On 20% Time, Autonomy, and Standards: What Do Young People in Oakland Wonder About?

I want to be honest and announce that the best part of this post is the very end.

The end of the post answers the question that I wish many people would actually ask: what do young people in Oakland really wonder about?  But first, an explanation of how I am able to post these questions. Be warned: the following is an education geek out.

Many years ago, I read a book by the patron saint of small schools, Debbie Meier: Will Standards Save Public Education? The slim volume, in her characteristically clear and crap-cutting style, answers: no. No, they will not. They might hurt some, actually. She opens up her later chapters to various points of view, but for me, the takeaway was that by removing any ability to dive into ideas, dilemmas, passions and problems that kids bring to school with them, universal standards remove real relevance, and thus motivation, from school for most young people.

In other words, homogenized standards that are agreed upon nationally would be so scrubbed of regional or identity-specific “pointiness” and be so reflective of hegemonic ways of knowing that we risk making schools into places where only one type of kid (white, US born, middle and upper class) will succeed.

I’ve carried these questions and ideas with me since I read the book in 2000, through the lockstep of No Child Left Behind, into the murkiness of Race to the Top, and right to our current perch in the midst of the beginning of nationwide Common Core Standards. It is true that the CCSS are much less specific than the absurdly long list of California standards they are replacing (example: 5th grade history standard: Describe the contributions of France and other nations and of individuals to the outcome of the Revolution [e.g., Benjamin Franklin’s negotiations with the French, the French navy, the Treaty of Paris, The Netherlands, Russia, the Marquis Marie Joseph de Lafayette, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben]). The testing that will accompany them, however, will still determine how and where money, teacher time and instructional minutes will be prioritized and spent. The risk is more standardization not just of thinking skills, but of content.

I have also been thinking about a piece of writing by the late Grant Wiggins (known primarily for his work with Understanding by Design}, entitled Autonomy and the need to back off by design. He talks about how we, especially (but not only) as high school teachers, must BACK OFF, and let students learn. He uses the metaphor of a scrimmage: if we don’t just step back and let kids take the field — to see what they do without our coaching, cajoling, scolding, praising in our kids’ ears, all the time– then we are not creating autonomous learners. He claims that teachers play important roles, but that we generally need to teach less, remove scaffolds, and allow students to “play the whole game.” And, if we don’t create autonomous learners, we have failed our young people.

I do not want to fail our young people. By tethering all of our young people to universal standards, we breed dependence. We say to them: your ideas and epistemologies do not matter.
Image result for graph 80 20

Thinking about these ideas led me to try 20% time again. The premise, pioneered by Google’s engineers and piloted classrooms by creative and courageous educators, is simple: for 20% of all class time, all year, students will dive deeply into a question or project that they are dying to learn about. They will have a final product. They will design, inquire, and create. Certainly, they will struggle, they will fail a bunch, they will get stuck and frustrated. I will coach from the side, get excited when they get excited, and lob interesting strategies and questions from my spot in the stands. I might need to bring in a stretcher now and then. And when they learn, they will completely own the learning.

Here’s the best part of this post. These are the big questions that my students want to take on.

  • How does the government exploit the poor?
  • What are the difference between male and female serial killers?
  • What happens to the brain during extreme emotions: fear, excitement, happiness?
  • How can I become an excellent photographer?
  • How might we create a communal living society?
  • What happens to older NFL athletes’ brains?
  • Why are there so few women in engineering and tech? What is their experience?
  • How can I sew a line of shirts, from material to finished product, to advance my brand?
  • How can I make an amazing, successful mixtape?
  • What is Årsgång and how did it evolve?
  • What happens to the human body during exercise?
  • Why do children kill?
  • What is the history of dance?
  • Why are books and reading important to people?
  • What is the evolution of guitar pedals?
  • How can photography change our community?
  • What is sleep and what are dreams?
  • How can I become a professional graffiti artist?

This is teaching dangerously, and I know I will learn through flubbing up, and that is a little scary. But the alternative — continuing with dependent students and homogenized curriculum and instruction — frightens me more.

4 thoughts on “On 20% Time, Autonomy, and Standards: What Do Young People in Oakland Wonder About?

    1. Thanks, Joy! I did an interesting process for getting kids to their questions, too, which I then replicated with my staff for individual inquiries. I can write that up, too. So excited to see what my kids and my colleagues do….


  1. I love how student-centered the idea of 20% time is. I’ve found, though, that the CCSS are very compatible with this. The standards “require” students to generate their own inquiry questions, conduct research to address those questions, and to form perspectives based on evidence that they gather. At my school, we’re tossing out the old “do this research project” thing and instead asking students to wonder, and teaching them how to locate and address their own interests.


    1. Absolutely, Amy. I just fear the focus on testing the CCSS, which would decrease time available for the actual inquiry, and perhaps also limit the types of projects the kids can do. I will be “requiring” kids to write a research project AS WELL as their actual, authentic project. I also wonder about the wisdom of prioritizing one type of knowledge gathering (ie: traditional academic) over another (doing, making, creating). But, yes, much better than the wildly detailed content standards of before. Thank you for reading!


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