20% Time in School – Leaving them to it…

Stretford High School has five core values, one of these is creativity, one is independence and one is drive. I have been trying to instill these core skills into my Year 8 Maths class this year by giving them an hour a week to do whatever they choose.


I was inspired at the SSAT National Conference in 2010 by Dan Pink’s talk about drive, in particular his discussions of non-commissioned time, or 20% time as it is known as at Google. To see exactly what I’m talking about it’s well worth 10mins of your time to watch this:

Or you could even read his excellent book which is on special offer at Amazon at the moment: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Without going into great detail, Pink suggests that humans perform to a higher level and with greater creativity when they are working on something of their own choosing for the sheer pleasure of it. The intrinsic motivation and drive to learn beat the usual game we play in school of using rewards and sanctions to encourage learning to take place. Personally I can really relate to this, 4 years of blogging and spending far too much of my spare time reading about education and technology online has been done, in part, for the sheer enjoyment I get from it.

A number of companies including Google and Atlassian are actively setting aside time for their workers to work on projects of their own choosing. Google News & GMail amongst other products came out of this time. We had a fantastically productive staff training day last term where departments were given the time to go off and work on anything they chose. Hopefully we’ll collate some more of the output from that day on the Creative Stretford Blog.

In The Classroom:

Time to think, create and follow a whim are not something that we’d often associate with school classrooms, particularly in secondary schools. Kevin McLaughlin has been encouraging his primary students to work on projects of their own choosing. Discussions on that article revolved around timetables, curriculums and secondary schools and how hard this would be to make this work in a secondary school. Which sounds like a challenge!

I’m fortunate to teach an able and enthusiastic Year 8 class (12-13yrs) who are always game for trying something new. We have four hours of timetabled Maths each week, and with this class that’s more than enough time to cover the work that is required. So in September I told them that they would have one of the four hours each week to do anything that they choose. This caused a little confusion at first, I think a few thought I had gone a little mad (or lazy!). Choosing something to do in their 20% time was a real challenge for some at first. We agreed a few ground rules, that although they could do anything, there should be some mathematical or logical bent to it, and that they would share their learning with the rest of the class. We agreed that students should be able to spend this time doing extra work on the Maths we’d been doing if they felt they needed the time for that purpose.

After a bit of time getting used to the concept the ideas started to flow. A group of boys decided they wanted to learn how to solve a Rubik’s Cube. A group of girls wanted to do some art, so I pointed them in the direction of MC Escher and left them to it. Another group wanted to look investigate how optical illusions worked, another group started to build their own Sudoku from scratch. I arranged for us to have access to computers for the hour a week and quite a few groups have started to build games in Scratch and Kodu.

As a teacher I’ve found at times that it’s a little hard to let old habits lie:

  • I’ve had to bite my lip and stop myself putting too many ideas into students heads, I’m keen for this learning to come from them not me;
  • I’ve had to avoid getting hung up on outputs, although we have started to blog a good deal of our work and I hope to develop this further this year;
  • I’ve had to sit back and enjoy the slightly chaotic looking classroom, creative learning looks messy!

The whole group has really enjoyed this time so far, they really appreciate the freedom that it offers. There’s been some fantastic work, and some fantastic Maths and logic skills being developed. I’m particularly proud of Adeel, he has taught himself how to solve a Rubik’s Cube, taught some of his peers and then worked with them to produce their own how-to videos and finally created their own blog to share them on! Many of the others have done some great work, I’ll encourage them to share them in more detail on the blog.

We’re going to continue with this for the next term and see where it leads us. I might start making a few suggestions of areas of interest that students might follow, I’ve already suggested that Code Year would be a fantastic use of the time, and I’ll be completing that myself so I hope some of them take up the idea and we can take that learning journey together. Please keep an eye on our class blog to see our progress.

There is time in timetables for work like this, it just takes a little eeking out and a little confidence to make it available. What’s more interesting is how this could be scaled up? Could a secondary school timetable work giving students an hour a day to work on whatever they wanted to? What would we cut? How would we staff it?

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