Center for Digital Education & Converge: research in education technology for K-12 and higher education

Google's 80/20 Principle Gives Students Freedom

on June 11, 2013
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.


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Tanya Roscorla

Tanya Roscorla covers education technology in the classroom, behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Experimenting in the kitchen, cooking up cool crafts, reading good books.

E-mail: troscorla@centerdigitaled.com
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on Jun 17, 2013
I have actually used the 80-20 approach in my classroom for the past four years. For one marking period (the length of our environmental unit) students do the normal classwork/activities on Monday through Thursday. Every Friday however, the students work on a project of their choosing within the realm of environmental science. The outcome has been nothing short of amazing. Students are excited about learning during this time. As part of the project, there needs to be some service learning component. I've had students write and read children's books to daycares, present at township meetings, re-design oil tankers to lessen the amount of oil that will spill during an accident etc. It is by far the best thing I have ever done in my classroom. I would love to expand it to another marking period by our curriculum is so full because of standardized testing that unfortunately I don't have time to. If you ever have the chance to do it, I would highly suggest it.
on Jun 18, 2013
@psime That's great to hear! Thank you for sharing how the 80-20 approach has made a difference in your classroom.
on Jun 27, 2013
It is good to see this idea getting more and more traction in schools. My teaching partner and I will be entering the third year of our program and it keeps getting better every year. We really did not know how to proceed but we just dove in. For those who are uncomfortable with that approach we recently made a video that outlines how we do it, although we certainly have a lot more to learn about how to make it more meaningful for kids. We also show off some of the creations and products of our learners. http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=piAXZQ56DDk Feedback and suggestions always welcome.
on Jul 1, 2013
@Philip Thank you for passing along the video about how you do 20 percent time in your school! It sounds like this approach has been working well for you.


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