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Give your students 20% time to do whatever they want

"Seriously? You're going to let us do whatever we want for 20% of our time in English class?"

"I'm skeptical." 

"That's awesome."

Taking Google's lead, and inspired by Dan Pink's book, Drive, I decided to take the plunge and give my students the kind of radical autonomy they both suggest, and I gave my students 20% of their time in my English class to pursue a project of their choosing. 

Rules and expectations

  1. You may work alone or with a small group.
  2. Choose a project that is new to you and something you wouldn't normally do in another academic class.
  3. Write up a proposal and pitch it to the rest of the class that includes a purpose, audience, timeline, and resources you will need to complete the project.
  4. Reflect on the process once a week in your blog.
  5. If at any moment you feel lost, overwhelmed, or uninspired, you must set a meeting with me to find a solution.
  6. At the end of the year, you will present your project and reflect on the process in a five-minute TED-style talk in front of other students, teachers, and community members.

Project ideas

  • build a tutoring network of high school students helping middle school students
  • design a complex videogame map using Valve's SDK
  • start a business selling originally designed t-shirts and accessories
  • launch a web-design start-up for local organizations and businesses
  • write a graphic novel
  • make a stop-motion animated movie of a scene from Macbeth
  • write a backpacking guide for teenage girls
  • interview local senior citizens and document their history
  • record and produce a full-length album

Failure is an option

In the end, many of the projects turned out exactly as they had been proposed at the beginning of the year. Epic win, as they would say. Many of them changed the scope of their projects. Some of them considered their projects a failure because they ran out of time or they couldn't make their businesses profitable. 

I asked them to consider how often successful leaders failed, and they all got a sense that even failures were successes when they could learn from their failures. 

Here is a video of clips from their final 20% talks.

My own successful failures

I learned a lot about facilitating a project like this successfully, and I made my own mistakes along the way. Here are two things I'm going to do differently next year.

Emphasize the importance of making something

Too many of my students got lost in their ideas and spent more time thinking than doing. I don't want ideas, I want products. Even if they're failed products, make something.

Institute a mentorship program

I am going to have each student seek an adult who would agree to be a mentor. I personally have  little to no experience in the disciplines they choose for their projects. Furthermore, I simply do not have the time to support all of these different projects as much as I would like. 

Final thoughts

If you're interested in learning more about 20% time, check out these resources:


  1. Kevin- This article is super-helpful! I've been convinced by Troy Cockrum that my students will be perfect for this project in my classroom. I'll be instituting it this next semester and your reflections from this article are a big part of how I'll be doing it. Thank you for all of your help!!

  2. Great! Are your students going to blogging about the process? If so, I'd love to have my students respond to their posts.

  3. I started a 20% project this year in my high school biology class. Students would deliver the results of their work in a talk or poster session (symposium style) at the end of each quarter. We are almost through the second quarter's products. I'm wondering how you graded your students' work?

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