George Lucas Educational Foundation
Interest-Based Learning

Genius Hour in Elementary School

A teacher shares what she did and what she learned when she implemented Genius Hour in her fifth-grade class.
A student at work in class on a project of his choosing
A student at work in class on a project of his choosing
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We’ve all heard legends of Google employees being able to spend 20 percent of their workweek exploring topics of their choosing. Some of our favorite apps were born in this innovative venture.

Educators know a good idea when we see one (even if Google eventually ended the program). We want that vibrant creativity pulsing through our classrooms. We can visualize the end, filled with projects in which our students have connected with experts, filled journals with intelligent thinking, and explored with curiosity. How do we get from this euphoric idea to a classroom reality?

My first year of Genius Hour in my fifth-grade classroom was a huge success. I gave students one hour each week to study any subject of their choosing. They chose subjects I could not have predicted: the architecture of the Czech Republic, blade forging, gender issues in the media. They used a plethora of technology and three-dimensional models. Working alongside my students, my topic was “How to Implement Genius Hour in the Classroom.” Our year was successful but also flawed, with room for improvement and refinement.

I am definitely the big-idea, hippie-style teacher, so I developed a scaffolded, organized system that helped my students yet still encouraged the creative process. We began with four weeks of exploring ideas, spent three weeks narrowing topics, and then worked most of the year learning and creating, until the last four weeks, when we polished and presented our learning.


While time is difficult for teachers to give up, this is key for creativity and quality. There was the time I saw Zech playing games and wanted to redirect his attention. Instead I said, “So, what are you working on?” He proceeded to explain the type of computer coding language he was researching and how it compared to another language. His project was to compare coding languages to find the easiest for kids to use in designing video games. Even though it was part of his research, I would continue to worry when I saw him playing games.

Time is essential for creativity; however, deadlines are also a reality. To help my students take on such a large project, I set up mini-project deadlines. Every five weeks, students needed to turn in a mini-project. Every project was different, with its own possibilities, so each student chose their own mini-project: PowerPoint, 3D model, background research, QR codes, creating a logo or a video, etc. Learning how to chunk a large project is a powerful skill. I kept a “status of the class” chart in my notebook to help me track their progress.


Teachers know the value of reflection, but getting students engaged in authentic reflection is an art. Students kept a spiral notebook for journaling. The notebook housed their brainstorming, thinking about their project, vocabulary, research notes, data, interview notes, and works cited. In reality, not all students had awesome notebooks. This is one area I will focus on this year. I will structure time to reflect.

Our reflection also took place online. I posted questions or thinking prompts periodically:

  • List your mini-project ideas.
  • What are your Genius Hour challenges?
  • How are you using outside sources to add depth to your project?
  • What technology will you use to showcase your project?
  • How do you organize your vocabulary?


Genius Hour was a socially academic part of our classroom. As the facilitator, I organized partner and group chats. Walking into this activity, you would hear 11-year-olds intelligently discussing their status, struggles, and possibilities.

Some students were more adept in some areas. One student, Aiden, was brilliant with big ideas but couldn’t complete any work. Aspen, on the other hand, could run a small company. I paired them up and called Aspen a “consultant.” It wasn’t long before Aiden had his project moving along.

As we moved into the polishing stage, students worked together and swapped expertise. Skills like lettering titles, turning a video link into a QR code, and using keyboard shortcuts in typing were swapped throughout the classroom. This workshop environment happened authentically, but this year I will organize it by having a skill-sharing poster where students can log skills they have.


From the first day’s introduction of Genius Hour, my students knew that the final product would be shared with the world. We knew that would look different for every student. Some might start a blog, some would visit a classroom, and others would submit ideas to publications. I hosted an evening when students could showcase their projects for their peers and families. Sharing gave their year’s worth of work meaning.

Genius Hour could be adapted to any grade level or student type. This year I plan on expanding it to my special education class. The vibrant creativity pulls students into the learning process and makes school a place they want to be—and that’s not exclusive to one age or type of student.

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Meshelle Smith's picture
Meshelle Smith
Serious Hippy Teacher Who LOVES Kids and Learning

Shannon asked if I could give more information on my mini-projects. I figured if she asked, there might be more who would be interested:

I used the concept of mini-projects to help kids chunk their work. So many of us (adults too) have a hard time with such a huge project. The kids and I set periodic due dates throughout the year - about every five weeks. They liked the Friday after a holiday, so they could have the holiday to work. We would always have a quick 'share' to inspire each other.

They could choose ANYTHING for a mini-project. I offered suggestions such as: a video, an interview with an expert, a technology project, a focused research project, a 3D model, an invention, a blog, a survey, a creative writing, a glossary, a thematic t-shirt they designed, a logo for their project. The mini-projects varied based on the topics.

When May came, student had five or six mini-projects that they were able to combine for their project. They still had finishing touches, but the project was not so overwhelming! This was the number one strategy that made my year easier.

Judy Yero's picture
Judy Yero
Author of Teaching In MInd: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education

Great points in this article! But it always amazes me that teachers are so impressed with what students accomplish during genius hour, yet fail to see that they aren't "giving up" teaching time. If "standards" are so important, think about the "standards" that students are learning as they pursue their own interests. Learner-centered schools integrate a high degree of choice into all their activities. The focus is on asking and answering their own questions, and solving real problems. While these schools (independent) aren't required to give standardized tests, many of them do...just for fun. The students typically score 2-3 GRADE LEVELS above their public school peers because they have learned to think more deeply by working on real world issues that interest them. This ability transfers to the much less demanding "factoids" found on the standardized tests. Sorry teachers, but learning does not require teaching! Certainly, the teacher can help students think and learn more effectively, but when the responsibility for learning is turned over to the students themselves, there's no need to "motivate" them, or try to "keep them on task." Will they all learn the same things? No! But why should they? What they will learn is the true "essentials"--how to communicate effectively, learn more deeply, understand their own learning, and solve real problems. I highly recommend the book "Launch" by A. J. Juliani and John Spencer for ideas about how to structure learning in ways that free students to learn in authentic ways.

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