Should Students Have “Innovation Time Off”?

The blogosphere is reverberating with discussions about how bringing Google’s “Innovation Time Off” to the classroom can revolutionize learning. Educators’ idea is to give students a specified amount of school time each week to pursue their own interests without any restrictions other than a requirement to share their findings with their peers. The term “genius hour” seems in danger of sticking to the idea.

Although I can see true value in having students pursue individual learning inquiries, I had some reservations about schools’ implementation of them.

The Google experience

According to a 2004 TED talk by Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google’s decision to give all employees the equivalent of 20 percent of their time to pursue something that interested them grew out of their experience in Montessori schools. Many of Google’s most important products have developed from employees’ free time pursuits. The company is willing to pay employees (recent reports say the practice today is limited to engineers) to pursue interest not on their job description because doing that makes money for Google and making money is what businesses are supposed to do.

Application to education

Educators hope that unrestricted learning time will revolutionize schools in much the same way that giving employees free time has been used by Google and other technology and engineering companies to make money.

Given the propensity of educators to get caught up in activities and forget why they were doing the activity, I am a bit antsy about how unrestricted time would work in schools. I fear that teachers may get so excited about giving 20% of their class time to letting students pursue their personal interests, that they forget about the school’s bottom line. The goal for school should be helping students learn information and skills the school values.

Teachers’ experiences

The experience of Paul Solarz shows that allowing students to study something that interests them can shape learning that schools value. Of the projects his fifth grade students developed, the majority have some direct connection to subjects in standard school curriculum.

Compare Solarz’s experience with that of Kay Baisaillon, a second grade teacher. Probably half of the questions her students wanted to answer, such as how did the cupcake get its name, are irrelevant to the information and skills schools value.

I was surprised not to find many high school teachers sharing their experiences with the student-initiated inquiry learning projects.I believe I counted just four links to teachers working at or above sixth grade on the GeniusHour website. Given the frequently cited need to re-engage high schoolers to get them ready for careers or college, I found the paucity of high school applications discouraging.

Tentative conclusions on Google 20%

I’ve become increasingly positive toward educational applications of the “Google 20%” concept as I’ve read experiences of teachers who obviously use it well. I’ve reached a few tentative conclusions, which are subject to change as I learn more:

  • We disrespect students by assuming they are not interested in school subjects.
  • Students develop awareness of academic questions from being in academic settings.
  • We need to encourage students to make a habit of generating questions about their school subjects that are not answered in class.
  • Learning doesn’t need to be fun to be satisfying.
  • Student-selected inquiry projects at the high school level may offer better return-on-investment than those at lower levels.

How does that square with your assessment?

[2014-04-25 removed broken links.]