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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.