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Genius Hour (or 20% Time) projects begin with a simple idea: give students a dedicated period of time to pursue their passions, interests, and questions in a creative way. In this blog post and podcast, we explore the benefits of doing Genius Hour projects. This is the first in a 6-part series on getting started with Genius Hour.

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Nothing Is Shallow

Earlier this year, my daughter’s dance studio had a dance from Sufjan Steven’s “Love Yourself” and it nearly moved me to tears. It was a subtle, albeit powerful, message on gender dynamics, body positivity, and mental health.

I used to consider dance to be shallow. I didn’t get it. But I also didn’t try to get it. It’s way easier to mock what you don’t understand than to step into the space and say, “I don’t understand but I really want you to help me understand.”

I used to consider fashion to be shallow. It’s just clothing, right? But then I had a group choose to write a fashion blog for their Genius Hour project and they blew me away. One student wrote about the politics of hair as an African-American girl. I never thought about hair the same way again. Another girl wrote about how her mom faced gender discrimination in Syria (where she was forced to wear a burka) and was later spat on while riding the bus because she wore a hijab and thus “dressed like a terrorist.” I never thought about clothing the same way again.

Video games, sports, fashion, dance. These things might not seem deep on the surface. But there’s almost always more underneath the surface. Nothing is shallow. Instead, “shallow” is simply a shallow understanding of an idea or topic or discipline.

This is why I love Genius Hour. It reminds me, again and again, why there is no such thing as a shallow topic.

With Genius Hour, students build on their strengths and on their prior knowledge so that they can go deeper. And often these things that seem like a waste of time become the hidden knowledge, skills, and ideas that make us more innovative as adults.

The Need for Genius Hour

One of the most frequent questions I get when I do a workshop or a keynote is, “how do you create sketch animation videos?” I find this fascinating because I spent a few years feeling like my videos were a waste of time. For me, these goofy little sketch videos have always been something I do purely for fun as a way to process information and think through concepts.

But it’s not only that. I grew up feeling guilty about my incessant doodling. A few teachers warned me about being “off task.” I would doodle in the margins of my notebooks, asking the question, “Is there something wrong with me?” I wondered if maybe I had ADD because of my inability to sit through direct instruction and simply listen with my hands folded and my eyes on the teacher.

As a college student, I would wonder if I should be taking “real notes” in the style of Cornell Notes, instead of scribbling ideas in pictures and symbols. When I became a teacher, I would sketch-note ideas during professional development and feel like a “real” teacher would be taking legitimate notes. I would sit down late at night and work on animating a video and then feel guilty about not doing something more productive.

Now, my sketches are a part of how I express myself. I use them in blog posts, in videos, in my books, and in my presentations. I even have an online store where I’ve used my sketches on things like hoodies and t-shirts. They’ve become a key part of how I share ideas when I teach at the university. When I taught middle school, I regularly sketched out ideas on the whiteboard. In other words, the very activity that felt like a waste of time has become one of the most practical elements of my work.

My good friend A.J. Juliani uses the term “scratch your itch” to describe the seemingly serendipitous way that passion projects go from a waste of time to a unique opportunity. This is what happens when you geek out on a design podcast episode that you find fascinating only to realize that the lessons learned become the stories you incorporate into your history class. Or that time you spent learning how to code has helped you in designing systems as a building administrator. 

However, some of the greatest innovations happened when people chased their curiosity in areas that seemed, at first glance, to be a waste of time. Darwin studied geology but rocked the world with his theory of evolutionary biology. Kahneman and Tversky spent years geeking out on the way people make decisions. Rather than going the narrow road of research and sticking to a specific micro-field of research, they chased after the big question of “how do people make decisions that feel so rational but are actually totally irrational?” As a result, they completely redefined the field of economics.

This is why I love the idea of a Genius Hour. It’s an opportunity for students to focus on passion for twenty percent of the time. It’s an idea popularized by Google but one that has existed for years in the technology industry. Here’s how it works:

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Note that Genius Hour isn’t a free-for-all. You can use a structure of open play leading to creative work. Or, you might use an inquiry-based framework. I often used the LAUNCH Cycle with students, because it provides a structure they can use that begins with curiosity and ends with creativity.

I’ve seen some great examples of built-in accountability structures. A.J. Juliani has used a Genius Hour interactive notebook to help guide students through the process. I often used one-minute check-ins and five-minute student-teacher conferences to guide students through goal-setting and project management.

In terms of timeframes, I’ve seen teachers do a Genius Hour project at the start or end of a term or as a weekly project they would engage in (every Friday, for example). Ultimately, this is where you, as a teacher, are the expert. You know what works best with your students.

Seven Reasons to Pilot Genius Hour

When students have the opportunity to “scratch their itch,” they often develop the very skills they will someday need in order to thrive. Here are a few reasons you might want to pilot a Genius Hour project with your students.

#1: Genius Hour increases student ownership and buy-in

We want students to grow into self-directed learners who are both self-managers and self-starters. We know that our world is changing and that students will need to be self-directed if they are going to navigate the chaos and complexity of our rapidly changing world. However, school traditionally focuses on knowledge acquisition in a teacher-directed way. This isn’t entirely bad. Students need direct instruction to acquire specific, concrete skills and to understand critical concepts. Teachers are the pedagogical and content experts. Even in PBL classrooms, students need direct instruction.

However, students also need to learn how to own their learning. With Genius Hour, students own the entire learning process. Here, they not only decide the topic, but they also generate their own questions, find the sources for their research, determine their own strategies, and engage in their own project management. If you look at the following continuum of student agency, you’ll see that we often have students in a place of compliance and sometimes engagement. But true empowerment, involves ownership:

Along the way, they learn how to set goals and self-assess.

This helps build metacognition:

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As they develop this metacognition, they grow into life-long learners. Which leads to my next point . . .

#2: Genius Hour helps students develop into life-long learners

Learning shouldn’t stop when students leave the school building. We want them to pursue learning on their own for fun. Students should be chasing their curiosity and geeking out on new ideas at home. They should be learning new skills. Maybe it’s chess or crocheting or hiking or taking apart cars.

And yet, I’ve known way too many adults who have stopped learning. I ask them what they’ve read lately and they say, “I haven’t read a book since college.” This isn’t just my experience. There’s a fascinating Mental Floss article on just how rare it is for adults to read books after college. When I ask them about the last thing they learned how to do, they don’t have an answer.

Often, though, schools focus on sending school home via homework. Students spend hours in their spare time practicing skills that they are mastering in class. However, Genius Hour takes a different approach. Here, we invite the world into the classroom. It’s a chance for students to pursue their interests and ideas and questions with the hopes that they grow into lifelong learners.

#3: Genius Hour teaches students the soft skills needed for a complex world

We often try to predict what students will need in the future. Kids will need to learn to code. After all, that’s the career of the future. Or maybe, every student will need a strong STEM foundation. We often hear that our students need to be prepared for jobs that don’t exist yet. But if that’s the case, shouldn’t we recognize that the future is inherently uncertain?

With Genius Hour, students learn the “soft skills” needed to navigate this complexity. Here, they learn how to ask great questions and find answers.  Through this process, they learn how to communicate with experts and find key information. Often, they will learn how to work collaboratively. As they engage in self-assessment and peer assessment, they will learn what it means to iterate and improve on their work. They will hit moments of frustration and learn how to “fail forward.”

This is what happens when we empower our students with voice and choice:



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#4: Genius Hour teaches students to master the content in an authentic way

Although Genius Hour helps with the “soft skills,” it is also an opportunity to teach the “hard skills.” To be honest, when I first heard of Genius Hour (or 20% time, as we called it) I thought it was a waste of time. We had real standards to cover and I wanted to prepare students for success in the real world. But I soon realized that we could teach Genius Hour and teach the standards at the same time.

So, in a math class, students might pursue a mathematical question, engage in math modeling, and share their answer with an audience. Here, they connect their learning to math process standards. Students learn how to engage in applied mathematics and problem-solving.

In a language arts class, students might do a Wonder Week Project or do Geek Out Blogs. Because the Common Core Standards are content-neutral, students can geek out on whatever subject they want. However, the tight constraint is that they must engage in research and they need to go through the writing and publishing process. Here, students can walk through the Five C’s of critical research and engage in important media literacy.

When I taught history, we did our Genius Hour projects as a way for students to study any topic in history they wanted to explore. They could choose their methods for research (including audio or video) as well as their final presentation method. However, when I taught economics, our Genius Hour projects were in the style of Shark Tank, where students went through the design thinking process to create an empathy-driven product that they would pitch to a group of experts.

#5: Genius Hour makes differentiated learning a reality

We often talk about the need for differentiated instruction. However, it can be a challenge to create tons of different lessons for different skill levels and student interests. It can feel a bit like trying to make 31 Flavors and hoping that each kid has the flavor they need. However, Genius Hour is different. It’s a chance for students to choose the scaffolding, the process, the topic, and the ultimate product. Here, it’s more like a frozen yogurt place. Or maybe it’s more like a kitchen, where they get to be the chefs. The following are a few of the ways we can empower our students with choice:



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#6: Genius Hour helps students make connections between content areas.

We often think of expertise as a focused determination in a single direction. However, innovation often occurs when we apply a lens from one discipline into a new domain. Dyson vacuum cleaners had a huge creative breakthrough when they studied sawmills. A conference struggling to get people to sessions on time reconfigured their approach after looking at train schedules. An automotive company created a user-friendly console after applying design principals from gaming systems. These are all examples of cross-industry innovation found in a short book called Not Invented Here

Genius Hour is an opportunity to make these critical interdisciplinary connections. Students can make connections between ideas while also adding their own unique lens. I remember when a group of students decided to do a fashion blog for our social studies Geek Out projects. I was skeptical at first. However, they tackled complex social issues like the politics of hair (a student who was African-American described the social implications of choosing natural hair), the cultural conflicts around our definitions of modesty, and the way fashion has been influenced by globalization. I was blown away by the connections they made. For me, a shirt is a shirt. The biggest fashion question I have to ask is, “Do these jeans need to be washed yet?”

#7: Genius Hour creates a culture of joy

I recently wrote about the sheer joy of watching the TV show Making It. However, teachers have been creating these environments for years. We don’t need a TV show to inspire us. We already see it in our own environments. It might be a choice-driven project in woodshop or art or it might be an independent project in social studies or math or science. This is why I love Genius Hour. You get the opportunity to see students come alive as they explore their passions and interests.

Here, students learn that their voice matters:

 

Genius Hour is a chance for us, as educators, to say, “your interests matter here. You are known. We value what you have to offer.” It honors their agency and identity and helps build trust. Although it can feel like you are taking a step away as the “guide on the side,” I have found that these projects are often the moments of greatest influence because you, as the teacher, are creating epic experiences that students will remember forever.

Making This a Reality in a Distance Learning Environment

Genius Hour could easily go wrong in a distance learning space. If it’s simply “do whatever you want right now,” many students aren’t going to challenge themselves to learn something new. The following are a few ideas for making it work:

  1. Set up criteria for Genius Hour. For example, you might tell students that the Genius Hour projects have to involve learning something new and creating something. Those parameters will help clarify that this is not the same thing as binge-watching a show on Netflix.
  2. Use specific structures. You might use design thinking with specific phases. You might use inquiry-based learning and ask students to ask questions, engage in research, and develop a plan. If it’s too open, students can feel lost. But the structure should also be loose enough that students feel the freedom to explore and create.
  3. Keep in contact with students. Try a simple Google Form check-up with questions like “How is your project going?” or “What did you do?” You can also have students answer questions on a Likert scale or checkboxes so that you can get a pulse for the classroom.
  4. Do a once-a-week virtual meeting where students share their progress. This works really well with small groups. I love using the Mastermind structure for peer accountability. But something like the 20-minute peer feedback system also works well. But the idea is to build in positive peer pressure.
  5. Have students share their process. They can do a blog, an audio diary, or a video diary where they share what they are doing, the progress they are making, the mistakes they’ve made, and what they are learning.
  6. Have a showcase at the end where students share their work and their journey. This showcase could be either synchronous or asynchronous.
  7. You might want to start out with something simpler, like a Wonder Day project and then move on to a more elaborate Genius Hour project.

I’ve seen how personal, creative work can be a lifeline at a time like this. Self-directed creative work can help students feel more empowered in their learning and it can help them have a sense of control at a time that feels chaotic.

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John Spencer

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.More about me

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