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The Genius Hour / 20% Time Movement Can Save Education

Written by Don Wettrick

There is a lot of talk about artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics replacing many career fields. Quite frankly, I understand these fears, ex: watch a Boston Dynamics “Atlas the Robot” video, or read articles about self-driving cars and drone package deliveries. Presidential Democratic candidate Andrew Yang is proposing a “Universal Basic Income” (UBI) because he believes that the shift in automation is coming so fast, many people will become obsolete in the near future, and our employment options will dwindle down to fewer and fewer occupations. Futurists like Ray Kurzweil have been shockingly accurate up to this point about disruptive technologies, and its effect on employment and governments.

Trying to be an optimist I think, “haven’t we always out-innovated ourselves out of jobs? Isn’t this the natural progression of things?” We no longer have coal delivery, bowling alley pinsetters, or switchboard operators- and for good reason. The fear, however, is that technology has never moved this fast.Self-driving cars and trucks, and automated retail kiosks will make a bigger/faster impact on a broad spectrum of labor than bowling alley innovation. So this leads me to a couple of questions:

  1. Who will “invent” the new jobs of the future?

  2. What will we do to prepare our students for “the future of work”?

Cody Wysong with the microphone at a Student Innovation Night at Outhouse Coworking

Cody Wysong with the microphone at a Student Innovation Night at Outhouse Coworking

The first question, quite honestly annoys me. Mostly because I go to educational conferences where a speaker will make a claim that “ (Some random %) of the nations jobs that our elementary students will occupy don’t exist yet. I want to stand up and scream, “ok- who do you think will invent those jobs?” I’m not annoyed by the speaker pointing out the massive shift in what labor looks like, but rather the complete avoidance on how memorization and standardized tests WILL NOT prepare our students for this shift.

So back to the question: who will invent these new jobs?

Answer: Seekers and Peekers (the creatively entrepreneurial).

Opportunity Seekers are listening to the world’s problems with empathy, yes, BUT also a focus on solutions. “Awareness” campaigns are nice; feasible, practical, scalable solutions are better.

This is where “Peekers” come in, and where I get really excited. When you get a group of “Seekers” together, they share information- they collaborate, they survey, and observe. When they share all of this information, they can “peek” around the corner- that is to say, predict trends, and correct problems before they happen. Watching a group of peekers work is both inspiring and energizing. They waste no time with rhetoric or politics- only possible solutions.

The second question, “how do we prepare our students for this massive change in employment?” is the real moonshot. Let me start with the obvious. The way NOT to prepare our students is to stay the course. Short term memorization of facts, GPA wars, compliance based, sit-in-your-chair-quietly approach is literally the worst way to create a future-ready citizen. Better yet, I think my college experience sums up the old vs new economy perfectly:

“I didn’t go to college to learn. I went to college to get a degree.”

The diploma “hoop” I jumped through was (in 1995) all I needed to get a good job. This is why I completely understand why many parents just want their child to go to college- for anything. That plan got them a job because “the degree” was the qualifier. However, that plan of attack is going through a dramatic shift, and thousands of college graduates who are paying for an exponentially high debt can attest. I think Dr. Tony Wagner, author of “Most Likely To Succeed” deftly pointed out, “People don’t care what you know, only what you can DO with what you know.” That is to say, “I have a degree” without having actual skills- is an outdated plan.

So while education experts have agreed that students need more collaboration, communication, and problem solving- little has been done to shift HOW this is done. True collaboration doesn’t have to mean “pair and share,” it can be using video calling technology to reach out to an expert from anywhere in the world. Communication skills doesn’t just have to mean standing in front of the class, giving a speech. It can mean a blog, YouTube video reflection, or even student produced podcast. By the way, they can do ALL of these things from their phone.

This is why I believe that the “Genius Hour/ 20% Time/ Passion Project” movement is a HUGE leap forward.

Many elementary schools have found the power of a Genius Hour section added to their school week. Middle school teachers have discovered that they can share the “20% Time” by shifting it week to week to different classes when they are teamed.

Where innovation can sometimes make a hard stop is in high school. Many students I talk to want to pad his/her stats with AP classes that will “look good” on a college transcript. Taking risks, collaborating, and doing internships might include risk. And risk could lead to a B letter grade… or worse!

So, at the high school level, I believe that EVERY high school should have the elective “Innovation and Open Source Learning.” This is a class where students learn how to find a problem, or passion- and act on it. Students can “open source” their learning by contacting experts outside of the school walls, and communicate (or work) with them. The students can grow their network because they are encouraged to use this class time reach out to the people they look up to… then create something.

This is also where students leap from “innovative” and go into entrepreneurial. I fear that the word “innovative” has become synonymous with “clever.” Having a great idea is innovative… entrepreneurial means getting into the world.

I want more students to think like entrepreneurs. Let me clarify that. I want more students to think and ACT like entrepreneurs.

Do I think that all students should become entrepreneurs? No. That’s not feasible. However, as Seth Godin pointed out in “Lynchpin,” the employee that looks out for advantages for his/her company makes them indispensable and extremely valued. These “lynchpin” employees think and ACT as if the company is his/her company, and will find ways to help the company- not just themselves.

Our Innovation and Open Source Learning Class

Our Innovation and Open Source Learning Class

THOSE are the creatively entrepreneurial, that will invent the jobs of the future, along with the innovations in entertainment, apps, services, and things we have yet to imagine.

So, the time is now to unleash our students to challenge the world’s problems. A “Genius Hour” approach to learning at the elementary and middle levels preps our students to flex their creativity, and innovation muscles. A high school class like “Innovation and Open Source Learning” can be a hub of acknowledging problems, and then having the time, network, and resources to tackle them. A real life school/community solution center. It can also be a time where students can learn new skills, then find a way to implement it into their lives, or even pursue a career. Or, we can keep going on, adding more and more stress with GPA wars, endless SAT and ACT prep, to memorize relics of the past, instead of having our students create skills for the future.

The choice is truly ours.

I was a guest on Tom Bilyeu’s “Inside Quest” where we talked about disrupting the classroom.