Does Free Time Trump Class Time for Innovative Teens?

By Anthony Rebora — November 13, 2013 1 min read
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In a blog post for the Jesuit Catholic magazine America, educator Matt Emerson ponders the example of Nick D’Aloisio, a British teenager who’s been designing iPhone apps for five years and whose signature creation—a sophisticated text-summarization tool called Summly—was recently purchased by Yahoo! for $30 million.

Emerson says he’s come across numerous students who, while maybe not as advanced or successful as D’Aloisio, are cut from the same general cloth. For these aficiandos of video-game design or film editing, “breakthroughs arise from work outside of school, outside of formal assignments and the courses that colleges recognize. Some of their best work results from Google searching and YouTube tutorials as they chase down their natural curiosities.” What, he wonders, can schools offer such students to keep them engaged and help them develop their talents and ingenuity?

A good start, Emerson argues, would be giving them a little more time on their own to pursue their interests:

One preliminary answer centers on the importance of giving students unstructured time—freedom to pursue what they naturally love. This is a delicate task, because not all students are mature enough to handle it. Study hall quickly becomes text messaging hall. Additionally, not all students will have the ideas or the willpower to launch companies or products. But with the right students, with students who possess brilliance and intrinsic motivation, a couple hours a day to pursue entrepreneurial projects could make school far more captivating. And it could lead to genuine achievements in technology, design, business or the arts.

Some schools that are already doing a version of this call it genius hour. But it seems fair to question whether schools can truly hope to match the haphazard, untethered creative atmosphere of a teenager’s basement or garage.

As for D’Aloisio, he stopped going to his high school a while ago, though he apparently keeps in touch with some of his teachers. He’s considering enrolling in a university but is afraid it might get in the way. “Serial entrepreneurs get addicted to creation,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “I want to be passionate. I feel really bad when I’m not doing something new.”

Photo: Nick D’Aloisio, the teenaged British computer app programmer who designed Summly, speaks at coding event in London in September.—Alastair Grant/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.