The 5 Biggest Mistakes I Made with Genius Hour (and How I Fixed Them)

This post is inspired by Ross Cooper’s latest post on the mistakes he made in doing PBL. It’s a great post. In fact, you should stop reading this now and read his post instead. Go check out his book while you’re at it. 

I love the notion of sharing our mistakes along with what we tried out in order to fix it. It reminds me of America’s Test Kitchen, where you get the chance to see all the things they tried before finally creating their successful recipes.

It has me thinking about Genius Hour and student-centered learning. Years ago, my first attempt at 20% Time was so awful that I actually didn’t attempt it again for months and I actually had to change the name to Geek Out Projects just so that students wouldn’t associate it with the failed attempt earlier that year.

But teaching is an iterative process and over time things improved. So, I thought I would share my screw-ups along with what I did to improve the process.

Here’s a little primer on Genius Hour. If you find the video helpful, you might want to subscribe to my channel.

Issue #1: I didn’t provide enough structure.

I assumed that students would be self-directed and simply get to work on their own passion projects. Instead, they treated it like a study hall period, where the hardest working students finished homework from other classes while other students simply socialized. The classroom became chaotic and noisy and I ended up nagging students with empty phrases like “get to work” or “come on guys, you don’t want to lose this 20% time, do you?”

How I Fixed This:

I began providing specific structures for Genius Hour. For example, when I taught middle school, I incorporated design thinking into our first Genius Hour project of the year. I provided project planning documents that served as a loose template to guide their work. We actually had some mini-lessons on different approaches to project management. At first, I worried that this structure would inhibit creative thinking and students would take fewer creative risks. But as I pulled students aside for conferences, I noticed that they actually felt more empowered as a result of the structure.

#2: I didn’t provide examples.

Imagine telling someone about football but never showing them an example of a game. “So, the center is at the line of scrimmage and he snaps the ball to the quarterback who may or may not be in the shotgun formation. If it’s a Wildcat or Read Option offense, there might be a halfback or fullback on either side.” It would be totally confusing if you had never seen the game. This is essentially what I did with Genius Hour. I talked about Google and I shared the concept without ever making it visible for them. My students were confused and I assumed they were being lazy when they weren’t getting started.

How I Fixed This:

Initially, I overcorrected on this and gave them a restrictive, formulaic project handout. Later, I began modeling the Genius Hour concept by sharing my own journey. I would tell them what I was working on and what questions were driving my process. I would ask them what kinds of resources I might want to consider. Next, I would show examples from a broad range of topics and skill levels and remind them that these examples should serve as inspiration rather than rigid expectations. It sounds counterintuitive but students actually took greater creative risks after seeing the examples.

#3:  I didn’t consider alternative grouping.

I remember the first time a group of people asked if they could work together. My response was, “I’d really rather you work independently.” In the process, I crushed the opportunity to work collaboratively and work interdependently. I was worried that other students would find it unfair or that individuals would use it as a chance to slack off. But as I watched students creating similar projects, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if they had worked collaboratively.

How I Fixed This:

This was a simple fix. I told students that they could work with other students. It might mean working permanently with a small group on a project but it might also mean joining another project briefly to add your own opinions, skills, and expertise. I was nervous as groups of friends began converging. But actually, the best projects were the ones where students worked with their closest friends. There’s power in the trust and vulnerability of friendships.

#4: I didn’t set clear behavioral expectations

I remember hearing people talk about the virtues of noisy, messy environments and I figured that was simply how it had to be. But I thrive in spaces that feel safer and even quieter. I prefer a gentle hum to a loud cacophony. I actually get physically anxious when a class feels out of control. At the same time, I want students to feel the freedom to be themselves.

How I Fixed This:

I began setting expectations on the procedures. For example, students could move from group to group but they couldn’t run (we had sharp objects). They could work standing up or sitting down but they had to be sitting down and listening in the rare moments of direct instruction. They could talk to other groups but they couldn’t shout across the room. They were welcome to listen to music on their headphones but they had to take the headphones out when they talked to their peers. We put this onto a chart that they could reference at any time.  The procedures were nuanced but clear.

It wasn’t always perfect. I had moments when the class would get loud and we would do a one-minute silent reset. I had times when I hushed groups that were simply laughing loudly and genuinely having fun with what they were learning. But overall it worked. The class felt alive and energetic but rarely chaotic or crazy.

#5: I didn’t allow students to own the academic side of it.

Initially, I tracked the academic progress. I connected their Genius Hour project to the academic standards. I even wrote out individualized learning targets so that I could show my administrators that I hadn’t neglected that side of lesson planning. In the end, I graded their projects on a common rubric with broad topics like creativity and critical thinking. It was exhausting to design specific lesson plans for each student.

How I Fixed This:

Over time, I gave students more ownership of the academic elements of Genius Hour. This began with one-on-one student conferences, where we would connect specific academic standards to the skills they would use. For example, students might select certain reading skills from the ELA standards where they still needed some intervention. We also had certain standards that were universal in all projects (from ELA, we had reading, research, presentation standards and we had tons of ISTE standards as well).

It went beyond progress monitoring, though. Students engaged in self-assessment and peer assessment. Sometimes this was a formal structure but often this was an informal part of the process. Here the students owned this assessment process.

It was never perfect. I don’t want to pretend to have all the answers in Genius Hour. However, I thought I would share my journey and, who knows, maybe it connects with your own experiences.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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4 responses

  1. The concept of Genius Hour makes sense in that giving children the freedom to work on projects that they feel passionate about and interested in pursuing gives them more motivation to be creative and involved in their own learning. Motivation to learn, particularly motivation to read, often decreases among older children when the purposes of learning and reading shift from becoming proficient at the task itself to learning material in order to be tested on it later (Willingham Lecture 2/21/17). Many times as children get older there is less time dedicated in class to reading for pleasure from books that the child chooses and learning things that the child is inherently interested in. Introducing Genius Hour where the kids can express their creativity and explore the topics that they love to learn about gives them an opportunity to really engage with their learning while still showing that they are progressing at an appropriate pace.

    I can see how not giving enough structure was initially a problem in the classroom. While true freedom seems appealing in an activity such as Genius Hour, studies on discovery learning in science outline why that might not be the best route. In one study, among children who were taught a science lesson through direct instruction 75% of them understood the material and could apply it appropriately while only about 25% of the children who engaged in discovery learning were able to come to the same level of understanding on their own (Klahr and Nigam 2004). Pure discovery learning with no instruction generally does not have the desired outcome. Adding some instruction time helps focus their learning so they can use their Genius Hour time more appropriately while still giving them the freedom to choose their own projects and present their learning creatively.

    It also makes sense that providing examples of what the kids were supposed to do helped make Genius hour more effective. The biggest predictor of whether students will comprehend something new that they are learning is how much experience they have had with the material in the past (Willingham 2014). Though this finding applies primarily to reading comprehension, it stands to reason that making the students feel more comfortable with the concept of Genius Hour by modeling for them what the process and outcome of their project might look like would make them more confident in beginning their own work. In accordance with your analogy of watching a football game, showing the students examples and suggestions beforehand would probably give them the background knowledge necessary to take the next steps on their own.

  2. […] The 5 Biggest Mistakes I Made with Genius Hour (and How I Fixed Them) – John Spencer […]

  3. Thank you for introducing me to the concept of “Genius Hour.” I’m actually surprised that I have never heard of this trend until now. I teach 5th grade and I’m always looking for innovative ways to bring more student-directed and standards-based learning into my classroom. On a daily basis, I deal with motivational issues and feel that students would be more motivated to come to school and learn if they were provided with the opportunity to choose their own content, to self-select their own pathway to learning, and to create their own end-design. I agree with your philosophy of the teaching and learning process…that educators need to provide ample opportunities during which students are enriched and empowered to reach their full potential. Self directed learning that involves creativity and critical thinking is a perfect solution.

    I think with more research on my behalf, and with some careful planning, I could implement this in my class and really watch my students experience true ownership of their learning. I appreciate you publicly detailing your mistakes with the Genius Hour and allowing your readers to come along with you on your reflective journey. Sharing your “screw ups” reassures us that even teachers who seem to know a lot (you, for example!) are not perfect. I have learned a great deal from reading about your mistakes and when I set up my own Genius Hour within my classroom, I will be sure to keep in mind several of your important tips. For instance, at the beginning, I will be sure to provide structure and planning documents in order to carefully guide my students through the steps of the project management design. Furthermore, I will carefully create a balance between giving my students too much freedom and giving them directions and examples that are too restrictive and formulaic. Also, I will chart expectations and procedures and leave them visible during the duration of the project. (I also like classrooms to be “alive and energetic but rarely chaotic or crazy!”) Finally, assessing all of these different projects was a concern of mine but your suggestion of allowing the students to “own” their formal and informal assessments makes things more manageable for me and more meaningful for the students.

    I found your blog post to be incredibly helpful; thank you so much for writing it and for being so honest and real. I look forward to reading your other posts and to learning from you again.

  4. Hello,

    Thanks for sharing the some of the mistakes you made with Genius Hour and for providing ways to fix those mistakes. Our site is starting to think about the idea of fitting Genius Hour into our schedule next year, and I believe you provided valuable information. I would have never thought that structure was necessary for Genius Hour to work. For some reason, I thought that it wasn’t necessary. It was fascinating to look through the video and read your post. The way you fixed the mistakes you made is doable for any teacher to implement. I learned a lot!!! I will definitely share this with our school staff. Look forward to implementing your ideas at our site.

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