GOOGLE and the JHS

Recently, I have been struck by the number of people who are talking about Google’s “philosophy” of encouraging engineers to take up to 20% of their at-work time to pursue projects of their own. Here are a few of the hits produced if one Googles the topic:

According to many of the stories, some of Google’s greatest innovations have been born from this 20% time. Rather than assuming the typical hierarchy of organization would provide vision and mission to “require” a workplace of innovation, the admin and management merely provide encouragement for an attitude of “bottom-up” leadership (I hate that term and what it implies). The admin and management simply encourage the professionals to pursue personal interests and they provide time for that pursuit to happen at work. As I read the blogs and article linked above, I became intrigued by the idea of “grouplets.” Rather than individuals pursuing personal projects, engineers were banding together to work collaboratively with this 20% time.

At Westminster, in the Junior High School (JHS) in particular, we have been on a multi-year journey to restructure professional development. We are using the professional learning community (PLC) model and principles to create a new infrastructure for teachers (our “learning engineers”) having the opportunity to work collaboratively together. We have taken a bit of an aggressive approach, and we believe that job-embedded time must be created for such collaboration.

Typically, teachers carry a five-class student course load. For example, a math teacher, in the past, would have five sections of student classes. In the more recent history, we have transitioned one of those periods to be a PLC period. In essence, we have created something akin to Google’s 20% time. One of five sections, transitioned to serve as a PLC period for teacher collaboration, equates to “20% time.”

Through the PLCs, teachers are innovating! Just having a guaranteed time to discuss all of the complexities of teaching and learning is such a positive development. However, much more than discussion is happening. With these four hours per week (we have a rotating schedule and every period meets four times per week), teacher teams are re-exploring writing as thinking, formative assessment ideas, second-chance testing, four-point rubric development, technology integration, content understanding in various fields, and the list goes on.

But I wonder if the 42 (of 74) teachers currently involved in formalized PLCs (we plan to work toward 100% integration for ALL teachers) see their PLC period as this Google-esque 20% time. I believe some do, for sure. But do all of them? Have I exercised my leadership in such a way that it is obvious and communicated clearly that PLC time can be for assessing student learning and creating innovations for enhancing that learning?

So many opportunities, so many possibilities! By striving to “democratize” the work day for careful study of student learning and possible educational innovations, don’t we increase the likelihood for better teaching and learning? In fact, without the 20% time in schools for the commited, motivated teachers who strive for their own continued learning and that of their students, will we really improve education, in any considerable ways, during this second decade of the 21st century?

Here’s to a New Year’s resolution for “20% time” in our schools…for the countless, dedicated teachers who simply need time to collaboratively explore, discover, innovate, and educate!

Figure 1: Formalized PLC Growth at Westminster, 2007-2011

3 thoughts on “GOOGLE and the JHS

  1. Pingback: Top 100 School Administrator Blogs

  2. I am putting together a list of the top 100 administrator blogs and your site was recommended by another blogger on the list. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions to include more information about you and your blog in my article. Please e-mail me at alexisbrett@gmail.com and include the title of your blog in the e-mail, thanks!

  3. I think this is fascinating, and it might be a very good way to promote the idea of PLCs in the high school, where I think some may be less receptive to the idea as “one more thing they have to do”. One thing that I think differentiates PLCs from google’s 20% time is that 20% time is far more open. At google, if you’re working on gmail full time, your 20% project can be something totally crazy in a completely different part of the company (like adding captions to youtube) and there are very few expectations that the project will “pay off,” and most projects will fail (and this is a good thing). Does our school’s vision of PLCs offer that level of flexibility/expectation for failure? Could an 8th grade science teacher decide his/her 20% should be invested in developing a database to better foster communication between parents and teachers, and organize a team of other faculty to work on that? Or a new schedule? It would seem to me that they are more constrained to work with the within the parameters of what the other 8th grade science teachers are interested in working on. Does this limit the ability of the PLC to develop truly transformative change?

    Of course, google’s rhetoric on 20% time doesn’t always match the reality. Many employees complain that using 20% time is often frowned upon, and you really have to go out of your way, sometimes angering management, to get seriously involved on a project.

    Also, one of the most appealing aspects of 20% time to me has been to find a way to bring this idea to students. What would school be like if students had 1 day a week to pursue any project that interested them?

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