20% time! - An attempt to empower learners to be more creative and innovative

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One of most well-known management philosophies in recent years has been Google's "20% time". This post is about an attempt to implement 20% in an English class.

Probably one of most well-known management philosophies in recent years has been Google's "20% time". Over 10 years ago, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin mentioned the idea in their 2004 IPO letter: They stated, “We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google," They continued, "This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner."  For those that have followed this news, you will know that in practice this has not always been the case. However, in principle, this seems like a great idea that could be employed in the classroom. Given that Google is one the most successful companies in the world, what could we as teachers learn from this? Would it be a good idea to have 20% time in classes? How would the learners react? How would it feel as a teacher to go into class purposefully under prepared? Would it empower learners to be more creative and innovative?

These are a few of questions that I started to ponder last year when I was first contemplating implementing 20% time in class. I teach at the tertiary level in Japan, and from discussions with my learners I discovered that this was something they had never experienced as language learners. In fact, most of their classes seemed pretty much maxed out. In particular, at the end of the semester the work seemed to spill over to add to the amount homework they were already getting. From these conversations, I realised that the idea of a 20% time was actually very far removed from my context. This raised concerns. In particular, to how the students would react to having this freedom in class. Classes are 90 minutes long, so that would be approximately 20 minutes of class time that would be unplanned.

After some deliberation, I decided I would experiment and implement 20% in one of my freshman classes. However, as I wasn’t completely confident, I would go in with a 70 minute lesson plan and I would also have a few back-up activities and things to do just in case it fell apart. Early in the semester, after the class had got to know each other a little, I told the class that there would parts of the class where I would like their suggestions on what we should do and how we should do it. There was a quite muted response to this idea and I could see there was quite a lot of confusion. In fact, for the first couple of weeks that I tried this, the only suggestions I got were for a YouTube music video. I have built up a collection of interesting and thought provoking videos over the years, and I used the time to show these or to tell a short narrative about an experience or something I had learned. These videos and stories had nothing to do with the content of what we were learning. However, they seem to go down well. Over the course of the 15-week semester, I had many comments on how they were actually the most enjoyable activity of the class. One girl told me her favourite part of the class was these stories! I also received an e-mail from one learner who told me how she had put into practice some advice that she received through one particulate Ted video I played. She said it helped her calm down before an interview for a part-time job and she had gotten the job.

Towards the end of the semester, some learners were more comfortable sharing their own stories in small groups and going to the front to take charge of the classroom computer to share videos they thought the class would enjoy and find beneficial. The stories were generally how they had overcome a challenge and the videos were mostly videos to encourage, inspire, or just to make it each other laugh. It never quite made it to the 20% time in the vision set out by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, but I do feel it helped to create a lot of positivity in class. It was probably more like 10% time to be honest, but I do think it helped the class develop relationships and create a more positive atmosphere in the class.

I am currently wondering how to take this forward next semester. Any ideas? I’d love to hear them.

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