Some classrooms are building in time for students to work on passion projects
The projects teach students how to learn from failure, teachers said
Still, "genius hour" can be a tough sell for parents, and even students
When snow days piled up this winter, seventh-grader Emily Born was upset. It wasn’t that she always loved school, or that she had a big test coming up and needed her teacher’s help. No, the student from Thomas Middle School in Arlington Heights, Illinois, was sad to miss out on her “genius hour.”
That’s an 80-minute period every Monday during which Emily and her classmates work on projects entirely of their choosing. Over months of study, Emily and her friends have spent their time researching running shoes – what people prefer and why.
“It’s definitely the highlight of my week,” says Emily, 12. “It’s not a project a teacher assigned, it’s something that actually interests you, and it gets you learning in different ways from what we do the rest of the day at school.”
Her classroom’s “genius hour” was inspired by Google’s 20% time initiative, which allows employees to dedicate 20% of working hours to their own ideas. The concept is now catching on in schools, usually rooted in the idea of student-led passion projects with a focus on creating and sharing.
Teachers said it’s part of a larger movement in education to promote student-driven learning, ensuring that young people learn to think for themselves. Educators across grade levels are asking students to come up with their own questions, do their own research and form their own conclusions.
Nicholas Provenzano’s students at Grosse Pointe South High School in Michigan maintain 20 Time blogs where they post weekly about projects ranging from documenting Detroit, going vegetarian, learning Polish and how to make T-shirts.
The English teacher was inspired by conversations on Twitter, and launched 20 Time this fall after a summer of planning and setting guidelines for students to follow. A key one on his list of “commandments”: “Failure IS an option.”
Amid pressure to pass tests and succeed, letting students know that failure is acceptable allows them to take risks, said Provenzano, who documents his experience with 20 Time on his website, “The Nerdy Teacher.”
“With genius hour, failure is an acceptable result and the emphasis is in learning from failure. This allows student to push themselves and take risks. Traditional learning environments do not support that approach.”
“I asked my students what they liked about this project and the most common response was that they loved the freedom to explore what they are passionate about instead of just doing the work they have been assigned by teachers. That freedom is what motivates them to explore big ideas and take ownership of their learning.”
In an era when standardized tests dominate education conversations, it can be tough for teachers to sell administrators, parents and even students on the idea. But there’s a lot for students to learn when they have some freedom, teachers said. It’s one hour of the week when failure isn’t just an option – it’s a learning opportunity.
“It’s getting kids to learn on their own and become lifelong learners,” said Joy Kirr, Emily Born’s teacher in Arlington Heights, Illinois, and a genius hour evangelist. “They’re not going to have teachers to help them throughout life. They’re going to be on their own.”
Selling the idea to parents
Inspired by a talk about design thinking in schools, Kirr began in February 2012 to dedicate one class period each week to student-driven learning.
She didn’t give it a name; she simply told students she wanted to try something different to encourage more reading. Instead of assigning books, students would choose their own, and discuss them with the class.
Some students were excited, but others were confused. Two girls actually cried, Kirr said.
“They were so into grades and being told what to do, and they thought quarterly book projects were fine,” she said. “All I wanted to do was take fabricated teacher assignments and make them more student-led.”
Those weekly open reading session evolved into time for students to work on projects of their own choosing.
“At first, I said, ‘Let’s just read and share what we read,’” Kirr said. Now she tells them to “read, be inspired by what you read, and act on it,” an idea she picked up from Iowa educator Erin Olson.
Over time, Kirr said, she recognized the need to build in more structure in order to keep students on task. Now, genius hour includes regular one-on-one conferences, biweekly goal-setting and self-evaluation. Upon completion, students share what they learned in a class presentation. Kirr and a colleague work continuously to make sure the projects meet the school’s curriculum standards, especially to make students into better readers, writers, communicators and listeners.
Kirr also learned the importance of educating parents early and often. As unfamiliar as genius hour seemed for kids, it’s even less familiar to adults. Kirr reflects on genius hour on her personal blog and celebrates students’ progress on her classroom blog.
She includes updates in biweekly emails to parents and offered a detailed explanation during a curriculum night early in the school year.
That’s where she sold Emily Born’s mother on the idea.
As a mother of three and substitute teacher, Sara Born wondered how her Kirr would manage a room of students working on different projects. But she found Kirr’s emphasis on one-on-one conferences reassuring, has seen the follow-through, she said.
“Mrs. Kirr described conferencing with kids, not to tell them what to do but to lead them in right direction, and she has stayed true to that,” she said.
Plus, she likes that genius hour is ongoing. Most of the time, students complete assignments and immediately forget about them. Because it’s student-driven, they make decisions to pivot on their own.
“Sometimes, the ideas fail and they move on. They have to learn to adapt and I love that,” Sara Born said.
On a practical level, her daughter is learning to brainstorm, interview people, write professional letters and collect data – all with a larger goal than just finishing a worksheet.
Perhaps most significantly, her daughter was “heartbroken” when she had to miss school this year because of snow days.
“How can you not love something that makes your kid enjoy going to school?” she said.
Early on, Emily said it wasn’t so easy. She struggled to come up with an idea until she and her friends found themselves discussing which sneaker brands were best. That, they decided, would be the perfect subject to explore on their own.
They searched for an answer online but realized that sneaker preference was a matter of opinion. So, they shifted the focus of their project. They came up with a list of questions and surveyed students. Then, with their teacher’s help, they posted an online survey and got students, parents and teachers from other schools to respond.
After a few months of gathering opinions, they hit another wall: What to do next? They decided to put the sneakers through more empirical testing with the help of their science teacher. To get the sneakers, they wrote letters asking for samples from eight brands that had come up in their surveys.
It was intimidating at first, Emily said. Never before had she written a formal letter or called a company to request information.
“It helped me get over fear of talking to someone important,” she said. “It’s helped me in so many ways.”
For one, it has helped her learn to brainstorm and interact with others and have confidence in her own ideas “instead of agreeing with others,” she said.
Oh, and, she learned a lot about sneakers: Color and style mean a lot to consumers, she discovered, but comfort, support and function are important, too, especially among runners. She was stunned to learn that some people have shoes just to use on treadmills or on the street.
Personally, she said, she’s not sold on the idea of multiple sneakers for different purposes – but maybe it’s worth more study.
Selling the idea to students
For students, the toughest part of a personal project is coming up with the idea. Schools just haven’t trained them to think that way, teachers said.
In Julie Oliver’s third-grade classroom at Warner Elementary School in Spring Arbor, Michigan, she keeps the expectations posted for all to see: “I will learn, I will work, and I will share.”
Inspired by teachers who shared their experiences on Twitter, Oliver started experimenting with genius hour in the fall. She and another teacher came up with a list of ideas about early Michigan landforms and state symbols for students to research and create a presentation. During the holiday season, the topic was Christmas, which led to reports about Christmas in other countries, different names for Santa Claus around the world and a decoration created in the Japanese holiday tradition. In January, students came up with their own ideas, leading to a Pinewood Derby car, tree frog research and a dollhouse made out of cardboard.
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“I learned that sometimes you don’t have enough time for all the stuff you want to do,” said 8-year-old Jesse Pratt, who designed a marble run at school and built it at home with his father. “I thought it would turn out differently, but it’s actually pretty cool the other way it turned out.”
Executing the projects has been a series of “baby steps,” teacher Oliver said, and there are kinks to work out this first year. She’s considering keeping a list of projects for students who have a hard time coming up with their own. She’s also learning about how to be flexible while managing a classroom of students on different timetables. Extra eyes and hands would be helpful, she said, especially for children “who don’t do well with freedom.”
Still, she’s encouraged by her students’ response and how they “beg” for genius-hour time. For now, it’s split between 45 minutes on Thursdays and another 20 on Fridays.
“The thing that I really really love is that this is student-driven,” Oliver said. “The child gets to decide what types of things interest him or her and run with it. They are encouraged to think outside the box, be creative, and be risk-takers. It is OK to fail and try again.”
Thomas Middle School’s Kirr tried to inspire students with a video explaining 30-day projects, in which students take on a task or goal and commit to it for 30 days.
The video inspired Izzy Kurbat’s genius-hour project: drawing pictures 50 days in a row based on a list of themes she brainstormed with classmates. Once she finished the pictures, she moved on to her next project: writing a novel based in part on the fantasy world she created in her images.
Izzy likes the project because school can be “rigid,” she said, offering few opportunities to learn about topics of interest to her, and fewer opportunities to work closely with teachers and classmates. But this is still a school assignment, with goals and deadlines.
“It’s not like you say ‘I’m gonna write a novel,’ then five years later you still haven’t done it,” she said. “You have to do it.”
Her mother said the project boosted her daughter’s confidence in her artistic ability. Being able to pursue her passion for fantasy and science fiction in school – and to have the project supported so enthusiastically by her teacher – validates what she loves, Mary Kurbat said.
“It’s an hour your kid gets to learn about herself, and that is really important at this age, when she’s trying to figure out her place in world,” she said.
“There’s not a lot of freedom in education right now. There’s still so much emphasis on standardized testing. This is a tiny little bit of freedom in a safe environment to explore and push boundaries and there are no bad repercussions.”