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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Genius Hour is exciting. Instead of giving students assignments with predetermined topics and step-by-step instructions, teachers set aside a designated amount of time during the week for students to engage in self-directed projects that allow them to pursue their own questions, interests, and passions.

But is it really about genius? What's ultimately most important about this movement?

Revolution, Nurturing, and Empowerment

Let's start with the word "genius," a label usually reserved for those with extraordinary intellectual abilities.

Jack Andraka embodies this type of genius. At 15, this "medical entrepreneur, education activist, and global change maker" won the top award in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. The sensor he devised for diagnosing pancreatic cancer is "168 times faster, over 26,000 times less expensive, and over 400 times more sensitive" than existing methods of detection.

Most Genius Hour projects don't result in revolutionary breakthroughs. But they might result in the launch of a YouTube fashion Vlog that gets picked up by Seventeen, or a campaign to raise funds for climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro that turns into a "National Find Your Mountain Day," which helps everyone "find their mountain and try and climb it." Read more about them on Nicholas Provenzano's blog The Nerdy Teacher.

Here are a few ways of understanding Genius Hour and recognizing its potential.

Genius Hour projects are revolutionary. They change students' lives even if the projects don't pan out.

Genius isn’t just about intellectual ability. It's about action. As Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out, "the book, the college . . . the institution . . . stop with some past utterance of genius." "[T]hey look backward and not forward." But "genius looks forward" -- "genius creates."

Genius Hour awakens and nurtures this creative, forward-looking energy within students.

All students -- even seemingly apathetic ones -- are fascinated with certain things. What they don't know how to do is take productive action on their interests. Here's where we're getting to the essential value of Genius Hour.

Students learn how to transform their interests into project-based actions. They realize that they don't have to stand on the sidelines. They can join conversations and shape them. They can discover the broader implications of their desire to scale a mountain and build campaigns around those implications.

Genius Hour can turn engaged students into engaged citizens, making a difference in the world.

So it's not just the projects that are important -- it's how they cultivate underlying skills that empower students to transform themselves into active participants in their educations and their lives.

But how can we help students turn Genius Hour into Genius Year and hopefully their own Genius Life?

Engage in Creator Conversations

Most students are entering uncharted territory when they start engaging in self-directed projects. Major questions begin popping up:

  • How do I design a project?
  • What are my options?
  • How do I narrow them down?
  • What’s the right scope?
  • Am I doing this right?
  • What if there's something wrong with my approach?  

Confusion, doubt, and fear also emerge when you're no longer following someone else's formula. Yet if we want to nurture their growth as creators, we must resist solving their problems and alleviating feelings of discomfort. They have to learn how to cope.

I recommend Creator Conversations.

Students take turns discussing what's coming up for them in the various phases of creation, such as:

  • How they're inundated with ideas for projects.
  • What they're going through when trying to choose one.
  • What they experience when they can't seem to come up with the right form for a project.

Their fellow creators respond supportively by commiserating, sharing insights, and even laughing at the quirkiness of the creative process. The value of Creator Conversations is that it’s important to experience the complexity of creation and to understand that struggle is often crucial to the process, not something to be avoided.

Conversations don’t have to be "heavy." We often watch Gever Tulley's Life Lessons Through Tinkering and laugh when he says: 

When faced with . . . setbacks or complexities, a really interesting behavior emerges: decoration. Decoration of the unfinished project is a kind of conceptual incubation. From these interludes come deep insights and amazing new approaches to solving the problems that had them frustrated just moments before.

These conversations open up a new world for many students, because they're so used to seeing other people’s finished products that they don’t have insight into what it really takes to create something. Students emerge from Creator Conversations with an awareness of the rhythms of their process, which they can draw on when working on future projects.

But it isn't enough to just cultivate this consciousness and these skills.

Dare Your Students

If we want students to take what they're learning and apply it in other contexts, we have to be explicit about it.

I issue dares. They're fun and great for motivating teenagers. While we're talking about what they're going through to find just the right scope for their projects, I might dare my students to use the strategies we've been discussing to come up with interesting angles on an assigned topic for their World History class.

The trick is to work dares into Creator Conversations. It's easy for students to forget about them if they're tacked on at the end of projects. It's also important to be there for students as they integrate this new way of being into the rhythms of their daily life.

Let's Discuss

I'm curious about other people's experiences with Genius Hour, the connections between Genius Hour and project-based learning, the tensions between self-directed and teacher-led learning, and more. So please leave a comment below, and let's get our own conversation going!

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Comments (19) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Jamie's picture

Hi Jennifer,

Genius Hour sounds like a great idea! At my school, we encourage self-directed projects through the implementation of the schoolwide enrichment model. The major goal of the enrichment model is to provide challenging, in-depth, enjoyable learning experiences for students and use them as stepping stones for follow up advanced learning and in-depth projects and investigations. One way our school implements this enrichment model is doing enrichment clusters every Friday morning. These clusters allow groups of students who share a common interest to come together each week during specially designated time blocks to produce a product, performance, or targeted service based on that common interest. Enrichment classes are also not necessarily subjects associated with school.

When first participating in our Enrichment classes, I was amazed at how well our second graders responded to the project-based assignments. Since they got the opportunity to pick their class, they were highly motivated to work on something of their interest. The projects students came up with were incredible!

Seeing the motivation behind my students and how capable they were in their clusters, I have been inspired to incorporate more self-directed projects in my own classroom. Genius Hour sounds exactly like what is missing in my class. However, I was curious how you start Genius Hour in your class? Is it modeled in any way or do you begin by letting them grapple with what first steps to take? I would love to hear details about how you implement it within your own classroom. Thank you for sharing!

Jennifer Bernstein, Ph.D.'s picture
Jennifer Bernstein, Ph.D.
Founder of Get Yourself Into College, Inc. & English Professor (part-time)

Brittany, What subject do you teach? My initial sense is that you might want to start by incorporating the underlying principles of Genius Hour and even project-based learning (which gives kids more structure) into your existing assignments. For instance, if you're an English teacher, you might not have the space within your class to let kids work on any project that interests them, but you could allow them to come up with their own topic and thesis for their essay on a particular text (instead of assigning them a specific topic). You'd set up the basic expectations (length, use of quotes, etc) and they'd have to think about their thesis and the scope of their argument in relation to them. During Creator Conversations, the focus could be on what comes up as they try to discover and define their own thesis statements. So this isn't exactly Genius Hour, but it sets the stage for it; it guides students towards it.

Jennifer Bernstein, Ph.D.'s picture
Jennifer Bernstein, Ph.D.
Founder of Get Yourself Into College, Inc. & English Professor (part-time)

Christina, I have had the same experience with students who were (or seemed to be) apathetic about learning. How/why did the project-based learning in your class motivate them?

Jennifer Bernstein, Ph.D.'s picture
Jennifer Bernstein, Ph.D.
Founder of Get Yourself Into College, Inc. & English Professor (part-time)

Denise, Have you read Emerson's "The American Scholar" and "Self-Reliance"? They raise such interesting questions, especially for teachers. For me, the big question is this: How do we strike a balance between the need for self-directed learning and the formal demands of the educational system? Surely, we don't want to limit self-directed learning to one hour a week, but how can we integrate it more fully and effectively into the educational system?

Denise Krebs's picture
Denise Krebs
@mrsdkrebs, Chief Learner

Hi Jennifer, thanks for the suggestions. I've encountered some complex texts in the two essays you recommend. I don't think I had ever read them, but I've heard of them. I'm wading through them bit by bit. I guess I'm encountering complex texts, which is good for me as a lifelong learner!

I just wrote a blog post about what I've been reading about learning and brains and metacognition. I wonder if the formal demands of the educational system can be met without self-directed learners?


Chris Fsls's picture

I know this thread is almost 2 years old (and I hope you, Jennifer, will reply) however, I thought that if you do not have time for Creator Conversations within your classroom you could issue a homework project where they have to make a blog entry once every month with an attached resource they found useful or part of their project, as well as answering some basic questions or just venting their problems / roadblocks that they have encountered along their journey.

I would love to do this full time in my classroom as I am an ESL (English as second language) teacher within a private program and I have no strict educational goals or requirements other than the ones I set for my students, however my program is within a public school and the school itself and therefore the program are about 10-15 years behind on technology and has 3 computers rooms in the entire school or 1400-1500, and do not allow mobile phones, tablets or personal laptops in the classroom. So my question is, How would you or how could I implement this effectively with the lack or technology and access to the internet??

I can use the student's mobile phones in the classroom but it isn't always as easy or as productive.

I will be using this concept in my all of my classrooms (to a certain degree - depending on age level) next year, I just want to get my head completely wrapped around the idea first and be armed with all the information to help other teachers in my program implement it as well.

Jennifer Bernstein, Ph.D.'s picture
Jennifer Bernstein, Ph.D.
Founder of Get Yourself Into College, Inc. & English Professor (part-time)

Chris--I think using Genius Hour projects for ESL is such a great idea! Do you already have a blog set up for the course? If not, you could have Creator Conversations in a Closed Facebook group, which would probably be a very easy way to facilitate regular conversations about the projects. To me, there's something very valuable about the casualness of the conversations. A more formal assignment (like a blog entry) is more stiff and it's unlikely students will continue to engage in that kind of written conversation after your course is over. There's definitely a place for more formal assignments, but I think the casualness of them is important. I'm assuming kids will have access to Facebook outside your class. Does this help?

Chris Fsls's picture

That is one of the options nad probably the leading on because it is simplely the easiest for my students, they are on it all the time and would be nothing to post something on fb for them, however a formal blog entry would require designated time and effort. I have not got anything set up yet, however I will be doing this shortly / during the summer ready for next year.

And YES, they all have Facebook access.

This was a big help, thankyou.

Jennifer Bernstein, Ph.D.'s picture
Jennifer Bernstein, Ph.D.
Founder of Get Yourself Into College, Inc. & English Professor (part-time)

Chris, One thing I love about Creator Conversations is that they allow students to engage in casual conversations (written or spoken) about their process. You could create Facebook threads like "Challenge I'm facing. . .," "Question I have. . .," "Something I finally figured out. . ." and students could respond to it and to each other. Think about great this is. They get on Facebook-- a place they normally associate with just socializing--and engage in conversations that extend learning outside the class. Ultimately, we don't want them to be completely dependent on classes as sites of learning or as places for intellectual conversations. We want them to integrate it into their daily life. Then, once the conversations get juicy, you can ask them to develop one or two of their responses into a more formal blog entry. Honestly, many times formal blog entries are dry--boring. However, if they emerge out of an interesting conversation, there's more potential.

Chris Fsls's picture

Jennifer, by threads, I am guessing you are talking about a post that students comment on, correct?

No not at all, they should be looking to learn both inside and outside of the classroom and if using facebook is a tool for that then more the power to us as teachers.

Ok I can see how you are structuring it, to start with small tasks that then lead into bigger and bigger tasks eventually making something that is the product of all the time dedicated to it. I will be doing this along side other projects that I believe should spark their interests and could help link each other together so that the students feel and are producing something of substance.

Thankyou, you have been a big help. If I have any other questions or ideas I will be sure to float them by you.

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