Unstructured & Non-Commissioned Time for Teachers

Time is valuable. For teachers, there is never enough time, not unlike many other professions. Considering the need to deliver a contemporary education in an engaging manner, I ask the question….. are we using our time in the best way possible? 

For over 12 months now I have heard about different companies giving time to employees to “do whatever they want.” Well, not really, but some companies provide ‘unstructured’ or ‘non-commissioned’ time for their employees. Some examples are:

  • Apple who provide a “Blue Sky” program which allows employees to take two weeks to work on projects outside their normal responsibilities.
  • Twitter have “hack weeks” once a year where employees focus for a week on their own ideas.
  • Intuit gives employees 10% of their hours as unstructured time.
  • Google allows employees to use up to 20 percent of their time to work on a project unrelated to their normal workload.
  • LinkedIn have “InCubator”. This is where engineers can get 30 to 90 days away from their regular work to develop ideas of their own into products.

 The benefits which flow from such initiatives include the following:

  • Intuit say their legal department created a tool kit that lets product managers try new business ideas without needing to talk to the legal team. Also, the IT department accelerated the time it took to set up test environments for new Web products from two months to two hours.
  • Google claims that many of their products in Google Labs started out as pet projects in the 20 percent time program.
  • For LinkedIn, many ideas submitted to InCubator come from LinkedIn’s monthly “hack days,” in which workers can win awards for small bits of quickly written software.

 There are a number of theories about why such a concepts work. According to James Lawther via http://www.squawkpoint.com/2012/08/hack-days/ reasons include:

  • Staff are close to the daily work, so they know what the real issues are and how they could be fixed.
  • There is no downside if a project is a flop.  After all you can work on whatever you like, so staff take bigger leaps of faith, bigger risks, they will try things that they wouldn’t normally dare.
  • Employees are more engaged if they can work on what they think is important. They will work harder and longer if they can set their own agendas.
  • Employees will collaborate more, share ideas and solutions. They are all in it together and they don’t have their own targets to meet.

Whilst not as well-known as other companies, Atlassian is a company which gives employees the chance to work on anything that relates to their products, and deliver it during “Ship It Day”. When reading http://www.atlassian.com/company/about/shipit they strongly believe in a concept of self-directed, unstructured and non-commissioned time, because it can:

–          Foster creativity – When there’s no rules, anything’s possible.

–          Scratch itches – Every employee has something that bugs them about our products, and ShipIt is the time to tackle it.

–          Get radical, dude – ShipIt gives a spotlight and traction to radical ideas that might not normally be prioritzed.

–          Be fun! – Traditions like ShipIt Day help make Atlassian a more fun place to work.

In the interests of using our imagination, in an attempt to be creative, in an effort to be innovative, why wouldn’t we investigate such a concept for teachers? We could give teachers “Choice Days!” That is, they choose what the focus of their work. This is time where teachers can work on anything as long as it is linked to their work at school and so that it ‘value-adds’ to the learning environment. It is not a time for the ‘commissioned work’ of marking, reporting, programming etc. It is time for imagination and the creativity which can lead to innovation at the local school level and beyond!

What could come from this? Are you excited about such an idea? How could this work at your school? Your ideas?

39 thoughts on “Unstructured & Non-Commissioned Time for Teachers

  1. Great idea Greg. Especially if it doesn’t involve school work like programming and reports. iPad and technology days could definitely work in our primary schools where we are using these more and more. In a high school these days would be great with the many departments and specialities!
    One day a term would be fantastic! If it tied in to your class then all the better. But from what I read it wouldn’t matter. The bonus of having a investigation day would provide much needed recuperation time for staff.
    Well done Geg.

  2. I like the idea of choice time. If you look at the work of Dan Pink on what motivate us, we like to work on things we are passionate at and want to get better at so choice time seem to make sense in that context. However we need to actually implement choice time as well as restructuring the whole education system. As long as we have the one-teacher-per-class model, choice time probably won’t work. I want it to work but I think schools need to look and work very differently as a system for it to work.

  3. Greg yes this is a great idea. It obviously works in some contexts. I feel that in teaching we tend to be proactive and experimental in much of what we do. At least that has been my experience. I think that demands on time, Curriculum change, cocurricular, admin, PD all crowd the days and often extend into evenings – don’t know how well this would work as teachers are stretched almost all the time. When they get time they are devoting to innovating programs, preparing for lessons etc.

  4. I like to describe my work in categories. There is ‘working in teaching’ where I am making progress in day-to-day lessons, meetings, relationships and conversations. Then there’s ‘working on teaching’ where I need to set aside time for medium/long term development of ideas, projects, plans and mentoring. The latter falls into the Stephen Covey quadrant of ‘Important – Not Urgent’ which is what most of the above mentioned initiatives allow for. However, in order for 20% time to work effectively there needs to be a culture of creative feeds. The cap on your creativity for projects, questions and team will be based on your regular creativity habits. I don’t believe that 20% time happens in isolation to the rest of your week. In order for this to be effective it needs to be authentic. I like the idea of starting up with a group who are genuinely interested and then letting it grow naturally.

    1. Hi Mark,
      The “working in teaching” and “working on teaching” is great terminology. There is no doubt that many people are “working on teaching” possibly more than they ever have. This is an idea seeking a way to make and plan for such rich time.

  5. I think this is a wonderful concept. Teachers get so caught up in the day to day of our busy schools and crammed curriculum stepping outside the square does literally need time tabling.
    Teachers work in a similar manner to small business owners in that we focus on our classes and our students in such an individualised manner we can tend to neglect the greater cohort and value of our teaching on the school community. Therefore applying some of the creative business ideas mentioned here is not altogether unreasonable or unworthy of teaching in a contempoary setting.
    Although I wonder how many schools could be this radical.

  6. Your post, is exactly what I’ve been thinking about since #edutech.I want to run our next PD day, based on the “Shop it day”/”FedEx” concept.

    Staff would be given time to work on what ever they liked to improve the school or learning. They must report back their project to their peers.

    I have been thinking on a number of questions.
    How do you sell it to staff who are already time poor?
    Do you provide a framework or suggestions for the projects?
    How and when do you present it to staff?
    When and how do staff share their projects?

    It would be a big risk to run this type of event, but if leaders are not modelling appropriate risk taking who will, also it gives an opportunity to show trust in the staff.

  7. Some good points, Greg. I’d love to have the opportunity to work in a school where my creative ideas are valued and given weighting for the benefit of students, the school and community. But it will always come back to the choice school leadership make in terms of being willing to support not just the time to come up with and explore ideas, but also the willingness to implement them. If the school is not willing to use or support teachers in following them through in practice, it’s simply wasted time on pipe dreams. How would you suggest teachers overcome this?

    1. Hello Samara,
      You comment is more than fair. If something like this is initiated, there would be an obligation on leadership to implement some, most all of the ideas that flowed from such a concept. The only concern would be if we had too many ideas; however, I would rather that than trying to ‘fit in more content’.

  8. If one of the key goals of our work is that it approximate our childhood experience of play (losing sense of time, complete immersion in imagination and creativity, where one experiences ‘flow’ – task level and skill level are interacting & advancing in a proximate way), then this proposal sounds to me like an invitation to ‘play’. I’d really appreciate my Principal providing structured, unstructured time for me as a teacher to imagine and create – ideally with a a couple of like-minded colleagues. Love the idea. Can you ‘put legs on it’ Greg?

    1. Hi Chris,
      Yes. You are right. It is an invitation to play without the rigorous expectation that comes with the NSW BOS. No programming, No planning, No Assessing, No reporting. Just imagining, creating and even innovating. WOW!

  9. Hi Greg,
    Great post.
    I’ve often thought schools should look at developing 9 day fortnights. Whilst I’m not sure how this would work logistically, it would certainly give teachers a chance to develop and collaborate on more “out there” projects.

    Many schools give staff time after lessons to develop ideas – this is great. However I often think these times are not used in an optimal fashion. After school, my main thoughts are admin, lesson plans and marking. Imagine a whole Friday each fortnight to get your team around you and say; “let’s go!!”

    1. Hello Dave,
      We have a 9 day fortnight on the proposal table at the moment. Consultation with teachers, parents and students has/will taken/ing place over the last two weeks and the next two weeks. The 9 day f/n is proposed for just Year 12, 2014 at the moment, but even then, this time may be able to go towards releasing teachers for creative space time OR different delivery days for Year 7 to 11 next year.

  10. A great idea – the more we play around with an idea like this, the more we can adapt, refine and make it a reality in our schools. I will enjoy the challenge of some deep reflective thinking around this!

  11. Thanks for this Greg -teaching and learning is a creative endeavour. Teachers ( and learn era ) need time and space for free form thinking some of us implement that in our classrooms and when I began teaching in Victoria in the 70s , first year teachers had time in their allotment to think on their work . Today the requirements of an overburdened education system denies any space for any teacher, let alone a beginning teacher , to think beyond the demands of daily practice. Inspired school leaders will jump to this suggestion ( if not already implementing something similar) but we need to remove something from the demands of education to make space for this liberating approach to creativity. Is that possible ? I would like to think so.

    1. Hello Jan,
      Thanks for taking the time to comment. If we ‘push hard” for creative time, something has to give from the ‘demands of daily practice’. What could it be? I don’t know. Maybe less summative assessment and more formative assessment perhaps?

  12. Great post and some real food for thought here. I think one of the keys is making sure that people have time to showcase their ideas … this seems critical to the motivation. I agree with Samara Wood… the leadership needs to be willing to run with good ideas generated by teachers in this time or it becomes fruitless and may actually demotivate people. I wonder if regular meeting times could benefit from another idea from Edutech and the flip classroom approach..eg. instead of having staff meetings focus on administrative concerns… provide this information to people beforehand and therefore maximise creative time? Thanks for the post Greg.

  13. The rewards of ‘free’ time… collaboration, risk taking, innovative teaching and learning ideas. The hard work is done – good teachers are willing to get creative and are already using their own ‘free’ time to plan for it. Imagine where ideas could go if teachers were free to have some time outside the box. More importantly, the follow through in taking some risks and reflecting on what works well and what can be modified. It’ already happening at MDCC!!

    1. Hi Mel,
      You use the word “imagine”. Imagination lead to creativity which leads to innovation. Yes, we need to allocate more time for imagination and creativity and less time to commissioned work.

  14. ‘free’ time for collaboration, innovative teaching and learning ideas and lots of “what if we…” type conversations? Awesome. Most of us with the intrinsic motivation to teach are already using our own ‘free’ time to get creative. Imagine what could/would happen if time was specifically allocated to thinking outside the box. Imagine if ideas were followed through, evaluated and modified. It’s already happening at MDCC!

  15. I already know what I want to work on Greg! I have had minecraft on the back burner of my mind for two years now and after the Edutech conference I have to investigate the how and when of implementation rather than the if or maybe. A great idea! Now for a fed ex day for our students……..

  16. This is a very exciting concept. Not only would this freedom and time for creativity enhance learning opportunities and outcomes for students, but it would also increase job satisfaction for teachers.
    So many teachers leave the profession in their first five years. I believe this is partly due to the fact that the aspirations of beginning teachers are squashed by an overload of boring and menial tasks. There’s never time to breathe or dream…
    If this was a reality, the quality of teaching and teachers would improve.
    This really picks up on the 80/20 rule:)

      1. The 9 day fortnight for Year 12 sounds amazing!! Would the day off for year 12s replace their studies throughout the fortnight?

  17. Hey Greg,
    This non-commissioned time is something I float with leaders all the time. The biggest barriers they raise to making this happen is:
    i: Time
    ii: The assumed cost of a teacher being away from his/her specific role
    The most common response I get when I discuss this idea is, “Yes, but [insert your own reason for NOT doing it]” ie. everyone has A reason for NOT doing it.
    Why is this? Some of the comments above ask very pertinent questions that might shine a light on why leaders shy away from it. If you throw something like this out to the general teaching population (ie those NOT on Twitter or blogging – which IS the majority of teachers) the concept is so far from their realm of thought, and as a result could prove fruitless. But should this mean we don’t run with it? In a time-poor environment like schools, the easy answer would be, “Well, it’s probably not for us. We need to spend the time on our new Risk Assessment Policy.”
    This is where we need leaders like yourself, Greg, to run with it. Prove it can work in a real school (not just a case-study in a NY-Times bestseller). So we can share and build on the successes of others in culturally similar schools.
    Easy? No.
    Worth it? Hell yes!

    1. Hello Dan,
      I look forward to putting the proposal to @materdeiwagga teachers and see where it goes. I am confident I have enough open-minded teachers to give it a go.

  18. I have found that some of my best ideas come when I am riding my bike – away from work, away from distractions and email! The time to let your brain explore is vital. I have also had the best conversations that had led to various “experiments” over coffee whilst away from school. If we could break the culture of “busy” I think the possibilities are endless. I am exploring the idea of “tag days”. This is where I will step into a teachers day – especially when they have a full day of lessons and they can have a day of space. Hopefully through this ideas can be incubated and changed fostered.

  19. Certainly a tremendous idea Greg. Would staff know how to use the time effectively? Would some worry that this time is being wasted and they are not getting through daily requirements? Anyhow these are a few issues that may need to be worked through.
    I myself would love to use the time to share some areas that intrigue me in education. I would love to do a unit entitled ‘Wonderings’ with students. Quite simply students ask big questions about topics that have fascinated them and then set out to search for answers. Ideally this unit would be done early in the year as I am positive that students will develop skills through their question and answers search that would benefit them in many areas of the curriculum. I would love to sit down and do this with the students as their is much that intrigues me of which I am always looking for answers. This work is loosely based around the terrific site http://wonderopolis.org/
    Kath Murdoch @kjinquiry, speaks of having students do something entitled a “Passion Project”. Basically the students set out to work on a topic of which they are passionate. Using devices such as Gardners Multiple Intelligences or Blooms Taxonomy students frame a series of activities based around their Passion. I am confident that the quality would be high due to the interest level of the students. Jabiz Raidana, a fantastic educator based in Singapore, wrote on his blog recently about sharing his passion with students. http://www.jabizraisdana.com/blog/
    Anyhow these are two areas that I would enjoy working on with students but unfortunately our crowded curriculum dictates our time be used in other directions.

  20. I love the less summation and more formative assessment thoughts. We need to get that thought to grow real legs and start to make the learning the important part and not the assessment. What a wonderful thought and great opportunity for improved learning and teaching. Teachers want to and need to work together to share the creative and great ideas they have.

  21. G’day Greg,
    I firmly believe teachers are highly intelligent people who want to work hard and be as innovative as they can for the most learning they can facilitate. Unfortunately what weighs us all down sometimes is the frenetic pace. I love the idea of a day, or period of time to let teachers create. A lot of teachers I have spoken to say that their most creative times in preparation are when they’re on leave, early in the morning or on weekends. This shows that when we remove the pressure of time constraints and scaffolds and allow these intelligent people to think freely, without fear of failure, great things can happen.
    Definitely has merit.
    Cheers mate,

  22. Hello Greg, it took me far too long to get to this … Exams and reports have taken their toll. I was at EduTech to hear Dan Pink’s speech and was drawn to his discussion of the non-commissioned works of artists. This year I have one Year 8 class for 7 lessons a week and under the Google model I give them one lesson of Innova8 time … Time to follow their passions with no assessment, just the expectation that they are involved in content creation. The students love the time and are always asking for more.
    I am currently very frustrated with the staff aspect of my role as Learning Technologies Coordinator, they need time, in servicing, up skilling, call it what you want but time is the one thing I’m never granted. Without the administration providing me with access then the divide between the bulk of teachers and students will continue to grow. I despair of staff meetings bogged down in the trivia of rules, uniforms, building plans, religion based PD … The list goes on! Non- commissioned time would be great but where to find the time especially when hours of duty, industrial agreements etc. determine so much.

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