Encourage independent study and creativity in learning with the help of Google’s “20% time”

Give students time to work on their own projects

I recently read an interesting blog post (“Can you apply Google’s 20% time in the classroom?”; posted by Stuart Spendlow, 4/10/12 on Guardian Teacher Network) by a teacher who implemented a Google style “20% time” policy with his pupils in a primary school. I think this idea has the potential to encourage students to undertake meaningful independent study in the Sixth Form, in Psychology or any other A Level subject, and/or provide opportunities to use class time in a creative manner.

Google give their engineers 20% of their working hours to work on projects of their choice. This non-prescriptive use of time has apparently led Google to develop a number of new products but also presumably helps to motivate employees as they benefit from being able to work in an autonomous and creative manner for at least a fifth of their work schedule.

20% time outside the A Level Psychology classroom

Most Sixth Form’s encourage students to engage in study that will consolidate and extend their understanding of their A Level subjects, completed without teacher supervision or instruction. “Independent study”, however, can become a dreaded phrase for a student who is constantly told to do it but doesn’t know how to go about it and doesn’t want to it.

I like the idea of using Google’s model and dividing the study students are doing outside of the classroom into mandatory tasks that have been set by the teacher and self-chosen independent study. If you have an expectation that students are engaging in a certain number of hours per week on “homework” this could be 80% set tasks with the remaining “20% time” to pursue their own interests in Psychology. You could set aside a portion of lesson time each week for students to share what they have been spending their “20% time” on. Students should be encouraged to choose tasks that they would feel excited to talk about.

20% time inside the A Level Psychology classroom

In Stuart Splendlow’s primary classroom (see Guardian post) this involved, with the agreement of the Head, pupils choosing an activity to complete in class in small groups in place of teacher directed class activities. Each group had a short meeting with the teacher to agree their activity and if agreed they were given the help with obtaining the resources and most importantly the time and space to complete the activity. One of the most successful outcomes reported by the teacher was that it created lots of opportunities for learning to occur that wasn’t planned but was all the better for being initiated by the pupils.

In the A Level Psychology classroom this could also work in a similar way. Students could work in small groups and choose an activity to complete at a designated time in the weeks lessons. The nature of the activity could be agreed in a short teacher-student meeting to ensure that the potential for learning is high and that all students in the group will be able to contribute. All you then need to do as the teacher is to support students in obtaining the resources they need (this might be obtaining articles from journals, other specialist reading material that can be arranged through the library services or source equipment for a practical activity) and give students the time and space to complete the task.

It really should be left up to the students what project they pursue and the more they engage in this type of study, the more they will find creative ways to spend their time. Here are some suggestions of the sorts of activities Psychology students might decide to spend their time on:

  • Investigating an area of Psychology of interest that they have not had the opportunity to study but might interest them in terms of a potential career. Many students are interested in applications of Psychology such as criminology, for example. Giving them to time to read and discuss what they have read about might be really valuable for these students and help them make future study choices.
  • Conducting their own experiment.
  • Holding a debate about a topical area of Psychology e.g. something in the news.
  • Trying out a range of different revision strategies (e.g. memory techniques) or approaches to writing and evaluating their usefulness.
  • Using Psychology to attempt to explain the behaviour of characters in a novel, film or TV programme.

I’m sure students would come up with some excellent activities that I cannot think of, so avoid the temptation to issue a list to choose from as although choice is valuable in the classroom a fixed choice does somewhat remove the creativity at the heart of Google’s 20% time.

Sell the idea to students via Google

If you want your students to buy into this idea and regard it as a good way to spend their time, rather than an unconventional but fashionable teaching strategy, explain the origins and discuss why a company like Google value giving their employees freedom, choice and space to create.


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