What is the 20% Project in Education?

Inspire Drive, Creativity and Innovation in the Classroom with the 20% Project

Daniel Pink asks us to find what drives us. Sir Ken Robinson asks us to inspire creativity in students. The latest in education is asking us to find essential questions for students.

How? One way is to institute a 20% project in class.

The Why:

3M started it in the 1950’s with their 15% project. The result? Post-its and masking tape! Google is credited for making the 20% project what it is today. They asked their employees to spend 20% of their time at work to work on a pet project…a project that their job description didn’t cover. As a result of the 20% project at Google, we now have Gmail, AdSense, and Google News. Innovative ideas and projects are allowed to flourish and/or fail without the bureaucracy of committees and budgets.

Several educators today are extending the ideas of the 20% into their own classrooms with the hope that the project fosters creativity, innovation, and intrinsic motivation. And why not? With the CCS around the corner, cross-curricular skills will be more important than ever.

The What:

In education the 20% project is a little different for each teacher. There seems to be a divide between teachers who want to give complete autonomy and those who give a little more frontloading before and a little more guidance during.

With autonomy, students are encouraged to seek out their own topics, create their own timelines, research their own products and complete them. The pro for autonomy is that students don’t really see a list of possible ideas and then limit their ideas to that list. They have a little more unmanipulated freedom to think of a new project. Teachers who have tried this method find that they add a few more expectations the next year. I would encourage you to scroll to the bottom of this article and access my Evernote folder with various articles related to the 20% project through Google and teachers who have tried it in their classrooms.

Kevin Brookhouser has a great write-up of his 20% project on his blog: I Teach. I Think. His project ideas include:

  • build a tutoring network of high school students helping middle school students
  • design a complex videogame map using Valve’s SDK
  • start a business selling originally designed t-shirts and accessories
  • launch a web-design start-up for local organizations and businesses
  • write a graphic novel
  • make a stop-motion animated movie for a scene in Macbeth
  • write a backpacking guide for teenage girls
  • interview senior citizens and document their history
  • record and produce a full-length album

The How:

I introduce the project in the Explore-Flip/Expain/Apply method. I begin by letting students know they will be working on a 20% project in class throughout the year and then challenge them to do some research on what a 20% project is. I allow them to discuss the ins and outs and then discuss my parameters for the project with them.

I’ve researched several write-ups of educational 20% projects and pieced together suggestions from them. The following are my guidelines:


  1. You may work alone or with a small group.
    • Decide carefully. If you choose a small group, you will have to compromise with your group and deal with other personalities. If you work alone, you have complete autonomy but you are responsible for the outcome.
    • Is this person a worker or floater?
    • Can I get along with this person for the entire semester?
    • Is this person going to keep on track or distract me?
    • This is not about hanging out with friends,but making something really cool.
  2. Choose a project that is new to you and something you wouldn’t normally do in another academic class.
    • If you are stuck, do some research on other educational 20% projects and take another look at what Google has done.
  3. You must produce a product.
  4. Write up a proposal and pitch* it to the rest of the class that includes a purpose, audience, timeline, and resources you will need to complete the project. You will present your pitch in a "science-fair"-type poster session in front of other students, teachers, and community members.
  5. Choose an adult to be your official mentor. I am an English teacher, I do not have a lot of experience with some of the projects you might choose.
  6. Reflect on the process each week on the class wiki or personal blog.
  7. If, at any moment, you feel lost, overwhelmed, or uninspired, you must set a meeting with me to find a solution.
  8. At the end of the year, you will present your project and reflect on the process in a five-minute TED-style talk.
  9. Failure is an option. Simply learning from your mistakes teaches you a lot.

The When:

I introduce this project in the first week of school and let them know their proposal presentations* are due 5 weeks later (mid-October). They have October, November, December, and January to work on the projects (approx. 17 total class periods to work on it). Their final presentations are part of their 1st semester final exam.

The Who:

My students are 12th grade college-prep level students. There are about 80 of them total. However, I adapted this project from Troy Cockrum who teaches middle school language arts.


I do not grade the actual 20% Project. The suggested literature below suggests that grading projects like this is actually counter-productive. Instead, I grade the proposal/pitch project and the presentation at the end of the project. See rubrics below.

* Resources:

Electronic Folders:

1. 20% Project Evernote Folder: Collation of articles on the web about Google, 3M, education’s implementation of the 20% Project

2. 20% Evernote Folder: Lesson Plans, Worksheets, and Rubrics

My Own Implementation Reflections:

The Launch

Week Three Reflection

Project Idea Pitch: Public Poster Session (Week 5)

More to Come as We Progress Through the Year

Suggested Reading:

1. Daniel Pink: Drive

2. Tony Wagner: Creating Innovators

3. Sir Ken Robinson: The Element