What Schools Can Learn from Google About Nurturing Creativity

What motivates people to work? Most people would say money, and those people would only be partially correct. In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Daniel Pink writes about radical practices implemented by Australian software company Atlassian and search engine giant Google that have taught us a lot about what really motivates human beings to work. Hint: it is not the proverbial carrot on a stick.

Once a quarter, Atlassian gives its employees the opportunity to work on a software project of their choice on Fedex Day, so called because it must be completed and delivered in 24 hours. All participants are required to present their work to colleagues at the end of this time. Google participates in a similar practice called Innovation Time Off, in which employees are free to work on projects so long as they align with Google’s company mission and goals. Google employees are encouraged to spend 20% of their time, or one of every five work days, to create something outside their assigned projects. While Google gives their employees one of five days to work on personal projects, it is not possible for schools given budget and time restrictions. It is much more likely that Innovation Time Off is a school event held once a term.


Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons by woodleywonderworks

What Innovation Day Off Has Done for Companies

Implementing this day of imagination and innovation has inspired an amazing response. Not only did both companies find that employees fully and willingly have embraced this day of creativity and independence (some spend the night just to finish their projects), they actually found that the company benefited from this “day off” as well. At Atlassian, employees created products and software that helped the company run more efficiently. At Google, highly innovative and visionary products were created, including Google News, Adsense, and of course Gmail. At least two of those products has transformed the landscape of the Internet. All products that came out the latter half of the year in 2005 resulted from Innovation Time Off.

As we can see, when Innovation Time Off or Fedex Day are done correctly, the results can prove highly fruitful for both the employee and the company. Let’s look at ways in which we can apply this concept to schools at any level, whether in the classroom, in the gym,on the field, or in the community.

Bringing Innovation Time Into the Classroom

The idea of giving students a whole day off to work on their own projects probably scares many teachers. This is understandable, because (1) they do not have a employee/employer relationship (teachers do not pay students) and (2) students may not be as compliant as working adults. But all is not lost. As Pink writes in his book, Drive, human beings are motivated by three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

  • Autonomy is self-government or independence free from any controlling factors. The empowerment that comes from autonomy results in responsibility and accountability for one’s own life.
  • Mastery is having complete control over a specific talent or skill usually derived from many hours of practice and development. This is a driving factor in human motivation.
  • Purpose is connecting oneself to a higher purpose, a “bigger picture” so to speak. This can be anything from helping the community to leaving behind a legacy that will outlive one’s own life.

Understanding these three motivation drivers is paramount to understanding how teachers can effectively and powerfully introduce students to the idea of of Innovation Time. In this blog post in which teacher Josh Stumpenhorst recounted his experience with implementing Innovation Time for his sixth grade class in Naperville, Illinois, he clearly states his motivation: to give students a unique opportunity to learn. Innovation Time Off is a tool that teachers can use to help their students learn valuable skills that apply to their lives.

How Innovation Time Off Benefits Students

Students have fun and can explore (with help from teachers) their interests and try different things that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to try. This environment is highly conducive to learning, but even more than that, students reap the benefits of experimentation. Here’s a look at how.

Learn More About Careers

Bringing in professionals from the community to assist with Innovation Time can really benefit students. Not only can students ask questions and learn more about different professions, but they can also do work and get feedback on their own plans and goals. The professionals that come in can vary as widely as schools are willing. Bringing in designers, engineers, artists, musicians, comedians, writers, doctors and so on to guide students through their personal projects can potentially change a student’s life by opening his or her mind to a world of possibilities.

Explore Other Interests

Students may want to dive deeper into hobbies and passion projects. If students enjoy comics, they may be able to write, illustrate, and design a comic book. When Josh Stumpenhorst hosted Innovation Day, his students did a plethora of things, including creating a wood model of the Sears Tower, writing a historical fiction short story, painting a still life of a nature scene, writing and performing a comedy act, and creating a video highlight reel of basketball moves and plays. The diversity of student interests is amazing, and this gives teachers the chance to see a different side.

Figuring It Out

One of the most important things that Pernille Ripp, a fifth grade teacher, learned about Innovation Time Off is that it is difficult to step away from students and let them work. But this is absolutely vital to the success of this experience. She does not give guidance, nor does she have restrictions on projects. Any research and learning is up to the student, which results in accountability and responsibility. Students learn to be resourceful and creative, which is exciting and builds real confidence based on achievements.

Let Loose and Have Fun

Students often associate school with textbooks and tests, two things that nobody truly enjoys. Employing Innovation Time Off or Innovation Day allows students to view school in a different light, seeing how teachers, equipment (computers, wood shop, gym), and room space can be used to help them learn more about their favorite subjects, whether school related or not. This transforms schools into a holistic experience, incorporating academic subjects with life outside academia. Learning is always easier when there is a purpose that is bigger than just getting a good grade. As Pink tweeted, “Carrots & sticks are so last century. Drive says for 21st century work, we need to upgrade to autonomy, mastery & purpose.”

How Innovation Time Off Benefits Schools

It is clear that students have much to gain from Innovation Time Off. As an added bonus, schools can benefit as well.

First, schools can improve the quality of education that occurs in the classroom by allowing students to take a day off. During Innovation Time Off, students look at schools differently. There is a very subtle paradigm shift that occurs, as mentioned above, in which students view schools as a tool for learning more about topics that they have a personal interest in, and not just learning for getting the grade.

The rote memorization of facts is an important skill, but the application of facts is just as important, if not more so. It isn’t about learning the equations that help you figure out angles in geometry, but how students can apply that geometry to a project such as building a bike or a treehouse. It isn’t about learning chemistry, but understanding how the knowledge of chemistry and biology can help them enhance their level of play on the football field by understanding how specific foods and activities affect their performance. When knowledge is coupled with passion, this is when true motivation for learning occurs.

Second, student projects improve a school’s communication, logistics, and physical aesthetics. During Innovation Time Off, schools can challenge students to design projects that they feel would enhance the overall experience of attending. Whether this is redesigning the PA system, improving gym space, creating workspaces to help students focus, or improving school lunch systems, schools stand to benefit greatly from student innovations and suggestions. This student involvement in school and contributing to the classroom helps the school build a stronger relationship with students.

How To Implement Innovation Day Off In Your School

Innovation Day Off is a day that is held once a school term. There are many ways to implement an Innovation Day Off in your school, but here are the basic steps that are key to the success.

Step 1: Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

Even though the event is only one day, the preparation should begin approximately 1 to 2 months before the actual date. In this time, teachers can encourage students to research topics, help brainstorm, and plan the projects they will work on. In addition, teachers should create a theme for the event that students can work from. In a business like Google, it is fairly clear what their company goals are, so it is easy for employees to align their projects. The theme that teachers choose are like these company goals. Ideas for themes could be an open prompt, such as “Tools of the Future”, “Do What You Love”, or “Students of the Future”. Students can interpret this prompt however they may and work on projects that relate to their interpretation.

Step 2: Write a Plan

Students should write a plan detailing how they’re going to use their time. Use the Reverse Engineering method that was outlined in this article. The better the plan, the more structured their work will be, and the more successful their projects will turn out. This planning process includes listing materials necessary, learning to use equipment, and contacting resources that may be useful.

Step 3: Innovation Time

Do the work. This is where the fun happens. It is important to let go and allow your students to learn resourcefulness. Though there may be struggle and teachers may want to answer questions, this “figuring it out” process is where the learning happens. Challenges inspire creativity and ingenuity. As Daniel Pink says, “Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.”


Innovation Time Off, or FedEx Day, is one of the most creative ways to apply business practices from creative startups to the classroom. Letting students work on individual passion projects inspires learning and creates a fun learning environment. And fun in today’s world of seriousness and professionalism is a much needed attribute, because from fun comes true work ethic and enthusiasm. Try it out and be ready to change some lives.


  1. Tricia Whenham

    May 1, 2015 at 7:25 am

    I get so excited when I hear stories of teachers trying Genius Hour, Innovation Day Off and other kinds of inquiry-based, student-driven learning! I think these kinds of approaches have such potential to really get kids not just learning but learning how to learn. And tech tools (smartphone cameras, digital portfolios, etc.) makes it much easier for teachers capture what’s going on, so that no one thinks it’s wasted time.

    Most of the initiatives I’ve read about are more ongoing, where students take time every week to work on their individual projects. I’d be curious to see how setting aside just one day a term compares, in terms of the learning that’s done.

  2. Jason Shaffer

    May 5, 2015 at 6:58 am

    This article is fantastic and in my opinion speaks to the higher purpose of education. Teaching skills is imperative and in many ways surpasses the old school mentality of memorizing facts and figures. In my 12 week elective course I actually allow for 2-3 weeks of creation time so that students can demonstrate the skills learned but also so that they can take the time to create personal and meaningful work. Creativity takes time. Obviously it is important to make sure students stay on task and so a weekly checkup is important.

    Thanks for the great article!!!

  3. David Sahakyan (NeoAbundance)

    July 9, 2015 at 3:10 pm

    I love this kind of articles which are innovative in their own way. Thank you for posting this. One thing I would disagree is that we’re talking about Motivation Trifecta (http://deliveringhappiness.com/the-motivation-trifecta-autonomy-mastery-and-purpose/) which typically kicks in after an individual reaches a certain income threshold. Below that threshold extrinsic motivators (money, benefits, status, etc) usually play bigger role. If I remember correctly it’s somewhere $70K for the average person in the US (there are many variables). Once the income exceeds that minimum people redefine their primary motivators. This could probably be linked to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but then again I don’t know how to apply this to kids :)