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Katherine von Jan Headshot

Pursue Passion: Demand Google 20% Time at School

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Ever wonder why students struggle with picking a major in college? When was the last time students were asked what they'd like to study in school and given the time to pursue their own interests?

Ask a kid what they want for their birthday, and they'll tell you 10 things. Ask them what they want to learn? They don't know, because they've never been asked. They've been taught to follow the rules and jump through prescribed hoops set by authoritarians who know what's good for them. They design a school day to ensure that all kids get the same "basics" and manage their day to deliver it to them. How can we expect more from students at the end of that journey?

Maybe if we asked and then gave kids permission to do some of the things they'd love to do throughout their academic careers (K-12), we wouldn't be so lost and confused in college or in life. And maybe if we start pursuing what we're passionate about we would actually solve the world's most impossible challenges along the way.

Google's "20% Time", inspired by Sergey Brin's and Larry Page's Montessori School experience, is a philosophy and policy that every Google employee spend 20% of their time (the equivalent of a full work day each week) working on ideas and projects that interest that employee. They are encouraged to explore anything other than their normal day-to-day job. As a result 50% of all Google's
products by 2009 originated from the 20% free time, including Gmail. Real break-through happens when we are free from others' expectations and driven by individual passion.

Self-directed experimentation is common in companies like 3M, HP and more with slight twists, like Twitter Hack Week, with positive results. At this year's BIF-7 Innovation Summit
Dan Pink illuminated the value of what he coined "non-commissioned work" with several stellar examples including the stories of Nobel Prize winning physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov. The pair won the Nobel prize for their amazing invention of Graphene, the world's thinnest, and likely strongest material. They discovered Graphene in their "non-commissioned" lab hours. The scientists dedicated every Friday night to working on something that was not funded, nor part of their daily work. It was play time. (They also won the Ig Nobel Prize, a parody award for silly scientific discoveries, for using magnets to levitate a frog. See the video on NPR. As Dan Pink wisely advised BIF7 participants, "go levitate some frogs."

What we can take from these examples is that the work outside of the expected, commissioned work produces the most creative, awesome discoveries, and some silly ones that are just fun by-products of the passion-driven journey. Commissioned work just delivers expected, rote outcomes.

What do we expect from students? It seems schools expect them to demonstrate what we already know -- recite dates and complete calculations that could be done on a computer -- rather then create knew knowledge. Institutions fill our brains with what is known. How will these students survive in college?

Rather than scripting our K-12 experience -- and expecting miracles when we get to college that we'll suddenly have clarity about our interests -- we have to start asking students what turns them on earlier, and enable them to pursue those interests. For example, if a child is inspired by bridges, why not start there and let the learning follow their curiosity? They may need to learn calculus to build a bridge, but then they have a reason to love and seek calculus, rather than calculus being a requirement. They may need to understand the history, policy and politics of getting a bridge approved. Or team-building to get all the right talent on board.

Examples include teacher Diana Laufenberg of Philadephia's public Science Leadership Academy challenging students to set their own experiential learning agendas, Loveland, Colorado's district approved Be You House learning lab and Providence, Rhode Island's The MET.

It doesn't have to be that complicated, as reinventing the entire school. It can start with giving students their 20%. Every parent and citizen should take the time to ask a child everyday, "what would you like to learn?" Ask our schools, school boards and legislators to give permission to students to spend 20% of their "school time" noticing their world, dreaming up questions, connecting to information and people based on their curiosity, and ultimately doing the things that really matter to them. Awesome things.

Give kids their 20% to be genius every day; and they'll not only be more aware and driven college students. They'll be more aware and driven human beings applying their genius in life.