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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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There is a difference between differentiation and personalized learning. In the last year, I've been shifting toward the personalized learning aspect of curriculum design. How do I engage my learners and make their classwork more authentic?

Last year, my school rolled out iPads for every student, and with the transition to Common Core, it was the perfect time for a massive curriculum shakeup. I'm lucky that my department gave me ample time to start working on this process. Simultaneously, I started experimenting with Genius Hour for my 8th grade students. Genius Hour equated to one hour a week, or one class day, where I let the students become experts in anything they wanted. This allowed them to explore their passions, and I saw engagement like never before. All of these things coalesced into a different mindset for me as a teacher. I'm nowhere near a full personalized education model, but I'm keeping the student-centered approach in the forefront as I continue this process.

So what are the essentials of personalized education, and how does something like Genius Hour play a role? Keefe and Jenkins found six basic tenets of personalized instruction.

1. Dual Teacher Role

To use Genius Hour effectively, get all your pieces together and ready to go so that you can use your valuable face-to-face time with the students. Your job is to coach and advise them through the process. While some students won't need much interference from you, others will need more intense coaching, so it's good to touch base with all students at least once during this hour. Because this should be a self-paced activity, with a bit of structure introduced by the teacher, you'll be able to offer regular 1:1 help.

2. Learn About Your Students

You'll learn more than you ever thought possible by watching your students go through this process. They are picking what they're passionate about, so the topics will be quite varied. Through this process, you'll also learn who is intrinsically motivated by their topic and skills, and who will need help. If you can learn a little about your students before jumping in (their developmental levels, what type of workers/learners they are, their prior knowledge on the topic), the better off you'll be in your dual role as coach and adviser. Last year when I went through this process, it was a second-semester activity. I have since reflected that the students needed more time. This year, I'll start in November so that I have time for getting to know my students before we begin.

3. Create a Culture of Collaboration

Because you're working so closely with your students, Genius Hour naturally develops a culture of collaboration. Some students chose to work as a group -- I allow up to four per group -- but many preferred to work on an individual basis. I required them to create a video pitch for their project, and then critique each other’s ideas and provide feedback. We also teamed up with other classrooms across the country to do the same. So we established the positive skill of learning from others how to make our project better.

I also had the students find a mentor and conduct an interview on their topic. Some were people in our own school or community. We're lucky to have a small university just blocks from our school, and many of the staff were willing to open their doors to provide help and support. Some students went further, contacting authors and other professionals for help. I even had one student that Skyped with an author who was then in Hawaii doing research but happy to talk with an eighth grader. I found this part of the process to be the most rewarding for students.

4. Create an Interactive Learning Environment

I often had the students brainstorming with each other or having online discussions via Schoology on different pieces of the process. At the end of the project, students were asked to give a TED-style talk on their topic. After watching and analyzing several TED talks, they did a discussion thread about what makes a successful TED talk.

The students also worked together on various topics and projects. They practiced their TED talks with each other prior to giving them, and provided critiques and feedback on their video pitches and websites. I asked them to use their own websites to reflect on their process, and then review each other's Genius Hour posts at least once through this process.

I would also challenge teachers to rethink their classroom workspace. This Edutopia video series inspired me to turn a previously unusable space at the back of my classroom into a Genius Bar and Recharging Station.

ISTE's Learning & Leading Magazine featured Australian schools working with modular furniture to cultivate digital-age learning environments. While I couldn’t afford a ton of new furniture, I noticed that a lot of the pieces in this article were small stools that the students could manipulate for different styles of learning. My admin let my buy some inexpensive stools from Ikea, and my kids moved them all over the room to use as they saw fit.

5. Build Flexible Pacing, But With Structure

I utilized my learning management system to build folders for each of the benchmarks that I wanted my students to achieve on the project. I also created a Google presentation with all the materials I would need for each Genius Hour day. By having all of this ready to go ahead of time, I could "let go" as a teacher so that the students could move at their own pace, while freeing up that valuable face-to-face time for me to work with the kids one-on-one.

6. Create Authentic Assessments

The students' year-end TED-style talks on their chosen topics created a performance assessment requiring them to show their passion to their peers. They were extremely excited about sharing out what they learned. I've found that the more you can relate their classwork to their passions, and the more likely that classwork will be seen and critiqued by someone other than their teacher, the better outcome you'll get from the students. The work now has meaning for them.

They also were reflecting throughout the project, which allowed me to assess their progress regularly. And through our face-to-face time, I could naturally assess their progress. I found that my students covered at least 15 different Common Core standards during this project.

Well there you have it -- Genius Hour lends itself nicely to the basic structures of personalized learning. I guarantee that once you see the level of engagement that choice and passion can bring to your students and the curriculum, the personalized education mindset will start leaking into all of your lesson planning decisions. 

What have you seen in your own lesson design and/or classroom that has changed your mindset to begin thinking about engagement and choice for students?

Genius Hour Resources

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Ian Simpson's picture

I worry focusing on any single brand of hardware, as this article does in the second paragraph. Other people, whose choice may not be the same as the one reported here, are excluded.

And education is about inclusion.

Nichole Carter's picture
Nichole Carter
Eighth grade ELA teacher from Portland, OR.

I actually did roll this out with my honors students as guinea pigs to figure out how to make it work for all. I started the project second semester and prior to the first day (I picked Wednesday as our genius hour day ) I started pumping up the kids a couple weeks in advance, saying things like, "Get excited we are doing something super awesome on Wednesday!" And then the day of our first genius hour I had some loud music playing as the students entered and I was standing at the door as each student came in saying something like, "Be prepared for me to blow your mind today, we are going to have so much fun!" etc. So there was definitely a ramp up and "selling" of the project. Next year we are doing genius hour school wide, and I am hoping to start in November. I will do probably a lot of the same "pump up" things and I also hope to have a bulletin board up as a countdown or like in the live binder the "Genius Hour Coming Soon to a Classroom Near You" poster kind of a thing...

To answer the other question about collaboration I didn't collaborate with anyone in my building as I was the first to try it, I definitely used the resources that I could find already out there, reading peoples blogs that had tried it, and talking with my online PLN when I ran into troubles. I did a lot of research prior to pitching the idea to my admin and to just wrap my mind around what I wanted it to look like. About five weeks into my project another teacher, in a different department, came back from maternity leave ready to try new things with her students and she decided to do genius hour with them. She worked with our high flier students, which was awesome because we were able to prove that this project can be done with any skill level of students in our building. So when we pitched it to the rest of the departments (language arts and social studies) we were able to prove that it will work with our population of students across the board.

So now the other teacher and I are working on the curriculum to bridge the gaps between or regular students and our honors students and what our expectations are for 7th graders and what the expectations will be for 8th graders (our building is only 7th and 8th at about 850+ students every year). We are going to create a course on Schoology to set it all up and allow the other teachers in the building to use all the materials.

Hope that answers your questions!

Nichole Carter's picture
Nichole Carter
Eighth grade ELA teacher from Portland, OR.

There are people all across the country that are attempting genius hour with varying degrees of tech access and different styles of devices. I focused on iPads as I was explaining what I was doing in my class simply because that is what I have access to, but it wasn't ever my intention to exclude. There are so many other people doing genius hour that finding someone to collaborate with and getting a different view point on how it worked for them would be easy to find, is there anyway I can help connect you with someone?

Ms. Mustipher Rm 279's picture


I enjoyed reading the article especially since I just spent the last two days in a professional development about Personal Mastery. Our school district is embarking the initiative of Personal Mastery in every classroom district wide. I was concerned with my ability to be able to personalize learning vs differentiating instruction and what resources would be available outside of professional learning community. Thanks for providing resources and the 6 essential for student learning...I will use a lot of the strategies and techniques you discussed in my own classroom!!!

Nichole Carter's picture
Nichole Carter
Eighth grade ELA teacher from Portland, OR.

Ms. Mustipher,
Oh! Do you do a blog or anything? I would love to keep in touch and hear how this all shakes out. We run a mastery model but it isn't a "Personal Mastery" model I would love to hear more!

Ms. Mustipher Rm 279's picture

I don't blog but I am sure I should, This past year 13-14 was my first year teaching and I feel that because I am so new to the profession that my contributions are still in its developmental stages as it relates to education. Does that make sense, I am still a novice is what I am saying. I will continue to follow you and keep you abreast to my "plight" Thank you for responding...

Michelle's picture
Kindergarten teacher

Really enjoyed this article. When I was in middle school in the 70's, we were engaged in this process in a gifted education class. It has always been my belief that it should be offered to all students, regardless of an IQ status. Does any of this pertain to Kindergarten age students? Further, does anyone have any ideas how personalized learning would look at this age level? My mind is spinning with ideas....

Nichole Carter's picture
Nichole Carter
Eighth grade ELA teacher from Portland, OR.

There are people doing genius hour in Kindergarten! If you go to the live binder link in the article at the top there is a tab for grade level stories; there is a bunch of links for resources for that particular level. Hope that helps!

Barbara Luka's picture

My students really get engaged with what's being called "Genius Hour". I used to call it "independent projects" and it was for my high ability learners the last 15 years. I found that ALL of my students wanted to do an "independent project" so I opened the opportunity to the entire class, with some modifications. Here's my website. I keep modifying how I do this each year, but you are welcome to use my resources. http://lukaclass.weebly.com/genius-hour.html

Nichole Carter's picture
Nichole Carter
Eighth grade ELA teacher from Portland, OR.

Lovely! Thank you so much Barbara! Have you thought about getting in touch with Joy Kir and having some of your resources added to her live binder? I particularly enjoy your learning contract. Thank you for sharing!

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