The 20% Project for Schools – A Modest Proposal, by Derry Hannam

What young people need

It seems to me that the crucial commodity that young people need in order to find and deepen their interests and identity, and to learn how to live with others is TIME. Time to think, time to wonder, time to question, time to create, time to hang out with their friends, time to find out who they are, time to relax and just be idle for a while – and a space to do it in.

Yet this is the one thing that prior to ‘the virus’ most state funded secondary or high schools, and increasingly, middle, primary or elementary schools as well, deprived them of. Lunch hours and playtimes/recess were shortened or cut. The encroachment into their free time was not just during the school day but also at home,  in the evenings and at week-ends, with often relentless homework and test/examination revision.

Covid-19 virus opportunities

Even in the time of Corona Virus and school closure/lock-down  many schools  aimed to teach and task-set on-line on a full school day basis. The tasks set were often basically conventional school-work with conventional teacher-talk, from the screen instead of from the front of the classroom, followed by a conventional test.

Some parents are expecting and requiring this, but a growing number are not. Young people missed their friends during the pandemic lockdown – but some did not miss lessons where they had no choice, no control or no consent in their learning. Many parents struggled to present this curriculum to their children at home. It is interesting that research into Canadian parents’ attitudes to school curriculum since the Covid 19 lockdowns shows that 73% think that much more attention should be given to the interests of the students when the schools finally reopen.

A Danish parent writes:

“Since the exams and mandatory learning goals are abandoned for now, teachers report feeling more playful with students. They are working with co-creation and involving students in making decisions more than before.

There is more quality time spent between teachers and students, resulting in better relationships and increased student well-being.”

Here the emphasis is switching from teaching to learning, from prescribed content to inquiry, and, freed from the pressure of examination preparation, a change in the quality of student-teacher relations to include more student participation and playful creativity. What an opportunity this provided to do things in a better way when schools re-opened for all students!

Some entire school systems are already moving in this direction

In my experience students should wherever possible and as much as possible participate in decisions about their own learning; real self-directed and self-exploring learning around the interests, concerns, questions and purposes of the young people themselves. I share Jerome Bruner’s 3 ‘c’s view of childhood – that children are naturally CURIOUS and COLLABORATIVE, and like to feel COMPETENT – adding with the late Ken Robinson that they are naturally CREATIVE. These qualities of childhood match those described by Peter Gray of Boston College who sees the “Educational Instincts” of Curiosity, Sociability, Playfulness and above all Playfulness as crucial.’ For me PLAY and CREATIVITY are closely linked – maybe they are the same thing or at least one leads to the other. The research of Sandra Russ of Cape Western Reserve University is showing that more imaginative play in young children correlates with enhanced creativity later on in life.

Recent lockdown experience in England where primary schools had too few children for age based classes and were unable to use the formal curriculum, found that mixed age play with minimal teacher intervention has been wonderful to watch – often the younger children seem to take the lead. Peter Gray is finding the same in his “Play Club” research in US elementary schools.

We know that it is perfectly possible to have a school system with high attainment that does not create pressure and anxiety.

Finland, for example, under the banner of “Less Is More” has a shorter school day than most with minimal homework  –  a legal maximum of 30 minutes per night in total and none at week-ends which are held to belong to the students – and no high-stakes national tests until the final year of high school.

Despite this apparently more relaxed approach to schooling, academic performance is higher on average in Finland than most European and North American school systems.

Two examples of a more motivating way of doing things

When I was deputy head of an English comprehensive school in the 1980s, the students proposed that we should have occasional ‘activities’ days when they and the teachers together could create a wide programme of activities, which students of any age could choose from. Parents were supportive and some became involved.

The variety was amazing as was the enthusiasm! It was very successful and very popular, so we extended it to an ‘activities week’ in the summer term.

The process of programme negotiation and creation was in itself an education with staff, students, parents, and other stakeholders such as local sports groups learning to listen to, and learn from and about each other, often for the first time. Relationships were transformed with much use of first names.

At the point where I left the school to become an inspector, the idea was being discussed of having an ‘activities week’ every term – which would have represented about 8% of annual curriculum time. No-one regarded this as time lost or wasted – far from it.  Some students previously disengaged from school entirely changed their attitudes both to school and to themselves as learners.

Parallel to this development and closely associated with it was the emergence of the school as a ‘community school’ with an elected community education council, commonly chaired by an older student. A ‘community fair’ took place at which the myriad community organisations in the rural town of five thousand opened themselves up to the school, and the school opened up its resources to the town’s organisations.

Each benefitted enormously and a number of entirely new organisations emerged; such as a community newspaper co-edited by adults and students which, as I write 30 years later, has just published its 200th edition; and a community orchestra with some 60 players aged 8 to 80. At the same time some normal school lessons became open to adult students of any age and part-time flexi-schooling was explored for the first time at the request of some home educating families.

Some years later, as an inspector, I visited another secondary school of 1300 students in a rural area where many students could not take part in extra-curricular activities because of long bus journeys home. The head teacher, staff, governors (English school board), parents and students’ council formed an ‘Electives Committee’ which decided to move ‘extra-curricular’ into the regular school schedule/timetable. They allocated half a day per week (10% of curriculum time) to a large and wide-ranging programme of ‘electives.’ These were negotiated between students and staff around the interests, questions, concerns, purposes and enthusiasms of both. If students wanted an activity that was beyond the expertise of any staff, though kitchen and janitorial staff also participated, then an appeal would be made to the parents.

The school was close to an internationally famous motor racing circuit and, as well as the more conventional musical and sporting electives, with the assistance of some parents, one mixed age group actually built a working racing car.

Because conventional teaching time was reduced, it was possible for the electives programme to have a budget and if nobody else could be found, an ‘expert’ would be hired.

As in my school, these negotiations were themselves an education for democracy and through them relationships were transformed. Students of different ages could join any group they chose. Some were led by students themselves. The programme was very popular with all the groups involved. A parent told me that their children would ‘get off their death beds to get to school on electives day!’ In fact, part of my job as an inspector was to check the student attendance figures for each half-day of the week. The highest figure was consistently for ‘electives’ afternoon on Wednesdays.

I also checked the school’s examination record, as well as its attendance figures. Both were significantly better than might have been expected for schools in similar socio-economic environments! Likewise, the figures for exclusion for anti-social behaviour were virtually zero – there had been no permanent exclusions for the previous five years and many fewer short term exclusions than the average for this type of school.

The modest proposal

So – my modest proposal. All state-funded schools, both primary and secondary, should be encouraged to allocate 20% of curriculum time to be negotiated around the interests, concerns, purposes and questions of the students. Time for individual or collaborative self-directed learning with the teachers being available as facilitators or ‘experts’ if their services were requested by the students. The staff could also use this time to pursue their own research questions and interests as exemplars of lifelong learning.

Sometimes the students themselves might be facilitators for other students – or even teachers. A teacher recently wrote in my union magazine about how much more her students knew about climate change issues than she did! In the Australian state of Victoria, students are running ‘Teach the Teachers’ courses in how to motivate learners more effectively.

I predict that the negotiation process itself would be educational. The motivation and morale of all will rise. The new engagement which will result will more than compensate for any feared loss of learning from reduction in formal subject teaching time. In fact, standards will rise. Results will improve. Students will learn how to take responsibility for at least part of their learning and learn how to manage at least part of their own time – both crucial if they are to deal with the changes, opportunities and uncertainties that the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), artificial intelligence (AI), and Climate Change are already presenting us with.

The students of the largely private international democratic schools movement such as Sudbury Valley School in the US, Summerhill in England, De Ruimte in the Netherlands, Riverstone Village in South Africa or Hadera School in Israel, learn how to participate in managing their communities while respecting human rights and they learn to discover their own genius, create their own identities rather than being defined by test scores. 

As paid employment declines with AI and 4IR and Universal Basic Income (UBI) becomes the norm, this will enable alumni to be unique, creative, socially responsible individuals and not rely on full time paid work for their identity – or to have learned the entrepreneurial skills necessary to launch their own economic or social enterprises.

Schools could create a ‘20% Committee’ of staff and students to plan how the 20% programme would be organised. This would introduce the idea of students participating in serious school decision making. A 20% department could be created, led by a teacher of assistant principal status and staffed by teachers from all subjects who chose to work in this way. This would create a team of experienced self-directed learning facilitators. It could have its own part of the school buildings – the 20% wing where presentations of student projects could be held.

An entirely new approach to assessment would be required, based on processes rather than finished projects – failure would be something to be learned from and not to be feared. The 20% department would develop digital profiling which would gradually be adopted across all departments. 20% of students of mixed ages would be in the 20% wing at any one time.

Recently the Economist Intelligence Unit produced a report called “Staff 2030: The Future of Teacher Training.” It actually recommends 20% of curriculum time for student directed learning, claiming that the competences developed are precisely those required for the future workplaces of the 4th Industrial revolution. The autonomous learners and creators which our current school systems are not producing. It is ironic that the evolved nature of human childhood as described by Bruner and Gray of playful, creative, autonomous yet collaborative young people now aligns with the needs of enlightened employers – yet few schools or school systems seem to be making the connection.

We need ‘innovation’ or ‘moon-shot’ time where students are free to come up with their own ideas of what they want to do and study, and how they want to do it. “Your students will be future ready if you give them the time!”  says Esther Wojcicki, pioneer of the 20% programme at Palo Alto High School and member of the Economist Intelligence Unit team. Time is perhaps the greatest gift we can give young people. We must stop filling every moment at school and at home with prescribed curriculum. They have realised this in Finland where the school day is short and there is little set homework.

It’s already happening in the most innovative companies

Companies such as the conglomerate SEMCO in Brazil or the Scot Bader Commonwealth paint company in the UK have for many years used company training programmes to encourage employees to widen and deepen their learning following their own personal passions and interests. More to the point, for more than 70 years, 3M’s unique 15% Culture has encouraged employees to set aside a portion of their work time to proactively cultivate and pursue innovative ideas that excite them.

Drawing on the 3M philosophy, Google has introduced its ‘20% Project’ where employees are encouraged to follow their own ideas beyond their actual job descriptions for 20% of their paid work time. This has led to some of the most profitable of Google’s innovations such as Gmail and Adsense, actually developed by one of Esther Wojcicki’s daughters, Susan, until recently CEO at YouTube. The US company Target Project has opened up a similar scheme to all its employees with its “Orange Friday” programme.

…and in a few public/state schools

I would also like to see the creation of more alternative democratic schools within large mainstream schools – schools within schools (SWS). These would offer parents, students and teachers the choice of a full-time, self-directed and democratic school experience within a conventional school.

There is a history of such schools in the United States where the Just Community Schools based on the thinking of Lawrence Kohlberg evolved and some, such as the SWS in Scarsdale High School, New York, survive and flourish.

Recently the idea has spread to Europe with examples in Slovakia  and Estonia, where the Suvermae school of 65 students exists within the large Arts High School of Tallinn led by the pioneering educator Charlie Moreno-Romero. Universities should develop 20% laboratory schools in programmes such as the EU Erasmus Plus funded LabSchoolsEurope.

And all around the world we are seeing campaigns for change coming from young people themselves. In the UK, one group called ‘Teach the Future’ argues for a more relevant climate change curriculum. It is being listened to by policy makers in Scotland though insufficiently in England – yet. There would be students in many schools who would almost certainly use their 20% time for this purpose.

The transfer of the 20% idea from the hi-tech business world to education is already happening in the United States and Germany.

Led by Esther Wojcicki students at Palo Alto High School use 20% of their class time for totally self-directed projects where their natural learning instinct take flight either individually or more usually in collaboration with others. She uses the mnemonic TRICK – Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration and Kindness.

Interesting that kindness is identified as a key, though underrated, evolutionary human quality by Dutch writer Rutger Bregman in his latest book “Human-kind” (highly recommended by psychologist Peter Gray of Boston College.)

Wojcicki’s ideas run parallel to the emergence of the 20Time movement, nicely illustrated in a Vimeo film by Sean Ziebarth, and described in detail by Kevin Brookhouser in his book “The 20Time Project: How Educators Can Launch Google’s Formula for Future Ready Innovation.”

In Germany the Schule im Aufbruch movement led by the inspirational Berlin high school principal Margret Rasfeld has grown from 50 to 300 participant schools in just 12 months. These schools have ‘Freitag or FriTag’ days. One day per week (20%), usually Friday, is controlled and managed by the students loosely focused on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In the UK the Rethinking Assessment organisation and the Edge Foundation are exploring various Baccalaureate possibilities, all of which follow the lead of the IB (International Baccalaureate) programmes including personal projects. The innovative Da Vinci Life Skills programme, developed by Cambridge based Rosina Dorelli of Biophilic Education and currently being field-trialled in several countries, similarly includes a 20% personal project for middle school students. For 16-19 A level students in England the EPQ (extended project qualification) is another example of the 20% principle in action, though insufficiently valued by universities.

Every school should be free to organise the use of this 20% time in its own way – it could be half a day per week, plus 20% of some lessons, or two half-days, or one day per week, or 20% of all lessons. And, of course, if it was found that as students became more motivated the compulsory directed curriculum could be managed in a reducing amount of time, then the 20% could grow.

The world is ready for the idea?

When the Israeli educator Yaacov Hecht and I launched the 20% idea at a Council of Europe conference on Education and Democracy at Strasbourg in 2016, he asked for a vote on the issue when concluding his keynote speech. The 1000 or more administrators, policy makers and teachers voted overwhelmingly in favour. Afterwards I asked some who had voted against what they didn’t like about the idea.

“20% is not enough,” they said. “It should be more!”

I agree with them.

Young people are natural learners

Could it be that at last the natural learning potential of young people will come into alignment with the future requirement for collaborative and creative innovators? Could schools become places that nurture the social and economic entrepreneurs that the world needs, capable of facing up to the challenges confronting us, not least of those being the implications of climate change?

Let’s hope so!

Vote 20% – you know it makes sense!

Derry Hannam is a retired deputy head teacher of a Derbyshire community comprehensive school and school inspector. He is currently an international consultant in Education for Democracy and Human Rights.

Seaford, UK. August 2023This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Read more from Derry Hannam

Derry Hannam’s book, Another Way is Possible – Becoming a Democratic Teacher in a State School, originally published as an e-book by Smashwords, has been translated into several languages. You can read an excerpt here.