I planned my first 20% Project for my high school juniors for nearly 10 months.  Of course, that wasn’t 24/7 planning, but it was a considerable amount of thinking about ideas, reading articles, watching videos, and connecting with other educators.









The most important ideas that I learned from other educators:

1. Give students plenty of time to come up with their ideas.

2. Develop clear guidelines.

3. Understand failure, and help students to understand failure.

20% Time is a foreign concept to American students.

The average public school student in the United States has grown up in a system that prizes straight rows, quiet children, and planned outcomes.  Students know that to get a good grade they must read the chapter, complete the homework, take the test.

The 20% Project shifts this paradigm by placing creativity, autonomy, and passion at the fore.   Students create their own research ideas based on their own understanding of the world. Then they bring their ideas to life using whatever traditional or non-traditional means they choose.

If you are the only teacher at your school who uses the 20% method, then your students might have trouble wrapping their heads around the concept.  Ease them into the project slowly.   Design several lessons or activities that you can give out over the course of a few weeks.  I interspersed 20% activities along side of my other lessons for several weeks prior to our official launch date.  A few ideas:

  • Do timed writing assignments that ask students to examine what makes them happy.  You might give them 2 minutes to list all of the places that they’d like to visit.  Or 10 minutes to come up with a 20-item bucket list.  Or 1 minute to jot down all of the things that they like to do when they should be doing something else.  Scatter these assignments out over days and weeks.
  • Show videos of other teachers’ 20% Projects.  One of my favorite videos is by a young lady named Kitty McKay.  Kitty talks for about 7 minutes on her project.  She worked for an entire school year to raise money to go to Kilimanjaro.
  • Introduce students to mind maps.  Mind maps are incredibly helpful brainstorming tools because they encourage chaos and connection at the same time.  Have students write an idea in the middle of a blank page and then brainstorm ideas using words, sketches, and colors.
  • Make sure that students hang on to all of their activities for future reference.

It takes several days or even weeks before students really start to understand what you are asking them to do.

Once the concept starts to click, however, the magic happens.  I do the 20% Project with AP English Language juniors.  Most of my students are very grade conscious.  They’ll work hard, and they’ll go the extra mile, but they want a clear plan.  This is why you must make sure that your BASIC expectations are clear.  My basic guidelines:  THE 20 PERCENT PROJECT – SPRING 2015.  I’ll expand on several aspects of the project in later posts including my requirement that students blog once a week.

For now, let me share some inspiration.  The picture of the cake baking and decorating items is from one of my student’s 20% projects.  This student is among the smartest in her class and will no doubt be in the hunt for valedictorian next year.  Once she finally understood that this project was not about me assigning a library research topic such as “Research and discuss how Shakespeare uses birds as symbols of darkness in his tragedies,” she came to me with an idea.  She said, “Ever since I was  young, I’ve been obsessed with the Cake Boss.  I want to make a freaking awesome cake.”  For her 20% project, she is researching how to make the big cakes that show up on television shows.  She hasn’t let us in on all of her secrets yet, but we do know that she is somehow incorporating everybody else’s 20% project into her cake design.”  If you’ve ever watched Cake Boss or another one of the cake shows, then you know that this is no easy undertaking.  My student has roughly three and a half months to bring her vision to fruition.  I can’t wait!



Failure is part of the process.

Students absolutely don’t understand this concept.  You have to help them to realize that failure is just something that happens on the road to discovery.  We’ve all seen the quotes from Einstein and Edison and others about failing over and over.  To this point, those quotes are just quotes.  You have to help students to truly internalize this philosophy.  One way to do that is to take the grade out of the equation.  This is difficult to do in our world of assessment and data.  The way I reconcile this problem is by holding students accountable for updates and accompanying assignments while not grading the final product.  I explain this to students with the following example.  “Let’s say that you are terribly interested in drones and for your 20% Project you decide to build a drone from household items.  If on the due date your drone doesn’t fly, you have not failed.  What you have learned about planning and building and electronics and aerodynamics along the way is your success.  You have worked hard, and you have learned much.  The learning and the discoveries along the way are the most important outcomes.  A shiny end product is nice, but not paramount.”

If you haven’t checked out Kevin Brookhauser’s videos yet, then you should hop over to http://www.iteachithink.com.  It is his rule that most influenced my understanding of the 20% Project, “You can fail the project, but you can’t fail to produce.”