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20% and Open Doors

By Ron Martorelli

I recently read Ken Auletta's book Googled, about the creation and rise of Google. I read it as both a techno-geek and as an educator. There were two particular things about Google that I contemplated as an educator.

Among the more interesting tidbits I learned about how Google works was how they encourage their engineers to spend twenty percent of their time exploring ideas they find interesting and ideas they are passionate about. Many of the more innovative Google ideas, products, and initiatives have sprung from this allocated "free" time, which is encouraged further in meetings set aside where these engineers can discuss their ideas openly to benefit from brainstorming session with other engineers, as well as programs that mentor and team up engineers for further their ideas.

Interestingly, Auletta gives credit to the founders of Google for borrowing this idea from Stanford University, which both Sergey Brin and Larry Page attended, and at which their initial ideas for Google were formed and tested.

Contrast this time to develop ideas and creativity to the typical day of a K-12 teacher. If you consider a typical day as a series of forty-minute sessions or periods, a K-12 teacher will probably have one "prep" period, one lunch period, and one supervision period. So, in a seven hour school day, this teacher would have zero time to explore new technologies, teaching ideas, develop creative lesson plans, etc., unless one counts day dreaming at lunch as creative time. Yes, there is time after school and at home, but when you factor in the time it takes to create and grade assessment material, this teacher still has very little time to explore anything new.

The second thing about Google is the open door policy of management, the idea of supporting and mentoring innovation, and the willingness to test these ideas and encourage the development of those that are successful and discarding without prejudice those ideas that fail.

In one week my email box is inundated with information and newsletters about technology and education. I have bookmarks on my browser for CSTA and a host of other blogs and information portals. I receive magazines or E-zines like Edutopia which are full of creative ideas for the classroom. Announcements for grants, scholarships, and contests arrive every month with opportunities to engage my students in interesting and innovative projects.

I wonder if we have fallen into a trap of demanding more technology-based innovation and creativity in the K-12 classroom without being willing to discuss the need to change the very structure of the education system. Should K-12 school years be extended or modified? I ask this as I have a week off for "winter break". Why do our teachers or students need a week off, just a few weeks after an extended holiday break, and a few weeks before the spring break? Should K-12 school days be changed to block schedules or alternating school days so that both teachers and students can spend more in-depth time on subjects? Should teacher schedules be modified to enable them to spend more time exploring ideas and innovation, and with time to develop the ideas for classroom instruction? How many of our schools are set up to brainstorm ideas, or to mentor and team teachers to develop their passions? Instead, we often find administrative bureaucracies that discourage the very innovation they seek.

As we watch Google grow to dominate the Internet, media, and software worlds, many of their competitors have acknowledged that they must adjust their own methods of developing and delivering software and other technology to their customers. Perhaps it is time for the educational system to face similar realities and change our methods of development and delivery to our customers – our students.

Ron Martorelli
CSTA Board of Directors


While we're dreaming: How about a curriculum where Computer Science was considered an academic core? Imagine not having to justify your existence and mount internecine battles for a dwindling population of semi-engaged students.

Better yet: consider a school where incoming freshmen spend one year in seminar style instruction where they are given a unified view of science, mathematics, literature, history, and art?

Maybe the ultimate: A school system that values learning above test scores.

Of course, we realize that none of these things will happen---at least not in American Public Schools. It is valuable to think of them? Maybe. Is it valuable to conceive of an America where citizens have universal health care?

Before changing careers to do something I love (before becoming a teacher), I had the opportunity to spend quality years at remarkable companies. For instance, I was a Scientist at Bolt, Beranek & Newman, in Cambridge, Massachusetts before the Reagan era disassembled the basic research community. We would sometimes have lunch with visiting lecturers, Stephen Hawking, Marvin Minsky, Noam Chomsky, Steve Jobs, and others. We were encouraged to spend at least one day a week thinking outside the box. And I will say that some projects went nowhere, but quite a few were moderately successful: the Arpanet, early work in Natural Language Processing, neural nets, genetic algorithms (and I'm just talking about the things I experienced first-hand), and others.

But here's the thing: that was a very different America. And really, I won't waste your time with history except to say that that was a place where faith in human potential was a given, and the average difference in pay was high but still imaginable. Even competition was constructive and zero-sum thinking rare. Oh, and time away was away--no cells phones, no laptops, no Blackberrys, and no stress. I apologize if this sounds quaint. That time and place, like all others, is irretrievable.

Let me ask you: what do you see when you look at the horizon?

Tom R.

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