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'Google Thursdays' and the Power of Self-Directed Learning

A student in Diedra Gammill's reading class presents her findings on becoming an obstetrician, her chosen topic for a free-form independent-learning project.
A student in Diedra Gammill's reading class presents her findings on becoming an obstetrician, her chosen topic for a free-form independent-learning project. "All in all, the week of presentations was the most invigorating and exciting week I had with my students all year," Gammill says.
—Deidra Gammill
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Many teachers are addicted to the treasure hunt that is learning.

But how does that translate to instilling a passion for learning in our students? I believe the answer is providing them with a purpose for learning that goes beyond testing and grades.

Earlier this year, I heard Harvard University educator Tony Wagner speak at the 2014 Teaching & Learning conference in Washington. He talked about Google Fridays, the one day each week Google gives its employees freedom to learn, explore, and discover any topic they want (all on company time).

Apparently, this policy makes for better, more engaged employees.

So Wagner shared something similar he did with his high school students when he was in the classroom. On Fridays, he gave them time to do independent learning about anything they wanted.

Chris shares some music he discovered during his
Chris shares some music he discovered during his "Google Thursday" project.
—Deidra Gammill

How did he keep them accountable? He talked with his students about what they were learning. There were no tests. No grades. Just conversations.

I was intrigued by the idea but concerned. Where would I find the time? How could I make sure my students were actually learning? How could I keep them accountable?

Nevertheless, I started “Google Thursdays” in my two reading classes without any guidelines for what this kind of learning should look like. Through trial and error, I learned some valuable lessons about relinquishing control of the learning process to my students. Here are some takeaways from my experiences.

Find time and space. Why Thursdays? Simple: That was the day each week I could reserve the library or computer lab.

Explain what the initiative is and isn’t. Google Thursday is about students having time to learn about something that interests them. It’s not about playing games or using social media. One reason I chose to have students use the computer lab or library was to cut down on the possible misuse of time that can occur when students are allowed to spend too much time on their phones. I didn’t want to spend Google Thursdays acting like a security guard. I wanted them to enjoy learning and feel free to share that learning with me as I circulated the room.

Have students pick a learning topic—and give them plenty of time to do so. Though students have freedom to explore topics of their choice, they still need to be conscientious in what they focus on. Many students won’t be able to pick a topic the first time. Use the first few class periods to let students explore. One of the cool things about learning via the Internet is all the unexpected information and resources you encounter. Ask students questions and make suggestions.

Narrow the focus of the learning topic. After a few weeks, tell students that it’s time to begin narrowing their focus. Some students may already have information overload. One solution can be found in Daniels and Steineke’s bookTexts and Lessons for Content-Area Reading, which suggests teaching students the difference between “fat” and “skinny” questions.

Skinny questions have an answer that can easily be spotted in the text. “When was…? How many…?” Fat questions, on the other hand, are ones that lead students to ask more questions and discuss topics. Fat questions require synthesis and evaluation—that is, higher-order thinking. Having students formulate “fat” questions about their topic helps them narrow their focus. What exactly do they want to know about their topic?

Participate in Google Thursdays yourself. In order to help my students understand the process, I let them choose a topic for me to research. They were inspired by a poster of James Dean in my classroom. So I found an article about the actor’s tragic death for them to read. Afterwards, they discussed and formulated fat questions about the article. Using their questions, my students narrowed the focus of my topic to something more manageable (Dean’s racing career).

Show students how to do an effective Internet search. Using my Smart Board, I showed my students how to do a Google search using the terms “James Dean” and “racing” so students could watch the process first hand. We went through different search results, looking at the explanation boxes and clicking on links that seemed the most relevant. Then we gathered a list of sources I could use to learn more about Dean’s racing career.

Give them assessment options. So how did I measure student growth on a learning experience that was supposed to be assessment-free? My solution was to have students share their learning. How they chose to share was completely up to them. This was a neat opportunity for students to show their classmates things they had learned—much like a research “show and tell.”

Presentation Week

A student, Kadarias, presents his findings on the
A student, Kadarias, presents his findings on the "sneakerhead" phenomenon (professional sneaker collectors).
—Deidra Gammill

I'll admit—letting go and relinquishing control was scary. Giving students freedom is risky. What if they waste time? What if they don't use the resources responsibly? What if they are really watching YouTube videos and pretending to learn? These are very real concerns, because some kids will do exactly that. But most of them won't. And, frankly, I was tired of limiting the majority in an attempt to control a few. Sharing control of the learning process with my students showed them that I trusted them and respected them as fellow learners. I found that my students responded to that trust and respect by doing what I expected of them, and my classroom became more student-centered and less teacher-centered.

At the end of the nine weeks, students were prepared to make presentations. Some decided on more traditional PowerPoints or Prezis, while others brought items to show the class what they learned. Many did both. My only guideline for presentations was that students had to make sure their classmates walked away with a basic understanding of what they had learned. This included providing key vocabulary and images.

All in all, the week of presentations was the most invigorating and exciting week I had experienced with my students all year. Chris brought his bass guitar and amp, sharing new music he’d discovered. Rico showed a video in his Prezi in which he demonstrated the tricks he’d learned with his long board. The whole class learned the difference between a skateboard and a long board, plus what types of tricks are best for each board.

Zach taught us how to earn money on YouTube by sharing his own videos. Shavon shared everything you need to know in order to become an obstetrician. And Ty taught us about voodoo (though I did not allow him to demonstrate).

Their presentations were dynamic and interesting, and the student presenters were invested and enthusiastic. Many students researched possible career fields, while others delved deeper into their hobbies and passions. Joey, for instance, learned more about how the phases of the moon impact hunting, something he hadn’t known before as an avid hunter.

I saw my students grow as presenters and become more comfortable talking in front of their classmates because they were confident about their subject matter. They got to share images and videos of themselves actually doing things they had learned and showcase their knowledge and skills. There was a level of pride in their work that I hadn’t seen before, especially in some of the students who were usually “too cool” to participate. Not surprisingly, the presentations were the best they had produced all year.

Google Thursdays gave my students the opportunity to practice self-directed learning and improve their presentation skills—while learning a lot in the process. And by giving them a little more freedom to explore and discover, so did I.

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