convincing the class to support your project?)
  • The Blog (Does the post meet the required length and address the required topic?)
  • The Product (Did you successfully move from idea phase to production phase, and do you have something to show at the end of the term?)
  • Final Presentation (Does your presentation meet all of the required elements?)

So, what do you think?  What questions do you have?  I’ll try and post updates about the successes and failures throughout the coming months.  Wish us luck.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: