Sunday, June 26, 2011

The 20 Percent Difference: What Schools Can Learn From Google

By Tzvi Pittinsky

The following posting is cross-posted on

Today was my first day at the ISTE Conference in Philadelphia, PA. I decided to come up early before the late afternoon Keynote by Dr. John Medina and signed up for a full day workshop on Google Apps for Administrators. I was blown away. So much to digest...

The Google Wonder Wheel for visual search; Google timeline to search for articles by year and month; Google News archives going back hundreds of years; Using Google Forms as a method of gaining instant audience feedback; Using Google Moderator to pose questions which the audience rates by importance; Creating Word Clouds in Google spreadsheets; Setting up Google sites; Becoming a Gmail Ninja... The list goes on and on. I highly recommend you search the following twitter hashtag from the workshop to further explore these and many more topics covered: #gwaiste11.

How is Google able to consistently create so many innovative tools? The answer lies in the Google credo of 20% time. Google gives its employees 20% of their time to work on their own pet projects independent of their regular responsibilities. This time for innovation, reflection, and creativity allows technicians to follow their passion wherever it may lead. It might become the next great Google product or it might lead to nowhere. Google doesn't mind. Google has embedded into the weekly schedule time for Limud Lishmo, learning for learning's sake.

This got me thinking... Schools are the ultimate knowledge industry. Our teachers are expert technicians trained to gain the most from our products, our students, in terms of skills and information gained. Do we give our teachers 20% time to work on projects of their choosing? Do our teachers give their students 20% time for their own learning? I am not saying that we should not focus on curriculum, benchmarks, and standards. These should be the main aspiration of the 80% of the time spent on structured pursuits. However, at the same time, do we give our teachers and students the opportunity to discover new things and the breathing room to develop and refine these ideas?

Dr. John Medina formulated this challenge at the end of his Keynote address this afternoon. He was responding to the question, "Where does teaching to the test fit into his theory of mind?" His response, "The human brain is not interested in learning but in survival. By teaching to the test, learning becomes about survival and not about fascination with knowledge." We must strive to bring back our student's fascination with knowledge.

I believe that we can accomplish this by taking the lesson from Google and giving them 20% time. This does not necessarily mean that teachers and students can do anything, but, within the loose framework of the curriculum, of the Navi studied or the Mesechta learned, we can allow our teachers and students the choice of how they will learn at least 20% of the time. We will all be pleasantly surprised by the great things they will accomplish with this.

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