Interest-Based Learning

Standards-Aligned Genius Hour

Give your students a chance to follow their own interests with projects that meet state standards.
June 22, 2017
Illustration of a clock taking off like a rocket, with pens, paper, a tablet computer, and other items in a cloud above it
©Shutterstock.com/BSVIT

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.