Teaching Profession Opinion

Educators Should Steal Google’s Secret About Creativity

By Matt Presser — September 20, 2017 4 min read

Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page aren’t shy about sharing the secret of how they came up with new products like Gmail and Google News: They allowed the company’s engineers to be creative. To be exact, they allowed their engineers to spend 20 percent of their work time on their own innovative passion projects. The same is true in academia, where university faculty—after completing years of research and teaching—earn the right to take a sabbatical and focus exclusively on their interests.

What if our K-12 schools believed in students the same way that Google believes in its engineers and universities trust their professors? What if we had that same faith in our students’ talents and capabilities?

Moving Beyond the Standards

Several years ago, as a middle school teacher at a Title I public school in New Haven, Conn., I told my 8th graders that for one period per day, they could spend time solving a problem they cared about instead of doing traditional schoolwork. Doing so changed my classroom: After years of teaching standards, I began teaching students.

We started by brainstorming students’ concerns about the world. They noticed that TV cameras rolled into the neighborhood when there was a murder, but not when good things happened. They were concerned about police brutality and a lack of trust between officers and teenagers. They worried about how the media portrayed young people, particularly young people of color like themselves, as uncaring rather than as the impassioned and curious people they are.

We then worked together to create standards-based projects that addressed those concerns. We developed the same skills students in other classes were learning, but we did so for real reasons. We built a website where they researched and reported their own stories for an online audience, responding to events in the news and paying attention to what the news overlooked. We designed a campaign to reduce stereotypes of officers and teenagers that students presented at the local police academy. We started a neighborhood museum at our school to celebrate the stories of our community.

Making a Difference

Our most substantial project arose when I handed the school’s latest academic and behavioral data to a group of students and asked them what we should do. The suspension rates at our school were going up, and the transition to a new state test left us uncertain about academic performance.

Students immediately got to work thinking about how to improve our school. They surveyed friends at other schools, researched creative practices around the country, and eventually planned field trips to three nearby schools that were doing education differently.

What they found during walkthroughs at other schools and through interviews with teachers and students impressed them. At one school, students used Chromebooks in class and at home to aid in learning. At another, a student-run leadership club encouraged kindness and helped reduce discipline issues.

Back at our school, my students sprang into action. They wrote a proposal on DonorsChoose to obtain several computer models before settling on the one they felt was best, and met with the district’s superintendent to advocate for a Chromebook for every 8th grader. They also created a young men’s fraternity to foster peer-to-peer support among the young men at our school. One initiative in the fraternity involved collecting donated ties from all over the country. My students wanted their peers to feel comfortable taking themselves seriously—and were concerned that the first time many classmates donned a tie would be when they went for a job interview. By the end of the year, more than 200 students wore ties to school, and teachers reported that classroom behavior improved as a result.

None of this was for a grade or because I, as their teacher, told them to. Instead, they did it because they could—and because they wanted to.

Though I have since left the classroom, I still hear about the ways my students are making a difference at their high schools. With sponsorship from the national Think It Up initiative, Elijah is helping to plan field trips to a hospital and a fire academy for his school’s career program. Jordan started a mentorship program between high schoolers and students at a nearby middle school. Paolo created a campaign to replace outdated gym equipment. At different high schools around our city, students are taking seats at the table to improve their schools, proving that they should have been there all along.

A Classroom of Trust

The traditional method of mass education starts with a curriculum and fits it to students’ needs. Too often, students’ interests exist separately from school, and they complete assignments for their teacher’s eyes only. Personal passion is too often missing from our classrooms.

As teachers, we should approach education the other way around: by starting with our students and then shaping a curriculum around them. When we give our students real responsibility to tackle problems connected to their interests, they flourish.

It’s time we eradicate adultism from our schools. We must stop acting as though the best ideas come from people in charge. My students are proof that when teachers engage students as partners, everybody learns more.

Related Tags:


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Safe Return to Schools is Possible with Testing
We are edging closer to a nationwide return to in-person learning in the fall. However, vaccinations alone will not get us through this. Young children not being able to vaccinate, the spread of new and
Content provided by BD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
Meeting the Moment: Accelerating Equitable Recovery and Transformative Change
Educators are deciding how best to re-establish routines such as everyday attendance, rebuild the relationships for resilient school communities, and center teaching and learning to consciously prioritize protecting the health and overall well-being of students
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Addressing Learning Loss: What Schools Need to Accelerate Reading Instruction in K-3
When K-3 students return to classrooms this fall, there will be huge gaps in foundational reading skills. Does your school or district need a plan to address learning loss and accelerate student growth? In this
Content provided by PDX Reading

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Opinion I've Studied Teachers for 20 Years. The Pandemic Was Their Ultimate Challenge
Researcher Lora Bartlett wondered what was happening behind the scenes as teachers' cheerful voices radiated from her daughters' computers.
Lora Bartlett
4 min read
Lincoln Agnew for Education Week
Teaching Profession Q&A Teachers' Union President: Say 'No to Censorship, and Yes to Teaching the Truth'
National Education Association President Becky Pringle discusses some of the challenges and priorities for the nation's largest teachers' union.
8 min read
National Education Association President Becky Pringle delivers a keynote address.
National Education Association President Becky Pringle delivers a keynote address at the union's representative assembly in early July.
Moses Mitchell/National Education Association
Teaching Profession Opinion How to Improve Teaching After the Pandemic
Figuring out how to let individual teachers do more of what they’re already good at is a powerful place to start the improvement process.
4 min read
Conceptual image of finding finding a different approach or path.
Teaching Profession Teachers' Unions Vow to Defend Members in Critical Race Theory Fight
The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are preparing for litigation as states restrict teaching about racism.
7 min read
In this photo illustration, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, left, and Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, right.
In this photo illustration, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, left, and Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, right.
Courtesy photos