Review of The 20Time Project: How educators can launch Google's formula for future-ready innovation by

Book cover for The 20Time Project: How educators can launch Google's formula for future-ready innovation

I won this book as a door prize at a conference. Aside from being the only door prize I’ve won to date, it’s also the best door prize I’ve ever won, because, hey, free book. You could not have picked a better person to give a free book to. Loves me the books, especially the free ones.

The conference, incidentally, was SELNO, the “Symposium for e-Learning in Northern Ontario,” and it was my favourite of the few conferences I’ve been to lately, mostly because I didn’t have to travel. And then I won a door prize. So basically, the best conference ever.

The idea behind The 20time Project is simple: give students 20% time, much like Google does (or did—there is some debate as to whether it still exists, but that’s beside the point here), to devote to a project of their own making. In essence, Kevin Brookhouser wants us to take project-based learning and hulk it out into audience-centred, student-led, project-based learning. And he makes it sound like a really cool idea.

Brookhouser starts off saying all the right things, and more importantly, he gets right to the point. “What happens when there’s no formula to learn?” he asks, highlighting that we need to encourage creativity in students if we expect them to solve what he calls the world’s “wicked problems.” I’m inclined to agree—here’s Ken Robinson outlining the reasons our industrialized education model is not good for creativity (and why creativity is a desirable trait). I have to admit I’m not sure how persuasive Brookhouser would be for someone who doesn’t already share this crucial perspective. If you’re still stuck in the “students go in, students learn formula, students go out into workforce” mentality, then … well, the book isn’t for you.

The 20time Project emphasizes that the fundamental constant in education in this century must be change. I can relate to that.

In my professional year, a teacher came to speak to one of my classes. He told us that if, after teaching for two years, we don’t look back in horror at what we were like when we started out, then we’re doing it wrong. Well, I went to England right after graduating, and I taught for two years … and he was absolutely right. Oh, I was competent. But competent really isn’t enough. There’s nothing wrong with being competent starting out, because there’s no way to know any better—professional year certainly can’t teach you the best ways to teach, only show you some ropes.

Those two years completely altered my perspectives on teaching, as I’m sure the next two years will. And the next two, and hopefully the two more after that—you see the pattern here? If you’re doing it right, then you’ll never stop learning, never stop changing your praxis. How do we expect our students to see the value in learning if we don’t?

Related to the necessity of creativity, Brookhouser also makes a point I firmly believe is important: “Our classrooms can be refuges of creativity, giving students a safe place to experiment…” He goes on in a similar fashion about setting students up to fail. I can’t agree more. It breaks my heart to see a student refuse to tackle a math problem because they fear getting it wrong. My response when they get it wrong? “Brilliant! Let’s take a look at what you tried.”

Failure happens. It happens a lot in real life. We can’t always succeed. So we need our students to be resilient. And we need them to know that failure can be OK, because you can learn from your mistakes as well as your successes.

Hence Brookhouser’s concept of the 20time project: it gives students a chance to be independent (something we claim we want our children to be) and to make mistakes, as well as to succeed. He emphasizes how it’s all about connecting students (safely) to the outside world and to other people; the projects have to be some kind of service to others, not just something for the students themselves. Ultimately, are these not all commendable goals, and ostensibly why we do what we do?

So that’s the first part of The 20time Project. Then Brookhouser actually outlines what a 20time project setup looks like for students and teachers. He lays out everything, from how to get parents on board to how he manages to assess students, as well as what to do when (not if, when) things start going wrong.

I won’t go into much more detail here. Read the book, or at the very least, check out the companion website. The major takeaway: despite the book’s subtitle, there is no successful formula to follow here. (No formula, eh? Where does that sound familiar…?) Brookhouser shares a general plan, and gives a lot of pertinent advice based on his experience running 20time over the years, but ultimately you’ll need to tailor it to your situation. I find that inspiring more than daunting. Much of the book is devoted to the 20time projects Brookhouser launched in his English classes. He mentions how 20time can apply in other disciplines, and I’m definitely not disputing that. But the challenges teachers of other subjects might face will always be slightly different.

Fortunately, The 20time Project is the tip of the iceberg in that record. This is the 21st century. Books are still relevant, but they aren’t the end of the line; Brookhouser includes an appendix with links to other websites relevant to aspirational 20time teachers.

At the moment, of course, I’m not actually in a classroom. And I’m not going to claim I’ll implement 20time the moment I set foot in the classroom again—that’d be unrealistic. But the type of learning promoted by 20time is exactly what I want to encourage in my classroom of the future, and The 20time Project lays out a path to get there so clearly that I’m much more confident it can be done. So I hope one day I’ll be launching some 20time projects in my classroom; until I do, I’ll look for the opportunity to apply many of the components behind 20time as I seek to make wicked learning spaces that help students tackle wicked problems.

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