Curricular Components 4: Student Clubs

In this post, I will introduce and explain the ‘Student Clubs’ program that we will be running at VBI this summer. This is a brand new curricular element at VBI, and indeed I don’t know of any camps that run a program of this sort.[1] Thus, I want to start this post by explaining the broad pedagogical role that student clubs will play at VBI. In doing so I will also mention some of the literature that has been influential in shaping our thinking about this element. Then I will explain the program in some detail.

What Role do Student Clubs Play?

Some of you may be familiar with the idea of 20% Time. This is a program that Google uses where their employees get 20% of their work time (so about one day a week) to work on whatever projects they are interested in. Lots of companies have developed similar programs, sometimes referred to as ‘Genius Hour.’ And these programs result in a large portion of the innovation that happens in industry.  Close to 50% of Google’s products come out of their 20% Time, including many of Google most successful products, such as Gmail.

The success of these programs in industry has led to a growing experimentation with 20% Time in classroom contexts.  And it seems clear that the programs are a huge success. For a brief introduction to the role of 20% Time, I recommend listening to this podcast from the “Cult of Pedagogy” and poking around this livebinder.

Empowering students to pursue whatever projects interest them, within reasonable limits, results in students who innovate, learn how to learn, develop autonomy and discover new passions. 20% Time also brings with it all the considerable educational advantages of Project-Based Learning (I may in a future post survey some of the academic literature that has studied the benefits of Project-Based Learning).

Student Clubs are VBI’s 20% Time. We have taken the core idea from 20% Time models in the literature (I highly recommend A.J. Juliani’s book Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom: Using 20% Time, Genius Hour, and PBL to Drive Student Success for general models and advice on setting up these programs) and adjusted the program to make it fit within a debate camp setting.

What Would our Student Clubs Look Like?

For the first several days of scheduled student club work-time will be set aside for students to meet, discuss and form dedicated clubs. We will create a forum where students can find other students interested in similar subjects (still working on exactly how to do that, maybe a google doc) and form into teams or clubs.

The clubs need to be camp appropriate (no studying bomb-making) and at least loosely related to debate. In the past, I have listed some potential clubs such as a ‘philosophy club,’ a ‘K innovation league,’ a ‘frontlining util frameworks faction’ and  a ‘novice casing company.’ However, there are lots of other options. Students might want to form a club that studies what snacks best keep you alert during a debate tournament (a Gastronomy Group). Or they might form a club that studies ways they can use their debate skills to make changes in their home communities (an Advocacy Alliance).

Before these clubs can become official they will have to ‘pitch’ their club to an instructor, and get them to agree to come on as a faculty advisor. The purpose of the ‘pitch’ is less to weed out certain clubs, and more to make sure that students have a real and developed idea that they have thought through how to implement within the camp setting. This instructor will then be closely involved in overseeing the club, providing guidance and advice where they can and acting as a liaison to the camp should the club need anything.

Once initial clubs are formed they will be listed, with a short manifesto, and students who have not found a club will be able to enroll in a club that looks interesting (an important feature is that these clubs all have open membership, while they can be targeted at certain levels they are not able to impose those requirements on people who want to join).

At this point, it’s up to each club what they want to do. They might bring in additional instructors to run drills or give lectures. They might split up into reading groups. They might work on collective research.  The one requirement is that the groups need to produce something tangible by the close of the club. It could be a new card file, it could be a new K, it could be the ideal tournament trail mix recipe, it could be an action plan; there is a lot of flexibility in what they want to end up producing. They just need to produce something.

Now, clearly, not all clubs will have the same amount of work. A club studying the history of philosophy may last two weeks, while a club producing a new framework might just last a few days. And that is ok, students can rotate in and out of clubs (we don’t want a student stuck in a club they do not enjoy) and as clubs finish up new ones can be formed.

That’s the model in a nutshell. To expand somewhat on the picture I want to show how this element fits within the 20% Time models. A.J. Juliani, in his book, says there are five key things to do to create a successful 20% Time program. I want to now briefly go through those criteria and explain how we have designed our program to meet them:

1. Structure Unstructured Time

One thought you might have is just let this be truly extra-curricular. Students while not in scheduled time can obviously form their own groups and work on whatever they want. However, research indicates this does not create the same benefits, no more than you can replace 20% Time in a classroom by claiming students can pursue their own interests at home if they want to.

Structured assignments inevitably crowd out personal projects and extrinsically motivated work tends to trump intrinsically motivated work. Intentionally setting apart this time both gives institutional legitimacy to the students’ own passions and ensures that all members of a club can be on the same page. Student clubs need not be required (indeed they may not be) but they do need to be institutionally sanctioned and scheduled.

We are not yet sure exactly where Student Clubs will fit into the schedule, there is discussion amongst the curriculum directors on that question (perhaps we replace a quarter of the modules, perhaps we fit it into the rotating evening activities). But wherever we decide to put them, they will be scheduled in.

2. Don’t Grade the Final Project

This one is straightforward as debate camps don’t have grades. However, it does get at something important. Creativity flourishes in contexts where students are intrinsically motivated, rather than being forced to study certain topics. There are ways to design the program to encourage intrinsic motivation (such as granting wide latitude for what counts as debate related) and making club participation optional (one of the real benefits to making it a rotating evening activity).

3. Peer Accountability

Peer accountability is just the positive flipside to peer pressure. And it can be important to encouraging student engagement and success.  Thus, Juliani maintains that it is important to create a collaborative learning space where students can explain projects to others. Sometimes this is done through in-class presentations or students updating their own blogs, but neither of those ideas seem super practical in our context. So, we chose to make the program explicitly collaborative by structuring the program into clubs of multiple students (you cannot form a one-person club, though clubs can designate individual work-time).

4. Reflection

It is important that students engage in metacognitive assessment of how their own clubs are going. While in a classroom setting, this is often accomplished through student journals, we are instead doing this through the club/advisor relationship. As the club discusses with their instructor advisor how the club is going they will be forced to engage in this process of metacognitive assessment.

5. Presentation (Sharing)

This is where Juliani discusses the importance of having some ‘product’ at the end of the session that you can show others. By requiring clubs to create some sort of ‘product’ it provides an important outlet for meaningful peer and instructor validation. Students will be able to show what they have produced, putting it to practical effect in the camp tournament or during the year!


Of all the new curriculum elements we are rolling out this year, this is the one I am most excited about. There is a huge amount of literature on the value of project-based learning, and I think this will encourage students to develop skills that will allow them to keep developing on their own throughout during the debate season.

[1]Though if there are any I would love to know about it and get in touch with instructors to swap ideas with. Please do comment or email me if you know any camps that have run a program like this.