Genius Hour: Breaking Out of the Box

 In Classroom Practice

A sixth-grade student smiled proudly as she presented her project. She picked the topic, designed the experiment, convinced her mother to purchase the supplies, and spent weeks carefully measuring the growth of the plants in her basement. The entire process and the results stood out brightly on the yellow and green construction paper that adorned the tri-fold next to her. Proudly, she announced that in moderate amounts, caffeine can enhance the growth and efficiency of highly trained athletes (in her case plants), but if you add sugar (soda) to the mix, you do not achieve the same results (the plants rot).

To this day, I remember the results of that experiment along with the speech designed to review the efficacy of fresco restoration in the Sistine Chapel, the research project that studied valuation of objects produced during or to aid performance art, and masters level research on learned helplessness in high achieving students. Why do these topics remain so clearly in my mind? Because I generated the research question, I designed the project, and then I implemented it. Certainly, mentoring played a large role in the successful outcome of each project, but, at the end of the day, self-determined projects are among the most memorable tools of learning. I was fortunate to have parents, teachers, and professors who, long before the current trend, were advocates of project-based learning. I would posit, though, that these facilitators and mentors were much more. They were early adopters of “genius hour” principles.


Project Based Learning

According to Phyllis Blumenfeld, project-based learning requires that a student investigates and answers a learning question. In Alistair Morgan’s “Theoretical Aspects of Project-Based Learning in Higher Education”, he highlights three models of project-based learning that occur within the field of education:

(1) project exercises, in which students apply knowledge that they have already acquired to solve a problem

(2) project component, in which real-world issues are studied and explored in parallel, often independently, to a course curriculum

(3) project orientation, in which the entire program of study is determined by student projects and direct teacher instruction becomes supplemental. (Morgan, 1983).

In models one and two, the topic, learning target, and project formulation are defined by the experts: teachers, departments, curriculum designers, and states. In these models, a talented educator can facilitate student growth, creativity, and skill building. Though these projects can produce high levels of student engagement and are often student-centered, they are not student-driven. Both the research methods and the products, often posters, research presentations, or, in more modern classrooms, web pages, social media feeds, and videos, are mandated by a teacher’s instruction.

Model three is different. It shares the primary focus – a project basis – but is reliant upon the student’s own motivation to launch and develop. In this way, educators may choose to develop authentic tasks for students in order that they develop the skills necessary to complete the project, but the focus is on a student’s own passion and direction. Students have the opportunity to define not only the content but the direction of their investigation. In short, model three looks a whole lot like a new movement called Genius Hour.


Genius Hour

The Basics

According to its website, “Genius Hour is a movement that allows students to explore their own passions and encourages creativity in the classroom.” This model makes student choice the most important element in a classroom. Its origins are murky, but large corporations have been using a 20% model for many years. In Megan Allens’ “Genius Hour Makes Great Teachers Redundant,” she states that policies at Google and other large corporations encourage employees to spend that 20% of the time on personal interest projects. As a result, employee engagement and productivity purportedly increase. There’s something about pursuing individual interests that make a job more pleasant and allows an employee to express the individualism or creativity that they need to feel engaged and motivated. Therefore, in the school setting, we might assume that by providing students with a creative outlet, academic achievement and engagement will increase. Now referred to as Genius Hour, this designated period gives students the opportunity to research a topic, and create a product that they might share with their class, or even outside of school. Key features of Genius Hour include a focus on student autonomy and the lack of strict deadlines.

Role of the Teacher

Think back to the three models of project-based learning. In all three, the teacher serves as a facilitator to varying degrees. However, the Genius Hour model requires that teachers walk the fine line between director and collaborator. Because students construct the learning experiences, Virginia Vigil suggests, in fact, that “teachers…strategically create structure but do not determine the path.” The structure of a Genius Hour itself lends to each individual’s project, encouraging discovery and exploration while ensuring that the process is individual and customized. The teacher in a classroom employing Genius Hour functions as a mentor, asking questions and prompting students to seek expert resources. It is not possible that a teacher master each concept, but rather, that a teacher models the skills that students need. For instance, Vigil suggests teaching students to use “web conferring systems” for interviews, to craft “professional e-mails” to experts, or “provide instruction in the use of software…to support the development of digital presentations.”

Structuring the Classroom

Of course, classroom structure is a key factor in managing student behavior, anxiety, and promoting a specific classroom culture. As in a traditional classroom, expectations must be set for students, differentiation accounted for, and scaffolded supports carefully implemented. This is particularly important because in studies of the Genius Hour model, Elaine Simon found that some students are “overwhelmed with the amount of freedom of knowledge and personal choice.” Through careful mentoring, however, the anxieties of students can be managed. For instance, skills-based support or careful questioning, similar to what might happen in a traditional classroom, can be modeled on an individual basis as the teacher monitors the needs of every student. Furthermore, Simon found that valuing cooperative learning, in which students define their own research and peer review the work of others is also helpful. In this case, student-as-expert can come to life, as they are responsible for “critical inquiry, posing central questions developing research plans, … [and] evaluating researchers’ credibility and arguments.” As students take on greater responsibility, they are more likely to take academic risks. Empowering students in this way is the result of clear and concise expectations supported by appropriate scaffolding and differentiation. Motivating Students In Vigil’s report, genius hour is purported to increase engagement and to create a culture of rigor that provides an opportunity for “rich experiences” for learners, not just higher standards. In Carol Dweck’s “The New Psychology of Success”, she claims that providing students with a rich experience activates “intrinsic motivations,” thereby supporting student achievement and growth. Many studies have supported the idea that a shift to student-centered models of teaching empower and engage students. Involving students more deeply in their own learning personalizes the learning process and enables a student to pursue a topic via a unique path. Ultimately, Genius Hour is a natural method of inviting students to invest in the process of learning. Simon suggests that this is done “by meeting students at their own level and empowering them to surpass that level every step of the way.”


Final Thoughts

By taking on the responsibility for defining their own research questions and developing the project’s path, students participating in the Genius Hour model learn their own way. Transfer and application of knowledge occur at high levels because students are naturally engaged and interested. Giving up the reins, however, can be difficult. Teacher as facilitator is a common role today, but in the Genius Hour model, the role is scaled back even further, though teachers still facilitate the development of curriculum and maintain the classroom culture and structure. I believe that the following shortlist of considerations are imperative to address when structuring a classroom for Genius Hour:

    1. What resources do students have access to?
    2. How will students gain access to experts beyond the walls of the classroom?
    3. What questioning methods are most appropriate to assist students in pushing their inquiry beyond their current level of understanding?

Thinking back to my own self-determined projects, it was the facilitation of home-based experimentation by teachers, constant encouragement through failures or dead ends in research, and guidance in questioning that I remember most clearly. Deep learning cannot be achieved in a single hour, or on a single day. But, by breaking out of the box and moving beyond the walls of our classrooms, our students will benefit.


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