Can Google’s 80/20 rule work for schools?

I recently had a short conversation about innovation in schools and the constraints that may be placed on teachers preventing much needed new learning and innovation. A point was made about schools taking the approach of Google with their 80/20 rule and setting aside time for teachers to be creative in areas where they are interested in promoting student learning.

For those who are unfamiliar with Google’s 80/20 rule, the main idea is that employees at Google are given 20% of their working time to work on other projects that are “company-related and they are passionate about” (New York Times, 2007). Daniel Pink in his book Drive, which looks at what lies behind employee motivation (see video above), provides a similar example with the Australian company Atlassian.

Never mind the fact that it was claimed in Wired Magazine that Google’s 80/20 is a Red Herring, the application of this principle in schools is worthy of some thought and further discussion.

First, let’s consider where this discussion began. The discussion stemmed from the notion that teachers are, perhaps, unable to be innovative because too many constraints are placed upon them; there are too many other tasks that are demanding of their attention that the creative and innovative process is somewhat stifled and there is a frustration from teachers that they cannot put into action many of the great ideas that they have. Certainly, I can see this argument, I too have my ‘to do someday – wish list’ that I may get to address more quickly if were not for all the other urgent and important items that I need to do.

So what are all these other urgent and important items that may stop us from being as creative as we would ideally like to be? Oftentimes they are things that perhaps we do not consider to be important from a personal point of view, but from a school operational point of view have to get done. Then there are the external demands placed upon us, what does the District or the Examination Board need us to do? At times, we can wonder whether we are actually involved in education and promoting student learning. We’ve all been there.

In saying this, if we were to give everyone the necessary time to create and work on projects school-related, how well would that time be spent? In many cases very well but in other cases no differently to now. Let’s get real here, not every teacher in the building wants to be there; harsh but true. How do we agree on what gets dropped off the ‘to list’ and who decides? There is a certain truth in that many schools where teachers feel there is time to be innovative and creative, the leaders shield teachers from things that are deemed less important and an obstruction to good teaching and learning.

One of the things I have considered recently his how complex teaching is and every aspect of teaching that we are being asked to master for the benefit of our students.

The quest for mastery and the complexity of teaching.001

Perhaps the nature of the profession is so overwhelming, as we demanded to be experts in all the above areas, we actually forget how much flexibility we do have to be creative and innovative in our classrooms. Perception matters and it is not always the reality.

For sure, some schools give teachers more room to manoeuvre than others, but in many instances teachers are not being told exactly, step-by-step, how to deliver their lessons, nor are they observed or stood over in every lesson. So, the opportunity to be creative and innovative is certainly there, we just perhaps cannot do it as much as we want to. It is similar to most things we enjoy in life but we keep trying to make them happen, if we want to. In there lies the answer, we may actually have more opportunity to be creative than we think.

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