'Genius Hour' Lets Kids Take Charge: Would Einstein Have Liked This?

Quin, Ezra, and Owen participate in genius hour in teacher Melisa Hayes’ 2nd grade class at Avery Elementary School in Hilliard, Ohio.
Quin, Ezra, and Owen participate in genius hour in teacher Melisa Hayes’ 2nd grade class at Avery Elementary School in Hilliard, Ohio.
—Maddie McGarvey

Teachers open doors for students to pursue passion projects, but some educators warn against making it a free-for-all

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Imagine a school day in which students spend a chunk of time studying and pursuing a topic or project they're passionate about.

That's the premise of "genius hour," a growing trend in which teachers set aside time for students to work on a research or service project of their choice. Educators say it's a chance not normally given in schools for students to explore their interests, hone their creativity, and become an expert in a given field.

"Kids are really, really excited [about learning] because of the autonomy involved," said Gallit Zvi, a vice principal and grades 4-7 teacher at Brookside Elementary School in Surrey, British Columbia, who co-authored The Genius Hour Guidebook. "They have the ability to get better and better at something, and show their mastery at something, and get that respect among their peers."

Teachers have experimented with autonomous, student-driven learning for decades, but the formalized concept of genius hour actually stems from the business community. Nearly a decade ago, author Daniel Pink first popularized the term by describing how giving employees time and autonomy to explore their passions makes them happier, more productive workers.

Educators thought the concept made sense for schools, too. Teacher Denise Krebs was one early adopter who said she would try out a genius hour in her classroom and document her progress. Her students ended up feeling engaged and excited about their projects—and teachers around the world followed her lead.

There is no formula for how to implement genius hour in the classroom. Zvi said teachers should tweak the concept to fit their grade level, subject area, and students' needs. Still, she and co-author Krebs did develop six basic steps: inspire, wonder, question, learn, share, and reflect.

But the reflection doesn't need to include a grade, Zvi cautioned: "I think it takes away the part that makes genius hour so magical," she said. "The reason kids work so hard in genius hour is because it's not like regular school where they're trying to earn their grade. They're doing it because they pick that topic—because they really love it."

Even so, others say it's important to maintain high expectations for the work that students do during genius hour—and that can mean grades. As a compromise, many teachers say they grade the process of the research, rather than the end result.

"I don't think it's mutually exclusive to do something for the love of learning, and also hold yourself to some standards of quality while doing it," said Barbara Davidson, the president of StandardsWork, which advocates for the implementation of rigorous academic standards.

She said teachers should try to connect genius hours to what's already happening in the classroom to enrich students' learning, rather than having it be disconnected.

"Students digging into an area of interest that they have identified as a result of being exposed to a topic and really exploring their personal interest about that topic—there seems to be all kinds of good things that can flow from that," she said. "My concern would be if you start opening it up too widely, and you've got one-off student-directed topics of study that are outside of the sequence of instruction that the curriculum is presenting to them. That seems to me to potentially be taking time away from content and skills that are going to serve them better in many ways."

Education Week spoke to three educators—and some of their students—about how genius hour works in their classrooms. Here's what they had to say:

'This Is the Motivation They Need': Genius Hour in 2nd Grade

What would we do without water? Why was gymnastics invented? What would you do in Mexico if you only spoke English?

Those are some of the driving questions Melisa Hayes' 2nd grade students will explore this year. Hayes, who teaches at Avery Elementary School in Hilliard, Ohio, has been overseeing genius hour every Friday for four years now. The benefits for her young learners, she said, have been enormous.

"They're learning anything from social skills, leadership skills, and cooperation to researching skills [and] navigating on the web," she said. Students "are gaining the confidence, the spark for learning, or even the love of school again. Some of these kids might not like school, it might have been not as motivating, and maybe this is the motivation they need to love learning again."

One driving question during genius hour in Melisa Hayes’ class: What would we do without water?
One driving question during genius hour in Melisa Hayes’ class: What would we do without water?
—Maddie McGarvey for Education Week

This is the first year that Hayes has required her students to come up with a question to research during genius hour. In the past, students explored a general topic, but Hayes hopes that the shift will lead to more purposeful and enriching research.

One component that won't change: Once the students have researched their chosen topic, they will have to teach it to their classmates—no "sit 'n' get," Hayes said.

For example, students often choose to research animals during genius hour. They might then teach their classmates how to draw their chosen animal. Another child who researched recycling asked classmates to bring in recyclable items and then taught them how to turn the materials into an art project.

Hayes doesn't grade the genius-hour projects, but students follow a rubric, which provides expectations for each step, so they can monitor how their projects are going and reflect on whether they met their goals at the end. For instance, sometimes a student will present his project, and his classmates will ask questions that he doesn't know how to answer. The student will realize that he didn't gather enough background knowledge—and Hayes will give him time to learn more before presenting again.

"I want them to fail enthusiastically so they can succeed in the end," she said.

Differentiation is baked into the concept of genius hour, she said, so it's perfect for a wide array of learners. Last year, for instance, Hayes had a student with Down syndrome in her class who taught his classmates about "Sesame Street."

"I might have a child who's academically at a kindergarten level, and I might have a child who's academically at a 4th grade level. Their projects are completely different because it's based off where they are," she said.

Overall, Hayes said, genius hour has become a class highlight. Students are excited about their topics and are "more engaged than the norm."

"[Since] I started this, I've never had kids moan and groan," she said. "What they moan and groan about is after the hour, I'll say, 'OK, it's time to clean up,' and they're like, 'No, no, five more minutes!' "

Exploring Passions Outside of Standards: Genius Hour in 6th Grade

In 6th grade science, students typically are expected to learn about topics like energy, matter, and the different facets of the environment.

But during genius hour, 6th graders in Melissa Smith's science classroom have also learned about the elements of natural makeup, the chemistry of cooking, video-game design, and much more.

"It seems very daunting," Smith said of genius hour. "We already have too short amount a time to get X, Y, and Z done for our standards. But you can work [genius hour] into any content area to just make the content more engaging to students. When they have the voice and choice for a project, they buy into it so much more."

Smith, who teaches at William Monroe Middle School in Stanardsville, Va., said genius hour has encouraged creativity among her students, and it lets them explore science in a way that directly relates to their interests.

Madeline and Megan, who are now 7th graders, worked together on a genius-hour project last year in Smith's class. They're both interested in makeup, so Madeline studied the chemicals that are in different makeup brands to see how they reacted with sensitive skin, and Megan explored how to make natural, healthy makeup, including a lip kit with aloe vera and contour powder with essential oils and cocoa powder.

"I like makeup, I like playing around with it, so getting to have that interest in this class was really fun because I got to explore what I really like and what could be a future profession," Madeline said.

One concern Smith had at the beginning was whether students would use the flexibility of genius hour as an opportunity to slack off. To avoid that, she implemented checkpoints throughout the genius-hour unit. Students also learned about the difference between "thick" and "thin" questions.

"As they were developing their project ideas, they were guided toward big-idea questions that needed more research and needed more time to do as compared to something very simple that could just be researched on Google," she said.

This year, Smith's administrators have implemented a schoolwide genius hour. Every Monday, students have 30 minutes of "flex time" during which they can explore and research a passion that relates to any subject area. There is no official grade or credit attached to this schoolwide project, Smith said, but students work closely with their "flex" teacher to set goals and monitor progress.

Smith has since adjusted how genius hour works in her science class. This year, when her students have mastered the standards of a given unit, they can choose a genius-hour project that relates to the unit. Not all students will get to participate in genius hour every unit—some might need the time to continue to work on mastering the standards—but Smith hopes it will serve as enrichment for those who do.

After all, students say that genius hour makes class more interesting. "I really like researching and learning about things that I really enjoy, and sometimes when you sit through a lesson, it's kind of boring," Madeline said. "Having that kind of independent time is very beneficial to me."

Students Guiding Their Own Learning: Genius Hour in High School

In Nikki Healy's English class last year, Rashad spent a portion of time working closely with his chemistry teacher. During genius hour, the then-junior learned how to build a water purification system.

"I actually got to utilize my creativity in a sense. It wasn't copy and paste on what I've been doing my whole life when it comes to English class—'you're going to have to write a paper, you're going to have to read this book,' " said Rashad, who is now a senior. "You're actually doing something you're interested in. It's like making a research paper, but actually utilizing the information you're learning. "

Encouraging that real-world exploration in her students is why Healy, who teaches at Middle College High School in Nashville, Tenn., does genius hour. Healy has "looped" with some of her students, so several have done genius hour together during their sophomore and junior years and now will do it again in their senior year.

"I'm a big advocate for student voice and choice in all aspects," she said. "This was something they were very into because they got to choose. ... It was out-of-the-box thinking. They got to guide their own learning—they were entrusted with that, and that proved to be really powerful."

Even with the student-centered approach, genius hour hit on some of the same standards a traditional research paper would, Healy said. Students had to pitch their project to their peers to get feedback, research their topic through informational texts, create a bibliography, and present their finished project to the class.

"Also, we hit those speaking and listening skills that are often forgotten," Healy said. "If you're doing a research paper, you're not standing up in front of your peers and communicating it to them. That's definitely a college-and-career-readiness skill that genius hour can provide."

In years past, students who were interested in coding taught themselves how to code games. One student was interested in learning cake decorating and how to work with fondant, icing used for pastries and cakes. He had never baked before, but he learned how to make a cake and then decorated it as Spider-Man.

But the open-ended nature of genius hour can also be a challenge for students who aren't used to having that level of freedom in their assignments, Healy said. "To [some] students, it's scary if you're not saying, 'Here's your task, here's what you have to do, and here's what's expected,' " she said. "Unfortunately, that's how school often is. To have that kind of ambiguous, 'OK, I get to choose?' is often scary, and there are learners who need to have that model of what it looks like and how it can be successful and how they can be unique and authentic in what they're working on."

But once they get comfortable with exercising their voice and choice, Healy said students become excited and engaged about their projects.

Vol. 39, Issue 12, Pages 20-22

Published in Print: November 6, 2019, as 'Genius Hour' Lets Kids Take Charge
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