Genius Hour is a very exciting concept  for me.  Providing students with the space during the school day to explore areas of their interest sounds very engaging.  Could this be a missing link in our schools? Is this a viable way to place voice and choice at the center of the classroom?   Could it all be this easy?     Yes… but not necessarily.

 We titled our Genius Hour Tabula Rasa. (Blank Slate)  We spent one day a week exploring a passion and then researched what it would take to turn that passion into  a career or endeavor. Through this, our intention was that students would develop the skill sets needed to be productive students, entrepreneurs, and citizens. The end product was the creation of a website that was their passionate professional selves (example) and an interview process that required them to apply and reflect on the process as if they were interviewing for that passionate career.

Our district has adopted the Marzano Framework so we placed our learning intentions in the form of a scale.  Within the scale, you will be able to see the various activities, techniques and structures we utilized during the unit to drive the learning.

In regards to day to day pedagogy, there were several areas that we tried to emphasize and deemphasize during the project.

  • Emphasize Conferencing: We spent a lot of time conferencing with students.  Here we would figure out what students had done or had not done.   We would ask for clarity and feedback, dilemmas they were facing, etc.
  • Deemphasize Grading:  We ended up grading.  This was unfortunate.  We did not want to utilize grading but when the time came for important targets to be assessed such as having a passion identified…students did not respond until we put a grade in front of them.  However, during the project, grades were not an emphasis
  • Emphasize Constant Reflection: We spent time in class talking about the purpose of education and what 21st Century education should look like.  We had a series of Socratic Seminars where we discussed pieces from James Baldwin, Tony Wagner, and Paulo Freire.  We tried to tie our learning goal and the project targets back to the ideas in these texts as well as the ideas generated by students during the seminar.
  • Deemphasize Deadlines: This one was interesting.  We had certain due dates for things, but did not “Fail” students or punish them when they did not meet the deadline.  Rather, we tried to use it as an opportunity for them to manage time and to self reflect and prioritize.
  • Emphasize getting out of the front of the room: This was hard to do initially.  We had the targets identified but we found ourselves hitting one target at a time and it felt like direct instruction masked as student centered.  Therefore, we tried as much as possible to be at the sides of our kids, not in front of them.

What our students said after the project

We ended the project with a debrief using a Tuning Protocol. We had two questions that drove the debrief. If we were to do this project again, what adjustments should we have made to improve upon the outcomes that are listed in the scale? What went well in this project and what did not go so well?

What students said went well

  • To really be successful on this project, you had to “adult up” and take ownership.  If you did not own this project then you probably did not do well.
  • The interview at the end of the project was helpful.  It helped us showcase what we had accomplished.
  • We really liked the creation of our websites that were our professional selves.
  • The project I feel grew on us towards the end.
  • The Socratic Seminars were the most beneficial.

What students said did not go well

  • As a 17 year old, how do I know what I am passionate about or what I want to do with my life.  I am still young.
  • We had no clear idea on what the end product was supposed to look like.
  • The project felt disorganized and inconsistent.  We felt we were running in circles especially when our passions did not align with any careers. We needed more guidance.
  • We should have focused on careers first rather than passions.
  • The lack of grades, due dates made everything too much towards the end.

What students said we should do differently

  • This should not be a school thing.  It should be a club.
  • We needed a rubric and something to tell us what to do. It was too abstract.
  • Clearer expectations of the end product.
  • We should stay with careers because what I am passionate about does not tie into my career.
  • Grades should be a part.  If it is not for a grade, what is the point?

What I learned and would do differently as a teacher after the project:

  • Many students have no idea what they were passionate about.  They had never been asked that question and in and of itself did not feel very “school like” to them.  Even after our seminars over owning their own learning and not waiting for school to do it for them, they were incessant that we did not provide enough for them to be successful.  This takes more time than I thought.
  • We have a lot of unlearning to do.  There are certainly many areas as a teacher that I would have done differently as we ended the project.  However, it has become apparent to me that we have students in our school who are “too dependent” on teacher ands “too motivated” by grades.    The conversations sometime need to stay here.  I would do more text based socratics about this.
  • My learning goal would be inquiry based. In thinking back, I feel our goal was too formal and too broad.  I am not sure the learning goal meant much to the kids or really drove the project.  There was too much in the goal. Our mantra was that the passion is the context and we are developing skills to be able to choose careers or endeavors regardless of that passion.  This is better known as Transfer theory in education.    If I were to rewrite our learning goal, it would be in the form of a question.  Inquiry should be the primary driver.
  • Deadlines would be more specific.  The deadline piece is one that is puzzling to me.  Deadlines many times in our world are flexible.  However, they do exist and when one is in constant flux in terms of deadlines, there can arise a counterproductive nature.  I think we would need to get tighter about certain time frames and evidence of learning needs to be set.  However, I still do not want to punish kids for not meeting deadlines.  Having a calendar with the dates ahead of time of when certain milestones should be hit would have been beneficial.
  • Grades will continue to be deemphasized. We reverted back to grades.  It is okay.  This will take time.  I am happy that grades were not a talking point till then end but students feel as if schools and grades are synonymous.   In most cases, they are unfortunately, just not in this project.
  • Explicitness is not a bad thing. We tried not tell student exactly what everything in the project should look like.  We were very explicit with our targets on the scale but not so much on what the results of those targets were.  We stayed abstract for a reason.  We did not want to stifle creativity by putting too much criteria in front of the kids; however, at times, good teaching requires explicitness and some of our students needed that.  It is about differentiation.

What I learned is what I have known all along.  To truly embrace student centered learning, to include voice and choice in your curriculum, to make school something more than just more school, is very difficult and much more laborious than traditional teaching.  Our schools have not changed much since 1893.  The ones who have changed, we are still not sure if what they are producing in regards to outcomes are any better than ours.  However, I am hopeful.  I am hopeful that work like Genius Hour gains traction and puts real world application, voice and choice at the center of the curriculum.  I am always hopeful.

I am curious as to your thoughts.