Tuesday, March 11, 2014

What I learned at EdCampME, part 1: 20% Time

I will start by saying that if you have never been to an EdCamp, you should go sometime.  EdCamps are conferences for teachers using the "unconference" format, which means that sessions are offered by teachers and for teachers.  Attendees can talk about an idea for a session that they could help lead, or they could also ask to see if someone might be able to lead a session about something else.  In other words, it's professional development that teachers can actually use!

There are hundreds of EdCamps held worldwide, and one was just held in Maine this past weekend.  I attended sessions about access to technology in low-income areas, Google Scripts, and more.  But two sessions stood out to me the most, and I hope that I can begin bringing these concepts into classrooms as soon as I can.

The first concept is known as "20% time."  In the first afternoon session we learned about how this concept from the tech sector is being applied to education in amazing ways.  Although it is most famously attributed to Google's policy of allowing employees to pursue side-projects of interest to them, this website credits the idea all the way back to 3M's use of "15 percent" time, which resulted in such creations as Post-It notes and masking tape (follow the link for some great and practical resources about getting started with 20% time in the classroom).  20% time applies very similarly to the classroom; this is the time for students to be learning about almost anything that interests them, or to be applying themselves and their learning to an interest or cause of importance to them.  This concept gets at a number of hard-to-reach ideals in education.  First, tapping into student interests would appear to create intrinsic motivation for learning in schools that is hard to create when most or all of the direction comes from the adults.  20% time would also appear to help students exercise a number of "soft" skills that almost never show up on a standardized test but are so crucial for future success, including goal-setting, learning independently, researching, decision making, and many more.  Students don't necessarily have to commit to learning something "new" either; 20% time could be used for helping a non-profit organization, fundraising, or raising awareness for a cause, all of which help students with other sets of skills.

I also like that we as teachers can integrate opportunities for students to show others what they've learned.  Jennifer Scheffer, who I learned a TON from during the course of the day, helped lead the discussion and mentioned that she used 20% Time for writing, and had students choose what they would write about.  I feel like blogging would provide a great platform for students to write about what they were doing and learning about during their 20% Time.  There was even mention of holding an EdCamp-style conference where the students would get to be the facilitators!  How exciting is that?  If you know me, you know I believe that the element of public presentation in education can be a powerful motivator for students and really increase the quality of the work they produce.  I for one would be really excited to see what kinds of things students will be able to show to their classmates, parents, and, yes, even teachers!  I've got a few at the elementary level who could show me a thing or two about technology already!

I also recognize that there are some challenges to implementing an initiative like this, too.  For starters, I recognize that it may be difficult to get students used to the level of freedom that would come with 20% Time, so it may take some time to get them to realize what they could possibly do with this time.  There was mention at the conference that some students are so motivated to work on their 20% Time projects outside of school that they come in with not much to do during the actual time.  Finally, for the small schools I work at, it would take tremendous effort and organization to coordinate where the students would work on their projects, who they would work with, and also to bring in some people from outside of the school that may provide some expertise and help to the students that we may not be able to do.

Nonetheless, I look forward to learning more about this concept and the feasibility of implementing this in any one of my schools.  If you are reading this and have tried or are doing 20% Time in your classroom or school, I would like to hear from you.  What have you learned from this initiative?  What are some things that people new to the initiative need to know so that it is rolled out in an effective manner?  What were some challenges that you came across during the process?  I really hope to learn more about 20% Time; this was the one thing I learned about while at EdCamp that has kept my mind a-buzzing ever since!

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