Google's 80/20 Principle Gives Students Freedom

A group of seniors spends 20 percent of class time on their own projects.

by / June 11, 2013 0
High school seniors conquer their fear of horses in a project based on Google's 80/20 principle Four high school seniors conquer their fear of horses in a school project inspired by the Kenyan memoir Out of Africa. Their teacher adopted Google's 80/20 principle so that students could spend time developing their own projects. Courtesy of Marissa Zaritsky

A principle that Google practices has given a group of high school seniors the freedom to pursue their own projects in AP English class.

The 80/20 principle at Google means that employees spend 80 percent of their time on assigned projects and 20 percent working on something that's interesting to them. At Arlington High School in Lagrangeville, N. Y., AP English teacher Julie Jee opened up 20 percent of class time for students to work on their projects.

While they did have some general guidelines, she really wanted them to be creative and focus more on the learning process than the product exclusively. And they did.

"I would definitely encourage teachers to implement 20 percent time in their classrooms because I think they'll be more than pleasantly surprised; they'll be completely blown away by what their students have to show them," Jee said. 

In the 2012-13 school year, her students split into small groups, picked a book to read from an Advanced Placement reading list and came up with an essential question based on the book. Then they set out to answer it.

A group of four seniors read Out of Africa, a Kenyan memoir by Isak Dinesen, and decided to answer the question, "How do you conquer fear?" Elizabeth Saint-Louis, Marissa Zaritsky, Natalie Turner and Klea Albrahimi figured out what they were afraid of and set out to face their fears.

They rode horses, tried new foods and played a scary video game called Slender. And while some of them still didn't like trying new food or petting dogs, they discovered that not everything was as scary as they thought.

Twenty percent time made learning more personal and gave students a chance to think differently, said Marissa Zaritsky, a newly graduated senior who plans to major in communication disorders at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the fall.

"The 20 percent project I think is something that should be utilized in every school," Zaritsky said.

And so should technology. Zaritsky and her classmates used iMovie to create their documentary and kept a journal of their progress in Google Docs. Their teacher also incorporated interactive whiteboards, computers, websites, Edmodo, prezi and other tools throughout the year.

"This is the first year I've ever had a teacher who brought technology into the classroom in a big way," Zaritsky said. "Using technology in the classroom not only will make the students more interested because the teachers are going on a level that the kids understand, but it also brings in a new element. It's not just paper and pen anymore."

Technology also played a big role in another project. Seniors Schuyler Kieley and Kieran Stack read Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller and set out to answer the question, "Do you feel that it is our duty as a society to help those in need?" The main character, Willy Loman, commits suicide, and at the end of the book, his family was trying to figure out how his death could have been prevented.

Kieley and Stack interviewed other students and posted the video interviews on YouTube. Both of them enjoy music and are planning to major in music education and music industry respectively in college next year. So they organized a benefit concert for the Kelley Doyle Children's Christmas Foundation, which was established after the suicide of local resident Kelley Doyle to provide Christmas presents for children in need. 

"Putting on a benefit concert has always been something that I wanted to do, but there was never like a good time or a huge drive to do it," Kieley said. "But when this opportunity came up, Mrs. Jee gave us tons of time to plan it, and it just seemed like the right thing to do."

They spread the word on Twitter and Facebook, asked five high school bands to send them a video preview of their music and put a trailer video together with those clips. The band that Kieley is in,  Rewards and Revisions, played in the concert.

More than 75 people showed up, and the two seniors were able to send a check for $375 to the foundation.

Their project allowed them to use their passion for music to help others in their community. And it motivated these students to work hard on a project they created.

"Once you realize the amount of effort that you're putting toward something that you've come up with yourself, you realize that everything else really should have that same work ethic," Kieley said.

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.