The Electric Educator: Reflection: The FedEx Project

Friday, January 14, 2011

Reflection: The FedEx Project

Two ideas have inspired me to try something radically different in my classroom.

The first is Google's 20% time. If you're not familiar with the idea, Google requires (they don't suggest or encourage, they require!) every employee to spend 20% of their working time doing something other than what they were hired to do. Some employees spend their 20% time aiding charitable causes, help organize internal parties and events, or join a local club or organization. A large percentage of Google employees spend their 20% time working on engineering projects that they find interesting or challenging. Since Google only hires employees who love what they do (write great code), that's what a lot of them do in their spare time as well. 

What does Google stand to gain from allowing their employees to spend the equivalent of one day a week doing something other than what they are supposed to be doing? While there is no way to quantitatively evaluate the overall benefits of the program, some pretty neat things have come out of the 20% time program: 
  • Gmail
  • Google News
  • Moderator
  • Google Talk
  • Tasks
Do all 20% projects lead to profitable products? Certainly not, but they do contribute toward positive morale, a culture of innovation, and autonomy for employees. 

Autonomy, mastery, and purpose are three concepts that Dan Pink explained with great clarity in his 2009 TED talk. The essence of Pink's talk is that tangible rewards (a paycheck, a grade, a promotion) are only effective at motivating people to a certain point. Ultimately, the most effective motivators are autonomy (the ability to chart your own course), mastery (the ability to become an exert at something), and purpose (the idea that what you are doing serves a purpose larger than yourself). After watching Pink's talk I was inspired to write a blog post about these ideas and possible applications to the classroom. Over a year later, I am now prepared to reflect on my application of Google's 20% time and Pink's vision of motivation in my high school Anatomy & Physiology classroom. 

When I hatched this idea, my purpose was to provide my students with an opportunity to pursue their passions, to become independent learners, and to help others. They would choose their project, choose their medium, and share it with the world. 

I decided to call this assignment the "FedEx Project" after hearing Dan Pink share about the software company Atlassian and their "FedEx Days." The idea is pretty simple. 

  • Write up a delivery slip
  • Deliver your project according to the delivery schedule.
This year, students in my Anatomy and Physiology class spent the first half of the semester honing their "FedEx Proposals." Each of them chose a topic that interested them and a method of sharing and demonstrating their learning with the world. I intentionally left the project ambiguous and open-ended. Student could do pretty much anything they wanted as long as it was complex, dynamic, and could be shared with the world. Here are the projects that were created this year: 
Overall, I was happy with the final submissions. There are a few things that I can do as a teacher to improve the quality of the projects and the learning of the students: 
  • Provide more structure in the proposal phase. My intention was to leave the project open ended so that students would have freedom to pursue their passions however it has become clear that a complete lack of structure is very overwhelming for high school students. They are not independent learners yet and therefore have trouble outlining their own learning process. 
  • Move up the time line to ensure timely completion of the proposal. This year we spent too much time working on the proposal. This shouldn't have been a big deal, but because of the lack of structure, the student sent nearly an entire quarter trying to wrap their heads around the project. They had never done something like this before and it was a conceptually challenging assignment. They wanted to write papers and make posters, because that's what they were used to.  
  • Provide regular, dedicated "Fedex Days." While this is designed to be a self-directed project, students needed a LOT of guidance. I would recommend roughly 1 day a week dedicated to working on this project. This equals the amount of time that Google provides to their employees for their 20% initiative. 
There are also a few teachable moments that anyone trying this idea should be ready to address: 
  • Idea Failure: I had one student who designed a survey that she distributed to her classmates to collect data related to her project. Unfortunately her survey did not measure what she thought it was going to measure and it was essentially useless. While the survey did not contribute to the end process, it was a valuable learning experience. Not all ideas work out and some require more planning than others. 
  • Digital Natives aren't always that digital! None of my students were familiar with the plethora of web 2.0 tools available to them for use in their projects. I introduced them to Prezi, Google Scholar, and Wikis. I was surprise at the anxiety and lack of confidence that most of the students had at using these tools. This was one of the reasons the project timeline got off-track. I had to do a lot of training on the use of these various tools. 
This was my second round of FedEx projects and I still don't feel that I have mastered the project from a teaching standpoint. I've made some much needed improvements and think that a third round might prove to be the breakthrough.


  1. Wow, this is really awesome. Providing structure in the proposal phase is important. Our devs have 2-3 collaborative planning sessions leading up to Fed Ex Day to work through what kinds of issues they might encounter, and then define projects better to give a greater chance of success. Keep up the awesome work!

  2. Thanks for the endorsement, Jon. I think what Atlassian is doing is really cool and a great example for other industries, such as education. I appreciate the time you took to read my post and leave a comment!

  3. This is an awesome idea! I think you are right that our "digital natives" are not as tech savvy as we think. However, with a little guidance or demonstrations of the awesome Web 2.0 tools available, they can surprise us with what they create. I think you are learning as much (or more) than your students by allowing them the freedom to be creative.

  4. I appreciate your willingness to share, failures and all. This would be a daunting project for sure, but so rewarding. I would love to try this with my few fourth graders. Thanks to this, I can see how much prep time I'm going to need on the front end.

    I really appreciate the post!

    - @newfirewithin

  5. I'm amazed. I responded in the same way to Daniel Pink's lecture. I teach college theatre and this is the third semester where I'm including FEDEX projects...along almost the same format. I build the requirement into the syllabus and give only these guidelines: It must be original work. It must be excellent. It absolutely, positively must be complete on the date due. The range of work...scholarly and creative has been amazing.

    More more more divergent thinking in education, please. More aesthetics to balance the anesthesia of standardized testing. It makes better thinkers.

  6. This is tremendous! I am trying to get my mind around how to get my 35 students into such a dynamic, complex project. How did you structure the 'proposal phase'? Any thoughts or suggestions would be appreciated...

  7. Commendable! Lucky students to have a teacher like you!!!

  8. Typo:
    Move up the time line to ensure timely completion of the proposal. This year we spent too much time working on the proposal. This shouldn't have been a big deal, but because of the lack of structure, the student *sPent* nearly an entire quarter...


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