English teachers introduce new 20% Project to sophomore and senior classes

Two Palo Alto High School English teachers have instituted a new project-based learning program in their classrooms this year. The 20% Project is a self-directed learning project in which a student must produce a product in the form of a presentation that outlines what the student learned and whether or not the goal of the project was met.  Kirk Hinton and Erin Angell are reintroducing this concept, which ended in the late 1990s and used to be called Senior Projects, to their sophomore and senior classes.

The 20% Project is inspired by a program at Google that allows employees to work on a creative mechanism of their choosing for one full day a week, regardless of their job obligations. One product of this program at Google is GMail, Google’s highly popular email service.

Every week, students get 20 percent of class time, or half of a block period, to work on a project of their choosing. Students may work either by themselves or in a group. These projects are very flexible and do not have to be related to English or even academics, just something that a student finds an interest in. For example, some students may chose to build a robot, while others may want to stick to the traditional approach towards English and read another book and write an essay.

The goals of the 20% Project are to improve students’ ability to research, write, speak and think creatively. Throughout the course, students must write a formal project proposal to present to their peers, write a 150-word blog post each week, reach out and find a mentor and present a five-minute TED-style talk upon the project’s culmination.

“This is an opportunity for students to be able to learn English in service of something that they’re passionate about,” Angell said.

The 20% Project’s requirements, such as the blog posts, widen the scope of the students’ audience as well. Many sophomores in Hinton’s English 10A class are finding that their blog posts are receiving hits from all around the world.

“The project by nature forces students to think outside the box,” senior Bryant Vergara said. “Rather than simply learning out of a textbook or lecture, students need to upgrade social skills and learn to network in the community.”

Hinton and Angell both believe that this project will help students become motivated and gain creativity, both crucial elements in the professional world.

“People in the business world, before anything else, want creativity,” Hinton said.

In today’s education system, motivation is key, and how to motivate students is a struggle faced by both schools and educators alike.

“When you can get people to be intrinsically motivated and autonomous, then you have [students] meeting these benchmark standards in the subject of English,” Angell said.

More and more schools, especially private schools, around the country are adopting projects similar to this one, and referring to them Senior Projects, as educators realize that creativity and passion can be spurred in core classes through self-direction. Educators are also stressing the importance of the process, as opposed to the result.

“One of the things that can be very powerful is that I tell [students] it is possible to fail in your objective, but I still want to hear about what you have learned,” Hinton said.

Many students have responded enthusiastically to the project, but some with trepidation.

“This project is the future of education,” Vergara said. “Project-based and hands-on education is what schools should be doing but are failing at. In the real world, people don’t get things done through seminars or lectures, they accomplish goals through experience and trial and error.”