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Interest-Based Learning

Building Student Agency With Genius Hour

The popular model of self-guided learning can be used to engage upper elementary students in conducting and presenting research—and learning to use new technology.

December 16, 2020
Middle grade aged girl at home distance learning on laptop
Gorkem Yorulmaz / iStock

Like many teachers this year, I’ve experimented with different approaches to boost engagement in my classroom. I’ve found that Genius Hour, an approach I had used previously in the classroom that allows students to research topics of interest to them and is infused with some aspects of project-based learning, has opened new doors for my students. They are filled with enthusiasm about their learning and are always thinking of new topics to explore. Their learning is more meaningful to them now, which motivates them to think critically and creatively about their work.

One thing I’ve come to appreciate about Genius Hour is how it puts students in the driver’s seat: They choose what they want to learn while engaging in meaningful, relevant learning experiences.

Preparing for Genius Hour

Genius Hour falls into the transformative stage of the Replace, Amplify, Transform framework—a three-stage technology-integration model used to assess tech usage in the classroom. At the transformative stage, students use technology in ways that are new to them and construct their own learning experiences. Additionally, they engage a variety of 21st century skills such as thinking critically, working collaboratively, developing an academic mindset, and finally, learning how to learn. Repeated exposure and practice with these skills at an early age ensures that students are well prepared for continued learning throughout their lives.

To learn more about what Genius Hour would look like in my third-grade classroom, I researched the idea of brainstorming with my students things they were wondering about—having a list of possible questions for them to reference is a great resource for students who are stuck in the planning stages of their self-guided learning.

As I began to read more about the Genius Hour approach, I learned about how I could fit it into the curriculum and think of my role as a facilitator and coach. The more I read about Genius Hour, the more I could see how it important is to have clear expectations for students during their independent learning. Doing so allows students to focus on their research rather than struggling to figure out what to do.

Connecting With the Curriculum

As I got further down the road with my plans for Genius Hour, I identified the curricular connections I needed to take into consideration. Because the goal of Genius Hour is to provide students with the autonomy to choose their content, I needed to identify applicable standards that are related to the skills used rather than the content learned; standards relating to research and informational text writing usually fit the bill.

In addition to my county’s writing standards, I looked at the ISTE standards, specifically the setting of personal learning goals and action plans by students (1a), curating information from digital sources (3c), and creating a digital product (6d).

In the Classroom

When the time came to introduce Genius Hour, I created a chart filled with all the questions and ideas that were circling around in my students’ brains, such as “Why does it rain?” and “How is paint made?” This activity sparked students’ interest, and the chart worked as a resource for them to refer to if they ever found themselves a little short of inspiration, though the goal was for students to explore interest-based topics of their own choosing.

Before students could go out on their own, I modeled the research process by coming up with my own “I wonder...” statement and researching it on Wonderopolis in front of them, making sure to think aloud to guide them through my process. We also worked collaboratively to curate a list of behavioral expectations during Genius Hour, including staying on task, using technology responsibly, and having a growth mindset when working with technology.

After I modeled for students what I was looking for them to do during Genius Hour, we worked together to come up with a list of criteria that their final presentations should have, which included: 1) their researchable question, 2) their results or answer to their question, 3) images and/or videos that supported their learning, and 4) links to digital resources where they found answers.

I’ve found that Genius Hour runs best at the upper elementary level in a three-week cycle. The first week, students identify their “I wonder...” statement, begin research, and take notes on a capture sheet of their making. The second week, they work on creating their final product. Students have free choice when it comes to final products, as long as it meets all the criteria they created at the beginning of the process. The final week, students present their finished products to an audience of their peers, parents, teachers, and/or other students in the school.

My favorite part of Genius Hour is how creative students get with the final presentations. One of my students made a news broadcast on an athlete they researched, while another student created a Google Slides presentation about the ocean and the different animals that call it home. The kids have a blast and I am always amazed with the work they produce.

Genius Hour is an engaging, student-centered way to boost a whole host of 21st-century learning skills. Students have the opportunity to explore their own interests, deepening their learning on a broad range of topics, while simultaneously honing their ability to research, collaborate, communicate effectively, and creatively present their new learning through the use of different tech tools.

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Filed Under

  • Interest-Based Learning
  • Media Literacy
  • Student Engagement
  • Technology Integration
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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