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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

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!

Comments (14)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jennifer B. Bernstein, Ph.D.'s picture
Jennifer B. Bernstein, Ph.D.
Founder of Get Yourself Into College, Inc. & English Professor (part-time)
Blogger 2014

Mark--I love that you integrate Genius Time into the daily rhythm of your teaching. As you recognize, what we're ultimately trying to cultivate is a new way of being in the world, which we don't want limited to one hour a week. I just read your post on Genius Hour/Time and can definitely see how Creator Conversations can help your students. The "brick wall" experiences are great to explore during these kinds of conversations. Will you keep me posted about what happens? I'm very curious!

Mark Marcantonio's picture

Absolutely Jennifer, probably have a new GT post about October 1, once this year's class gets into the swing of the program.

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Brittany Tippet's picture

Hi, I am a new teacher and I have just learned about Genius Hour/Year! I am so excited to begin to implement this with my 6-8th grade students. I was hoping that someone would be able to provide me with some support as I begin to implement this activity. I was wondering how it as already been implemented in some of your classes?

Do you allow students to develop an idea/question, ask them to research information, then share it in a form of a presentation? I was wondering how students work was assessed and graded? I noticed that some students may like to work in groups, how are they then assessed? Do they do research together and deliver the information in different forms? If a student finsihes a project do they just move onto another topic?

Thank you in advanced for taking the time to provide me with support. I look forward to learning more about Genius Year!

Christina Herman's picture

I had never heard of genius hour until reading your blog. It sounds like a great concept! I have used project based learning in the past and I have found it to be very beneficial in motivating students who are apathetic about learning.

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

Hi Jennifer,
Thanks so much for this great blog post! I love the "genius looks forward" quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the connection with how Genius Hour nurtures that forward thinking energy. Powerful, and that has been my experience with Genius Hour in the classroom. Empowered students who love what they are doing! It's a beautiful thing.

My goal is always to make my classroom more and more like genius hour all the time, or as you put it Genius Year!

@Brittany, your questions can be answered in various ways by so many people who are doing genius hour. There are many ways people are implementing it. For me, I'll take a stab at your questions and how GH worked in my 7th and 8th grade classrooms:

1. Do you allow students to develop an idea/question, ask them to research information, then share it in a form of a presentation? Yes, most need to do some research, but often their projects were design and maker projects, rather than strictly research-based.

2. I was wondering how students work was assessed and graded? Formative assessment only. One-on-one conversations, feedback and feed-forward. (I like Jennifer's "Creator Conversation" idea.) I never put a grade on projects, just like I don't want a a grade attached to my crocheting and baking, two of my passion projects. Certainly there were some required elements along the way, such as reflective blog posts.

3. I noticed that some students may like to work in groups, how are they then assessed? Same as above. I usually limited group work to 3. When I felt someone was in a group through several cycles and didn't really get into his/her own passion, I would challenge them to make the next GH a solo adventure.

4. Do they do research together and deliver the information in different forms? They could deliver the information in any form they chose. Many liked to do iMovies, but we had games, books, photography, PPT and blog posts. Really anything that makes their learning visible is good.

5. If a student finishes a project do they just move onto another topic? Yes, usually that is the case. Sometimes students are so involved that they don't want to quit. I had a small group work on an adventure movie for about 8 weeks. They just couldn't be finished with it. It turned out very nice, and they learned much along the way about how to use iMovie and special effects, including ones I had never heard of. Sometimes the opposite happens. In the conversations I have with a student, if I felt they weren't finished, I would challenge them to keep going. Sometimes a child wants to abandon an idea because s/he doesn't have the perseverance to carry on when it gets difficult. I would try to help that student see the next step needed to continue forward.

Check out the LiveBinder by Joy Kirr on genius hour for tons of resources. Also, use the #geniushour hashtag on Twitter to see an ongoing sharing and answering of questions from a vibrant GH community!

Thanks for the conversation! I love being part of this community!

Denise

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 B. Bernstein, Ph.D.'s picture
Jennifer B. Bernstein, Ph.D.
Founder of Get Yourself Into College, Inc. & English Professor (part-time)
Blogger 2014

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 B. Bernstein, Ph.D.'s picture
Jennifer B. Bernstein, Ph.D.
Founder of Get Yourself Into College, Inc. & English Professor (part-time)
Blogger 2014

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 B. Bernstein, Ph.D.'s picture
Jennifer B. Bernstein, Ph.D.
Founder of Get Yourself Into College, Inc. & English Professor (part-time)
Blogger 2014

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?

Thanks,
Denise

Mark Marcantonio's picture

Absolutely Jennifer, probably have a new GT post about October 1, once this year's class gets into the swing of the program.

(1)
Heather Lambert's picture
Heather Lambert
Reading Specialist, Blogger, and Professional Developer

I may pass your contact info on to our Genius Hour teacher so she has a person to knock ideas around with!

(1)
Mark Marcantonio's picture

I began using a version of Genius Hour last year that I called Genius Time on a daily basis. I really appreciate your Creator Conversation idea and will add that to Genius Time development. You can read my blog regarding GT at:
Commonsenseeducator.blogspot.com

(1)
Heather Lambert's picture
Heather Lambert
Reading Specialist, Blogger, and Professional Developer

I love this. We are starting one this year at our school as an extension period. The teacher in charge is TOP NOTCH and can't wait to get it moving!

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