Recently, I’ve been listening to WorkLife, a podcast with organizational psychologist Adam Grant. The podcast aims to “explore the science of making work not suck.” It discusses a variety of topics from constructive criticism in the workplace to rethinking job interviews. In the title of the recent episode, Grant challenges audiences to “rethink flexibility at work”. With the impact of the global pandemic on workforces and more specifically on education, one’s mind is quickly drawn to the notion of remote work and the flexibility that hybrid learning brings.
Whilst there is no question that workplace flexibility has caused us to question spatial paradigms that exist within education, I think we might be missing the bigger picture. Choice and freedom are as much about what you do as they are about where you do it.
So, let’s talk about choice.
There is a rich body of literature within education suggesting that student choice increases motivation. When students are able to choose something that interests them, they are more motivated to learn about it. By providing choice and a positive classroom environment, our students are more likely to be active participants in their learning (Theesfeld, 2021). “Offering students choice and mobility in classroom activities was a great way to get students involved in the learning process” (Curtis & Kosky, 2008, p. 25). When students are able to choose how or what they are learning they are more invested in learning.
I wonder if, in our readiness to espouse the benefits of learning theories and systemic changes that support our students, we forget about the impact such changes might have on teachers. What if we gave teachers more freedom and more choice?
One of the ideas discussed in WorkLife is the notion of ‘dabble time’. Dabble time is an expectation that approximately 10 percent of employees' time at company Gore-Tex will go toward new ideas or initiatives. It is about enabling employees to slow down their logical mind and fire up their imaginations. It is scheduled time where people are encouraged to read, daydream, draw and create. Google uses a similar idea titled 20% time. Employees were encouraged to spend 20% of their time working on what they thought would most benefit Google. As these projects developed, they often found that their 20% time became a full-on project, leading to some of Google’s biggest products including Gmail & AdSense.
What would happen if schools said, “We want teachers to engage in dabble time”? What might that look like in your context? The sceptic in me thinks that such freedom does not amount to cultural change, that it may just lead to less productivity. However, when we are encouraged to work on things that interest us, we have increased motivation for learning. We can see this in our students. What if freedom is less about giving up power and more about gifting over time?
Sceptics of Google’s 20% rule would argue that only 10% of people use the time. But really at its heart, it’s about valuing innovation. Googlers aren't forced to work on additional projects and there are no written guidelines about it. Ultimately, that’s the point. As former Head of HR at Google, Laszlo Bock, puts it, "In some ways, the idea of 20 percent time is more important than the reality of it.," It operates somewhat outside the lines of formal management oversight, and always will, because the most talented and creative people can't be forced to work” (Bock, 2015).
Another idea to come out of the WorkLife podcast is ‘CEO for a day’. The podcast opens with a line from Ville Houttu, CEO of Vincit, a Finnish software company. “We want to create a workplace where even Mondays don't suck.”
Four years ago, one of the software engineers at Vincit sends sent Houttu a calendar invite to his annual salary review with the subject "Promote John to CEO." Houttu thought, “Why not?” He made the engineer CEO for a day and said he could make one decision that would improve the workplace for everyone. With unlimited budget to do so, the engineer took the task seriously discussing it with employees, doing research and analysis. Since then, there have been a number of initiatives implemented including company-paid movie tickets, Audible subscriptions and even a home cleaning service.
Now, principals may don’t not have the same access to these kinds of budgets, but these kinds of such initiatives indicate that employees do tend to have the best interests of their workplace at heart. I believe teachers do too. What if schools instituted ‘principal for a day’ for members of their staff. I’ve heard of similar initiatives being used with students to incorporate learner voice and increase buy-in. What if we tried it with our staff? The notion is both terrifying and exhilarating. But it speaks to the idea that we should listen to our people, that we should trust our people.
I think the future lies in the kind of optimism that says, “Let’s try this”, valuing the collective expertise of educators and taking informed risks. We are quick to espouse the benefits of choice and freedom for our learners. At many progressive institutions, this is evidenced in scaffolded free learning or ‘project’ time. What if we gave these same opportunities to our teachers? Both ‘CEO for a day’ and ‘dabble time’ are examples of encouraging innovation through trust. I am interested to see what sort of innovative offerings teachers could dream up if given opportunities like this.
Socrates once said, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” Let’s trust our people, let’s give them freedom and choice, let’s hear their ideas and let’s build the new paradigm together.
Kosky, Courtney & Curtis, Reagan. (2008). An Action Research Exploration Integrating Student Choice and Arts Activities in a Sixth Grade Social Studies Classroom. Journal of Social Studies Research.
Bock, Laszlo (2015). Work Rules! Insights From Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead. Unabridged. Ashland: Hachette Book Group.
Theesfeld, Sarah, "Effects of Student Choice on Student Motivation and Engagement within an Elementary Classroom" (2021). Dissertations, Theses, and Projects. 500.