The Google approach

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Inspired by Google's model of freeing up 20 per cent of employee time for creative thinking, Matthew Bebbington introduced the concept at his school.

What have the companies 3M and Google got in common? They both give their employees time during the working day to work on what they are curious about. They have complete autonomy over how they work, who they work with and what they experiment with. Ironically, given this freedom, they tend to work on creative solutions that will benefit their companies.

This is not a recent development either – 3M employees have had 15 per cent time every week since the 1930s and if you have ever used a Post-it note you have been the beneficiary of this 15 per cent time.

Remarkably, Google’s famed 20 per cent time, the equivalent of one working day per week, has been responsible for 50 per cent of Google’s products including Gmail and Google News.

This concept led me to planning my own “Innovation Day” for students at Wilmslow High School earlier this year.

The Innovation Day was open to all year 7 to 10 students (around 1,200 students) who were invited to apply with a project they would like to work on for an entire school day – giving them complete autonomy over their work.

Eighty students with more than 30 projects were successful with their applications. The students worked individually and in small groups.

The day ended with a public presentation of their project to fellow students and teachers, including members of the leadership team.

There is a link to a video highlight reel created by two students during Innovation Day at the end of this article and below is a small taste of the projects that were created on the day itself:

  • Research on the history of the Commonwealth Games with a particular focus on Glasgow 2014.

  • Creating backing tracks and lyrics to boost confidence in public singing.

  • Filming art classes and researching the different techniques used in art.

  • Designing and building a remote controlled car.

  • Baking Jubilee cup cakes.

  • Building a model rocket.

Gallery and reflections

During Innovation Day, the students worked diligently for six hours, cross-pollinating across different projects, ages and abilities where students and the teachers assisting were viewed as equals. 

Students organised their own breaks with many choosing to take many tiny breaks rather than the traditional 15-minute morning and 30-minute lunch break. They found this helped with maintaining energy levels and allowed them to focus better over the course of the day.

A question I have since been asked is whether the students managed to stay immersed in their projects for the entire day? The honest answer is yes. Why? I think there were two major factors:

  • Students designed their own learning experience. This meant they had autonomy over the project and their learning was authentic and closely connected to their interests.

  • The public presentation of learning in the school gym at the end of the day with both peers and the senior leadership team in attendance gave the students a “we must make this brilliant” attitude.

The challenge now of course, is how we make this type of learning an integral and sustainable part of school’s curriculum. Or as the New York-based School of One intriguingly puts it, how do we create the “mass customisation of student learning?”.

Innovation Day confirms that giving students autonomy, a chance to master skills and find ways to connect their work to a wider world excites and engages them in deep and purposeful learning which surely is the primary objective of education.

Student reflections

After Innovation Day, I asked the students who participated to give some open and honest feedback via the school’s virtual learning environment. One particular question seemed to spark great debate: “Has Innovation Day changed your opinion of how your learning should happen and why?”

My aim was to get an idea of the students’ views about how they like their learning to be organised – do they prefer the traditional 50-minute lessons or longer periods of project-based learning?

Of course, I understand the bias these students may have, given that they chose to be involved in a day where they designed and executed their own projects, but they had a complete mixture of abilities in a variety of fields with a broad range of talents. Here are a few of their unedited responses:

  • “It is great to have a whole day to use for something you wouldn’t normally do in school. It is also good to choose when you have break so then if you are stuck with something you could have a break then go back to it.”

  • “I am happy with the normal school times but I think it would be nice if we could have innovation days two or three times a year.”

  • “I do prefer longer time periods opposed to 50-minute lessons because if you do not understand something, you might understand it by the end of the lesson.”

  • “I prefer longer time periods of project-based learning because it means you can spend longer planning it, thinking about it and concentrating on it so you can produce a better piece of work at the end of it all.”

Perhaps most interesting was this response, in some detail, from an intelligent, yet frustrated year 10 student (now in year 11): “I have always believed the whole idea of GCSEs are terrible, you don’t learn anything, you just do stuff to pass a test. 

“This is why you get some students getting A*s in science when, sometimes, they struggle to think for themselves. A better way for exams to be carried out would be mock real-life situations in which a student is graded on their performance in that situation and the work and results they produce. 

“This is all because I am frustrated of wanting to learn new things and being told that it won’t help you pass your GCSEs.”

Hopefully these thoughts will make you question how our students’ school days are organised. Should we change this? Should we have space in the curriculum for personal projects similar to the approach that successful companies like Google and 3M have embedded into their culture? Indeed, if world class companies create time for their employees to experiment, does not it make sense to build time into the school curriculum for such opportunities to generate world class students?

For example, how about one day a week students and teachers drop their text books and whiteboard pens to collaborate with each other on projects that excite and create passionate, deep learning on a grand scale? I think this would have a positive effect on examination results by fostering the students’ love of learning for its own sake.

It would take a lot of hard work to implement in schools initially, with organisation and resources, but surely we have to challenge the status quo and adapt our curriculum to produce a world class experience for our school communities. We should co-design these experiences with students, parents and teachers with a clean slate and a fresh perspective.

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