Hacking Student Passions Through Genius Hour


Genius Hour is a movement picking up traction globally – an opportunity where students given true autonomy explore their own passions and exercise creativity in the classroom. It allows pure voice and choice in what students learn during a set period of time during school. Genius Hour is student-driven, passion-based inquiry at its best which can be enhanced by technology in the hands of modern learners. Put simply, it is a time where learners choose what to learn and how to learn.

A traditional view-point of education is one where teachers map curriculum and standards, plan and control units and lessons based on those standards. Yet in Genius Hour, students are the ones completely in control, choosing what they study, how they study it, and what they do, produce or create as a result.

With the ever increasing rise of information and communication devices in the hands of students, Genius Hour is allowing students to pursue their interests, seek information, and make genuine impacts in ways never possible otherwise.

Where has Genius Hour come from?

Genius Hour is commonly associated with innovative companies like Google, where engineers spend up to 20 per cent of their time working on projects they are interested in and passionate about. The study and process is motivated intrinsically instead of extrinsically, which lets people work on whatever sparks them and, therefore, reaps productivity benefits. Engineers spend up to one day of their working week on projects and initiatives of their choice. Have you heard of or use Gmail? If so, you are enjoying the use of a product conceived during 20 per cent time, an idea that started with one person’s interest which now benefits millions of others.

In 2011, Daniel Pink blogged about this idea in relation to other workplaces in his post ‘The Genius Hour: How 60 minutes a week can electrify your job’. He stated that:

“Each week, employees can take a Genius Hour – 60 minutes to work on new ideas or master new skills. They’ve used that precious sliver of autonomy well, coming up with a range of innovations including training tools for other branches.”

If the idea is to give employees in a workplace a scheduled time each week to think, learn and explore themselves and their work environment better, more creative and more exciting things might ensue. In essence, the idea is very simple. If you give time for creativity, discovery and learning, you create an opportunity for empowerment and growth of both the individual and, therefore, the organisation.

His blog post sparked conversation with educators on Twitter, and shortly after, the hashtag #GeniusHour was born. Since then, educators around the world have been marvelling at the engagement and motivation happening in classrooms adopting the idea of Genius Hour. A group of educators around the globe are actively compiling resources and reflections of this movement which can be accessed from geniushour.wikispaces.com, and is an excellent go-to point for any one interested in pursuing this idea further.

How does Genius Hour work in our school?

Similar 20 per cent Time principles were applied to our school setting in our version of Genius Hour. Together with my colleagues, we went about designing this opportunity for our students.

We set aside time for students to work on their own projects. We challenged them to explore or do something that they were interested in. They would spend several weeks researching and working towards their projects before sharing their results. We would show students how to use ICTs to research, create, communicate and collaborate to carry their intended actions.

The Genius Hour projects became revolutionary. They changed students’ thinking and developed their knowledge and experience even if their projects did not quite work out. We placed emphasis on the process of learning, innovation and iteration; not the product itself. After all, if a student’s intended product did not eventuate, or failed numerous times, we have still created a valuable and meaningful learning experience.

We discovered that it is not just the projects which are important. Rather, it is how the underlying skills that empower students to transform themselves into active and critical citizens in their education and future lives that really mattered.

All students are naturally curious. Our job as educators is to get them to realise how to take productive actions on those interests. Here lies the essence of Genius Hour: the point being that students learn how to transform their passions and interests into actions. Through this they realise that they do not have to be a bystander, but they can take actions that matter, and that they can make contributions and communicate their understandings in an ever-connected globalised world.

It has been extremely positive to see a high level of engagement and motivation during the term as students were working on their projects. I remember on one particular day during the term I had a professional development to attend outside of school in the morning. In the afternoon, I returned to find the whole Year 5/6 level working on their Genius Hour projects. When I walked into our building, I found students in different spaces, not necessarily in their home class or with their home teacher, using various pieces of technology, from their laptops, to their mobile devices which they had brought in to assist them with their projects, to school video cameras to record and produce content. Not one single student was off task or disruptive (which is rare for an afternoon late in the week), and is a testament to the deeply personal and motivating influence of Genius Hour.

10 Principles of Genius Hour

In commencing Genius Hour in my school, I designed 10 principles based on what I have read and understood about Genius Hour, and suited it to our students and the desired process.

1) Start with a question

We wanted our students to lead an inquiry and, therefore, the question became a crucial point in determining how the project unfolded. A great deal of time was spent with students in developing a question that was deep and complex (see principle two).

2) Be larger than Google

Technology allows us to retrieve fact-based questions quite easily, so we wanted our students to investigate a question and share their knowledge with something that cannot be answered with a simple Google search or a flick through a book. Why teach others about “What are reptiles?” when the answer can easily be discovered for oneself? Hence, we encouraged students to pursue a “Non-Googleable” question that could involve the use of technology or a library search to assist, but would not necessarily locate an answer in an instant.

3) Work towards a project

We wanted our students to have a desired outcome, product or goal related to their question so that they had a direction and could accomplish or achieve something during Genius Hour. We encouraged our students to think about what they might make, do, or teach to others (see principle four).

4) Make an impact

We wanted our students to think about how they could shape the world around them, whether that be on a local, national, or global stage. We raised the expectations that they could contribute something meaningful to their society and that their contributions were valued. Could they create a useful product? Could they carry out a socially just action? Could they teach others by tapping into their creative talents or passions?

5) Share your learnings

We wanted our students to communicate and celebrate their learnings to make those above-mentioned impacts. Students presented their projects to their peers in any format that they wished. We held an open expo day in our school where other students, teachers, and the local community came to see and celebrate our students’ passions and interests evident in their projects. We offered students the opportunity to connect to a virtual community via Google Hangouts, so that they might teach others, present to a meaningful audience, and seek feedback on their learning. We uploaded every project to our class blog to reach a global audience (see principle six).

6) Present and capture digitally

Students were free to use their school provided laptop or their own mobile devices for researching and presenting information. Whilst not all students used digital tools for creating or completing an action, having digital evidence meant that they could share their projects to the class blog and reach a wider audience.

7) Include a bibliography

We want our students to be digitally literate and 21st Century responsible citizens; which means understanding sources of information, copyright, and giving credit where credit is due! As students uploaded their projects to the class blog as knowledge artefacts, they were required to include a bibliography for their images and sources of information.

8) Do not ask for a mark

We wanted our students to be intrinsically motivated and self-critical of their own processes, and not expect that there would be a final mark or score for any produced product or presentation. As teachers we were critical of the impact that a score or rubric could dictate on a highly creative process. Instead, we placed emphasis on the students conducting their own weekly self-assessments and reflections whilst giving and receiving teacher and peer feedback.

9) Work on your project only when your other work is complete

In some ways, Genius Hour is a direct contradiction to what goes on in most of our school day, where the teacher ultimately decides the content, even if it does include student voice and choice. Nevertheless, the nature of the beast is that there are areas of the curriculum in which students must be entitled to.

10) Learn by yourself or with others

We wanted our students to decide for themselves if they should pursue their interests individually or with others. Students used a variety of Google Apps tools to share their documents and presentations during the process with their teachers and peers. Students working independently could do so at home or at school. Pairs and small groups of students could share and work on files at the same time, regardless of the time of day or place.

Genius Hour – an oxymoron?

Genius Hour is often challenged. After all, if it is indeed so good for students, why relegate it to only an hour? Whilst there is some truth to this premise, for some teachers Genius Hour might be a means to an end where their context is challenged by the impact of high-stakes testing, content-based teacher practises, or other influences which might inhibit student voice and choice in the classroom. Genius Hour may offer a practical way of changing this paradigm, but certainly the principles are nothing new of contemporary or sound education practises. Whether it is the Maker / Tinker movement, Challenge / Problem Based Learning, or in this case Genius Hour, our job as educators is to carefully create and deliver pathways for students that cover an entitled curriculum for all, whilst delivering it in the most meaningful, relevant, and developmentally suitable manner for each child.

The impact of technological rich classrooms

The idea of passion-based learning or passion projects are not new. In fact, I remember completing my own project about dinosaurs in the early nineties in my primary schooling; ironically enough, it was also one of my most vivid learning experiences from that era. In that time, education was mostly bound by teacher control, with typical information accessed from textbooks and the library. In today’s modern classroom, a reflection of an ever-increasing technologically developed world, students have a multitude of avenues to seek and find information, and have an arsenal of physical and digital tools at their disposal.

As such, we live in an age where information is becoming ever ubiquitous, should you know how to find it and discern it. This is an essential and basic fluency that any citizen needs. However, beyond this lies an even more important facet. It should be with urgency that we encourage our students to pursue deep and meaningful experiences that go beyond surface-level learning being permeated by our increased access to information.

Our aim should be to push the boundaries of kids and their imaginations so that they become creative citizens who find problems and develop ways to solve them. We need to stretch their minds so they fully believe themselves to be capable of genius as they go forth into an uncertain future.

Anthony Speranza is the Senior Teaching and Learning Leader at St. Mark’s Primary School in Dingley, Victoria. You can follow Anthony on his blog anthsperanza.global2.vic.edu.au or on twitter by the username @anthsperanza.

You can find more information about his Genius Hour implementations on his blog: http://anthsperanza.global2.vic.edu.au/category/geniushour/

To view examples of his student’s projects see: http://stmarks56.global2.vic.edu.au/category/geniushour/


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Anthony Speranza

Anthony Speranza

Senior Teaching and Learning Leader at St. Mark's Primary School
Anthony Speranza is the Senior Teaching and Learning Leader at St. Mark’s Primary School in Dingley, Victoria. In his time at St. Mark’s, he has established several digital literacy initiatives, developed cybersafety and global citizenship programs, and introduced multimedia software and hardware into P-6 classrooms. Currently, he is implementing a 1:1 Chromebook program and is supporting teachers and students from Years Prep to 6 to utilise Google Apps for Education. He is an authorised Google Education Trainer, Google Certified Teacher, and the recipient of the 2014 DLTV Educator of the Year as awarded by Digital Learning and Teaching Victoria. He is passionate about contemporary spaces, pedagogies and collaborative practices amongst educators. Anthony is an avid speaker at the local, state, national and international level. He can be contacted via his blog anthsperanza.global2.vic.edu.au or follow him on Twitter @anthsperanza
Anthony Speranza

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