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The 80/20 principle that Google practices has trickled down to students in classrooms across North America.
For at least 20 percent of their week, students work on projects that interest them. Whether educators call it 20 percent time or genius hour, the concept is the same, said Gallit Zvi, a teacher at Georges Vanier Elementary in British Columbia's Surrey School District 36.
"The goal as I see it is to give students time to explore what they wonder about or what their passions are," Zvi said. "They're in charge of their learning rather than me being the curriculum deliverer standing up in front of the class saying, 'This is what we need to learn."
This process helps students understand that learning is a life-long goal, said Hugh McDonald, a teacher Zvi works with at the elementary school. Instead of force feeding information, teachers foster curiosity and passion in students' learning process.
"As adults, we learn things that we want to learn about," McDonald said, "so why shouldn't students be given that same kind of choice?"
The learning starts with something students care or wonder about, Zvi said. For example, some students might wonder how the lava lamp was invented. Other students might be passionate about sports. In the latter case, a student might say, "I want to know how this sports player became famous."
With teacher guidance, the student comes up with a question and researches it. Their inquiry results in a final product, whether it's a video, a physical model, a short film, a music recording, a website or a virtual 3-D model.
With more freedom, students can think like entrepreneurs, be creative and collaborate on final products, said Juan De Luca, extended learning coordinator at the American School Foundation AC in Mexico City. And they also have more fun.
"It's important that the kids get a chance to have time to do work on something that they love, that they're engaged in it because it's their's," De Luca said.
And it comes with student recommendations. The best part is stepping outside the box and thinking of new ideas, said Meghan Heying, a freshman at Spalding Catholic School in Grandville, Iowa. One of her eighth-grade teachers, Denise Krebs, started holding genius hour once a week last year.
Meghan's team created a video on the best Christmas tree, with plenty of facts about Christmas trees.
"It's fun to use our imagination and our creativity and our genius," Meghan said.
Because students are so excited about learning something they want to learn about, they come into Krebs' class during lunch recess to work on their projects. And one day each week, they spend a period on them as well.
"It made all the difference when I stopped giving them stupid assignments that I chose," said Krebs, who co-moderates a chat on Twitter with Zvi using the hashtag geniushour.
Students now motivate themselves to learn. That's a powerful factor in the learning process, said Julie Jee, an English teacher at Arlington High School in New York.
"It's been exciting to see students take ownership of their own education process, and I've been humbled as a teacher to really see what they're really doing on their own," Jee said.
For example, Jee's students chose a book on the Advance Placement recommended reading list. They created an essential question generated from their reading and started a related project that inspired them.
Two student musicians came up with the essential question, "Is it a moral obligation for an individual to help others in society?" Then they put together a benefit concert for suicide awareness.
Students in De Luca's technology class created a visual trick to do advertisements on a train. Their illusion showed a puma stamp on a subway or train window.
They figured out the speed of the train and other factors in Google Sheets, mapped how much their advertisement would cost, and presented the idea to the class. The process mirrors that of the UK show Dragon's Den, which requires aspiring entrepreneurs to think of ideas and pitch them to multi-millionaire investors.
While the students generated the idea, the content that De Luca needed to teach them became part of the project. That way, it wasn't more work for him, but it was just a different way of teaching the class.
For example, the syllabus required students to learn formulas, graph making and other spreadsheet functions. Instead of giving them a separate project to learn these skills, De Luca incorporated it into their 20 percent time in a way that helped them make sense of their projects.
These teachers became inspired to try 20 percent time because they started connecting on Twitter and reading blogs from fellow teachers. One such teacher was Kevin Brookhouser, who started doing it for his class at York School in Monterey, Calif. On Twitter, Zvi and Krebs co-moderate a chat using the hashtag geniushour (named after an idea author Daniel H. Pink shared from a credit union executive). And at least two educators have started Google+ Communities around 20 percent time.
"My learning was just transformed," Krebs said, "and I know that students have been transformed too."
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