Lessons Learned from Genius Hour

After eight years of engaging our students with a Personal Passion Project during Term Four we shifted to a ‘Genius Hour’ model for 2015. In the end the results from the students were impressive but along the way some lessons were learned and we are looking forward to making some minor tweaks for 2016 that should further enhance the learning opportunities. What remains clear is that students given the opportunity to bring their passions into the classroom produce results that go above and beyond expectation. It has also been obvious that success is linked to the establishment of conditions that encourage risk taking and reinforce the importance of learning and design as an iterative experience.

The key difference from previous years was that students started their projects late in Term One and had time each week during Terms Two, Three and Four to develop and then implement their plans. An hour was allocated in the timetable for this and we were able to have all five Year Six classes working on their Genius Hour projects at the same time. This allowed opportunities to combine as a year and to share ideas across classes thus creating opportunities for students to share ideas with colleagues who had a common interest. It also allowed us to invite guest speakers to visit the Year Group and share ideas from their careers. To facilitate this, we reached out to our school community and had offers of support from project managers, technologists and graphic designers. Each visiting expert added a new dimension and deeper understanding of the process that the students would be engaging with while revealing the real-world applications of what the students were doing; finding questions, imagining solutions, developing plans and managing projects.

Early on we introduced students to the importance of finding the right project to explore. To do this they needed to identify their personal passion and then connect this with a question that had real significance. We introduced students to ‘A More Beautiful Question’ as a resource and shared examples of questions that led to the discovery of new ways of solving challenges. With an understanding of the process and the seed of an idea students spent the next few weeks planning their projects. In keeping with the application of a ‘Design Thinking’ approach these plans remained open to change throughout the year and the final products and solution in many cases showed significant diversions from what was originally imagined. Understanding that this is inevitable is something we will cover in our initial introductions for 2016.

The diversity of student projects was one of the highlights. We had a number of students who selected projects connected with novel writing and the results were impressively evolved and interesting works of fiction. A group of students with an interest in fashion and fabric crafts emerged and supported each other in the process of learning to sew. While their projects had some common elements differences in approach and desired result showed the complexity of the projects the students imagine. We are fortunate to have expertise in this area amongst our staff and are able to call on specialist teachers from our Senior School to fill in the gaps. More importantly the projects create real learning opportunities for all involved as problems emerge and solutions are discovered through a collaborative learning experience. The danger of teacher expertise stomping on student discovery never became an issue partly due to careful teaching practice in not revealing the answer too early in the process but also through a genuine need for shared learning that resulted from the originality of the projects.

Some rather unique projects emerged and presented interesting learning opportunities. One boy wanted to construct a set of shin guards that would combine fiberglass and foam to offer an increased level of protection and comfort. With no prior experience of using fiberglass, teacher and student had to combine our learning skills to discover a process that would work. Plans were made and changed, and evolved as we experimented with options and relied on internet sources to discover a workable solution. In the end he had a pair of shin pads that met his original expectations and show promise as a new design. Another novel project was a dog sitting service loosely modelled after ‘Air BnB’ that through a website connects people requiring dog minding with people willing to provide such a service in their homes. The aim is to provide pet minding services in locations where there is presently nothing available and at a low cost.

A number of students took on artistic projects. One of the standouts was a book of candid portraits taken of students as they worked in class. The portraits reveal the subjects’ characters and emotions as they engage with their learning and were beautifully presented in a printed book. One student imagined a tree made of recycled chop-sticks. This project took on rather massive proportions and involved hundreds if not thousands of carefully washed and assembled chop-sticks. Other projects included photographic collages, hand crafted lamp shades and a collection of purses woven from plastic shopping bags. We had students working on electronics projects, go carts and a snowboard adapted for use on a trampoline.

With all of this making happening it became clear that we were a little unprepared from a tool and resource perspective. This will be partly solved for 2016 with the creation of a Makerspace with enhanced access to the resources required. We will also have a set of tools and a mobile workbench available for each of our Year Six classes. These additional resources will bring a need to up-skill the students in the use of new tools but should also allow them to imagine new solutions. Understanding what is possible is one area that some students have struggled with in the past so we plan to include an introduction to making as part of our planning process for the future.

For some students the process of implementing their plans presented new challenges. Obstacles and failed prototypes were not always seen as a step towards success. This demonstrated the importance of understanding that design is an iterative process with failure as a necessary and unavoidable component. Such experiences bring opportunities for a practical application of our ongoing conversations about the benefits of a ‘Growth Mindset’. A benefit here was that the making process provides inherent feedback as to what doesn’t work. The challenge has been to establish a culture that supports experimentation with a suitable expectation of quality. The expectation of quality was supported by the looming reality that the projects would be presented to a real audience at the end of year ‘Gallery Walk’.

Throughout the year we were able to make some little tweaks to the way that ‘Genius Hour’ functioned. One was that we were able to add extra time in Term Four beyond the prescribed hour and this allowed students to spend longer blocks of time on their project works. The planning process we had imagined did not suit all students and this was modified and adapted as we went. For 2016 we plan to further modify our use of this time with students completing three projects throughout the year rather than one. Students will begin with a short research based project in Term One in which they select the topic and method of presentation. In Term Two students will explore through de-construction a product of their choice and then collaboratively design an improved version. With these two self managed projects behind them students should be well prepared for a larger scale project in Term Three and will again benefit from additional time in Term Four to complete their ideas.

With each iteration we learn more about the inclusion of Design Thinking, student passions and project based learning within our yearly programme. Each year the students amaze us with what they produce and they leave us with greatly enhanced confidence in their abilities to manage difficult and complex learning experiences. Running a ‘Genius Hour’ project can at times be exhausting and messy and challenging for all involved. The pay off is a learning experience on a grand scale that provides a solid platform for future growth.

By Nigel Coutts

With thanks to Clare McPhillips, Amber Bidwell, Jo Robinson & Jake Turnbull