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What if our students had Google's "20% time?"

It seems that "Google Days" and "Google time" are the new catchphrases on administrators' lips in my district. Last year, Burlington, MA, high school principal, Patrick Larkin (Twitter: bhsprincipal), christened one of his building's professional development days as a "Google Day," giving faculty the opportunity to select a project or area of study of their own choosing and immerse themselves in it for the day. Across town, John Lyons (Twitter: pgprincipal) plans to do the same with one professional development day at the Pine Glen Elementary School this fall.

The terms are taken from Google's corporate policy that enables employees to use 20% of their time working on projects that aren't necessarily in their job descriptions. They can use the time to develop
something new or solve a problem. In the case of Burlington High, many of the teachers used the time to learn or implement new technology. It also allowed teachers to collaborate who normally would not have had the time due to differing schedules and responsibilities.

Tonight, I had the chance to hear Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap, speak at the Massachusetts Teachers Association Summer Conference. Tony took the idea beyond professional development days:

What if our students dedicated 20% of their school time to pursuing interests and projects that piqued their curiosity, regardless of whether or not we could tie a curriculum standard to their topic?

Like all good questions, it generates many others as we seek an answer (I am reminded of Tom Whitby's comment: If your students can Google an answer to your question, you may want to rethink the question.)

Do we have the courage to step away and let our students set their own curricula and develop the skills to pursue them?

How does this change the role of the teacher/educator?

What will it take to transform the role of the student, centered for so long on compliance and "right answers," to that of self-directed, life-long learner such that our students become, as Tony Wagner puts it, career-, college-, and citizenship-ready?

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