Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The 20% solution and Summer Vacation

My good friend Tzvi Pittinsky posted this week about how Google comes up with all of the cool tools that they have (many of which most people do not even know about). They apparently demand that their workers use 20% of their time, or roughly one day per week, to work on their own projects. The thinking is that given "free time" at work to dabble and be creative, these workers will try to improve the product in ways that would not be thought of if these workers were simply going about their normal workload.

Tzvi wonders out loud what would happen if we allowed our teachers and students to do the same - if school is a knowledge industry, then imagine the ideas that would flower forth if we allowed these ultimate knowledge workers to be creative for a few hours each day.

It seems to me that, at least as far as teachers are concerned, we already have that 20% time - it's called summer vacation. Mathematically, it works out to about 20% of the calendar year, but that is not my point. For many, many teachers, summer is the time to work on new ideas - new curriculum elements, new uses for technology, new pedagogic techniques, and on and on. The school year is a time when we are so put-upon with papers and grading and preparing for the next few classes that there is simply not enough "free" time for the type of creative thinking that brings about the next great idea or even the next small but significant shift in teaching.

I am speaking from immediate experience. Our students' last day was last Wednesday, and report cards were due at midnight that night. Since Pesach, I had been inundated with not only the work involved for the classes that I teach (included producing and marking three full sets of long finals), but also with all of the various scheduling of events and proctoring for the final two months of the school year, putting together graduation, and myriad other administrative tasks.

Then the clock struck twelve on Wednesday night. Classes were over, report cards were entered, activities were completed. Summer had begun, and with it the chance to begin to think about larger plans and ideas. I had been jotting down one-line reminders for myself for weeks, with the hope that I would get back to many of those ideas once the school year ended. Now that the year was over, I felt the creative juices begin to flow. Vague ideas started becoming concrete sets of notes, and hopefully I will have more to share as the summer progresses.

Sure, not every teacher spends their summer working. And every teacher spends some time taking a vacation (which, in my opinion, is very necessary after working with kids in groups of 20 or more for ten months). But most teachers - more than you know - spend significant time over the summer using that relative freedom from their daily routine to brainstorm and create better and more engaging ways of teaching.

Now if we could just get the kids to use their 20% of the year the same way...


Anonymous said...

Doesn't camp - especially sleepaway - serve a similar purpose for students?

Aaron Ross said...

Interesting idea. I would say that camp provides the down time, but does not always provide the opportunities for mental stimulation, growth, and creativity. If camp is all about hanging out and playing sports, then it is only accomplishing half of this goal; if, on the other hand, a camp exists that offers kids the chance to create, take leadership roles, and develop parts of their personality which can then feed back into their activities the rest of the year, then I might agree with you.

Avi-Gil said...

Sleepaway camp in particular is (or at least should be, ideally) an immersive Torah environment in a way that school can't be.
Even kids who don't see their fathers go to minyan 3x/day (and go with him) during the year do go 3x/day in camp.
Even though the emphasis may be on sports and trips and fun, the idea that no day is complete without some chinuch element should have some impact on kids (consciously or otherwise).
And counselors who are positive role models show kids that living a Torah lifestyle is something that they, too, can do as they grow up, even while continuing to play ball and be "normal."

At least that's what I got from camp as a camper and then tried to give back later as a counselor...