George Lucas Educational Foundation
Interest-Based Learning

Standards-Aligned Genius Hour

Give your students a chance to follow their own interests with projects that meet state standards.
Illustration of a clock taking off like a rocket, with pens, paper, a tablet computer, and other items in a cloud above it
Illustration of a clock taking off like a rocket, with pens, paper, a tablet computer, and other items in a cloud above it
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All of the seventh-grade students who gave me cards for Teacher Appreciation Week included the same sentiment: They all thanked me for “allowing” them to choose their own projects, giving them freedom to pursue their learning goals. Most of these comments pertained to 20 percent time, also known as genius hour.

Genius hour is time that students are given to work on projects that relate to both their interests and the curriculum. It’s sometimes called 20 percent time because some corporations (famously Google, at one time) have given employees 20 percent of the workday to follow passion projects. In a classroom, 20 percent time can mean one class period out of five. For me, it’s every Wednesday. After I rolled it out last September, it became a favorite day in my students’ school week.

Meeting the Standards

Over the years, my social studies students have often asked questions like, “When are we going to learn about World War II?” In New Jersey, World War II is not covered until sophomore or junior year of high school. Up to four years is far too long for a student to wait to learn about something he or she is interested in now.

One of the obstacles to adopting 20 percent time in a classroom can be meeting standards. I knew students’ research for projects would meet Common Core State Standards such as CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.3: “Identify key steps in a text’s description of a process related to history/social studies (e.g., how a bill becomes law, how interest rates are raised or lowered).”

I decided to use the standards as a part of the overall design challenge. Students would have to align their ideas to the grades 5–8 New Jersey Student Learning Standards. I gave as an example 6.1.8.D.2.a, which states, “Analyze the power struggle among European countries, and determine its impact on people living in Europe and the Americas.” This can apply to any time period, from the American Revolution to the Cold War.

Like many teachers, I am required to write lesson objectives on the board. But in the 21st century—with so many tools that support personalized learning—should all students always be learning the same concept at the same time, and at the same pace? I met with my vice principal and explained how, on Wednesdays, I would write a generic objective in my lesson plan book (e.g., Student will compare an event in modern U.S. history to one in the Colonial time period).

Geeking Out in History Class

The project—which came to be known as Geeking Out in History Class—was inspired by the HOMAGO framework. HOMAGO— an acronym for “Hang Out, Mess Around & Geek Out”—is “an experiential learning theory based on research by Mimi Ito on how youth learn in new and social media environments.” When young people in informal settings want to learn more about fan fiction or stop-motion animation, they will hang out with peers to learn more and then mess around with digital tools, moving from novice to expert—geeking out, in other words.

To track student learning, I created a simple Google Form, asking students the following questions:

  • Are you working alone or with a partner? If so, whom?
  • What is a topic in U.S. history—after the Civil War (1865)—that you want to learn more about?
  • Match a standard to the topic you want to learn about. Pick a grades 5–8 New Jersey social studies standard and share how it connects to your project.
  • What are you planning to do/make/create as your project?

Once students completed the Google Form, I exported it to a Google Sheet, which enabled me to view individual responses at a glance. Because this was a project-based learning assignment involving creating, I knew all students would be meeting higher order thinking on Bloom’s Taxonomy. Plus—as a bonus—the presentations of projects would be passion-based, as students shared their aha moments.

History Class as Makerspace

Many students brought their informal learning passions to 20 percent time. There were several Minecraft worlds built, including a World War II mod. Three students who enjoyed hip-hop music downloaded beats from Flocabulary to make a series of Hamilton-inspired rap battles about World War I. Other students used a hot glue gun and an X-Acto knife to build the Normandy Beach invasion out of reclaimed cardboard.

Some students returned to technology tools introduced earlier in the school year to deepen their learning. One student, who coded a Valley Forge story on the free interactive fiction tool Twine, wrote a follow-up story set in World War II. (I’ve written for Edutopia before about Twine.) Another student seized on 20 percent time as an opportunity to hone her public speaking skills, presenting a TED-style talk.

Genius hour’s underlying pedagogy speaks to self-determination theory—specifically the autonomy. Students had agency, or control, over what they learned. Each week students had to write reflections on their learning, a weekly grade. My role was to be the “game master,” curating and scaffolding student choice, all while managing the class using free Google tools.

And there were no classroom management issues. Many students even asked to come in during lunch and opted to work on projects from home. Engagement like that convinced me that more teachers should try bringing 20 percent time into their classes.

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Demareo Smith's picture

Hello,
I think this is a great way to manage the classroom. Most teachers focus on lesson objectives and not really in the delivery to the students and at the pace that different students learn.

Joanne Dupuy's picture

Thanks for sharing your experiences utilizing the Genius Hour. As I work towards a completely learner centered classroom it is great to see others positive experiences.

StoneburnerLa's picture

I am very interested in learning more about the Genius Hour, It sounds like a great way to get students motivated, collaborating, and using technology. Are there any good resources to help someone get started with this? Does any one have some hints on what to do or not to do?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

There's a lot of good stuff on that topic here on Edutopia, SonebrunerLa! You might want to start here: https://www.edutopia.org/groups/personalized-learning/802456 Also, if you search on Genius Hour, you'll find a whole bunch of good things. Good luck and be sure to come back and share what you learn!

StoneburnerLa's picture

Thank you so much for the information. Great article to get me started! I certainly will come back to share. LS

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

It troubles me that many educators miss the point of Genius Hour/20% time, etc. The obsession with "meeting the standards" is inconsistent with the idea of freeing students to learn what, when, and how they choose. I love the idea of "curating" an enriched environment for these activities, but "scaffolding" smacks of teacher control and lack of trust that learners will actually do anything "productive"--and the fear that they will be wasting their time because they aren't accumulating the knowledge and skills that adults have decided ALL students need at a given age.
This is not to say that learners will NOT be "meeting standards"--in fact, they typically far exceed expectations once they get into the flow of their learning. Free choice means free choice--and once you put in a requirement to meet a standard, you've severely limited that choice. Imposing standards is just another example of teacher control and the belief that "learning requires teaching." It doesn't! At the 2017 Learning and the Brain Conference, research clearly demonstrated the efficacy of choice and self-directed learning. Perhaps it would be wise to stop thinking of choice as a "part -time gift" to students and think more about how we can move away from the obsession with "one size fits all" standards.

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