In various forms including 20% time, personal passion projects, and Genius Hour teachers are experimenting and refining opportunities for students to take the lead in their learning. The idea is simple, identify a block of time and give it over to the students as an opportunity for them to create a learning experience of their own. It is an opportunity for them to pursue a passion, expand on a hobby, explore a topic of interest or express a creative interest that they might not otherwise engage with at school. But while the idea is simple implementing such a plan can be challenging and there are aspects of such a project that require careful planning and a clear philosophical understanding before you begin.
The philosophy behind Genius Hour is that it provides students with an opportunity to explore a project of their design. The degree of control offered to students will inherently be much greater than in a typical classroom where the teacher largely sets the agenda. In a Genius Hour environment students are free to choose what they do. Recently there has been debate as to what if any limitations or structure should be placed on top of this basic assumption that students have choice over what they do and how they do it. Having run a ‘Personal Passion Project’ for eight years I believe I can offer some insights here as to what is likely to produce the most engaging experience for the students and what level of scaffolding will ensure projects are completed and the learning potential of this time is maximised.
Firstly I need to be clear, choice is important. Giving students choices about what they do and how they do it is essential for engagement not just in a Genius Hour environment but in all aspects of their schooling. Students come to our classes with inquiring minds and questions that they need to find answers to. In an earlier post I discuss the importance of not only asking the right questions but of allowing the students to be the ones finding, sharing and answering their questions. Allowing students to take charge and set the questions they will answer for their Genius Hour project is essential for its success.
The role that choice plays in motivating learners is well founded in teacher beliefs. Flowerday and Schraw (2002) focused on a phenomenological study of teacher beliefs about choice and found that teachers believe choice matters to students and that the level of choice offered should increase with age and ability. Ryan & Decci (2000) refer to numerous studies that show increased levels of self-regulation can be fostered by providing autonomy (choice), secure connections to carers and supporting perceptions of competence. Their research points to a clear role for choice and autonomy in developing intrinsic motivation and in moving learners from highly controlled extrinsic motivation to what they term ‘integrated regulation’ where the goals and objectives of the learning are in alignment with the individuals. 'To integrate a regulation, people must grasp its meaning and synthesize that meaning with respect to their other goals and values. Such deep, holistic processing (Kuhl & Fuhrmann, 1998) is facilitated by a sense of choice, volition, and freedom from excessive external pressure toward behaving or thinking a certain way.’ (Ryan & Decci p74, 2000).
AJ Juliani has literally written the book on choice in learning and relates it directly to his experience with ‘20% time’ and ‘Genius Hour projects’. ‘Learning by Choice’ outlines his views and research on the need for choice in learning and its impact on student engagement. Choice is definitely a factor to consider in planning a Genius Hour project but it is not the only one and should not distract you from other objectives. The level and type of choice offered is what matters most. Students need to feel that the project is theirs, that it is of their design and is based on their passions and interests. It needs to pursue their big questions. The trick is then weaving all of this into a project that will meet other educational objectives and allow an experience of success.
Recently I watched an episode of ‘Dragons Den’ a reality TV show where budding entrepreneurs pitch an idea to a panel of business tycoons. As I watched I drew a parallel to the Genius Hour projects that have not worked so well. Two entrepreneurs were presenting a design for an emergency survival jacket made of silver space blanket material. Their design was lightweight, could be worn like a jacket, allowed movement and retained heat around the body with greater efficiency than a typical thermal blanket. But they failed to impress the ‘Dragons’. What they had not done was to adequately evaluate the potential for the idea, its market or revenues. They were not able to adequately tell the story of their idea and missed an opportunity to bring a good idea to market. What this pair and many of the others who fail to gain support for their ideas needed was experience with evaluating an idea and moving it from an interesting idea to an innovative product capable of capturing the imagination of its audience. A goal for Genius Hour projects should be this sort of learning. Students need to evaluate their ideas, learn how to share them with peers and experts, and through a design process refine them. They also need to know what ideas they should hang on to and which ones they should let go of and they need to learn how to do this. Fortunately there are processes for this sort of thinking.
This year has been a chance for reflection on the processes we have used with the Personal Passion Projects. A chance to focus on what has worked and what has not. Part of this reflective process has involved looking at the sort of scaffolds we provide our students. Our research led us to the ideas of ‘Design Thinking’ and in this field we have found the sort of structure our students need to apply to their Genius Hour projects. In the past we had used the design cycle model developed for the International Baccalaureate as a guide and way of encouraging the students to think about the connected design phases of investigation, planning, creating and evaluating. This year we are introducing a more structured cycle that we hope will support students through this process; The Creative Process Planner. To develop this we have borrowed ideas from IDEO, Design Thinking for Educators, the Nueva School, NoTosh, A More Beautiful Question, Bloom’s taxonomy Habits of Mind and our past experience. It is a process that is adaptable to multiple creative endeavours, includes research, questioning, sharing (both early in the process and at the end), opportunities for refinement of plans and prototypes and for evaluation.
In a 2013 blog post Ewan McIntosh shared his concerns about '20% time projects’ writing 'The problem is, that students given this open stretch of time often don't know what to do, or beyond their initial couple of passions they run out of steam. Their end-products are largely under par of their capacity.’ He urges caution with an entirely open approach and suggests that schools must make sure that 'student-directed time is nonetheless tied to the vision of the project in hand, the core business of the class in that semester or term.’ I agree. As a school that has adopted Harvard’s ‘Teaching for Understanding’ model we identify a series of big ideas or through lines which connect student learning across terms and semesters. It is those ideas that guide what and how we teach and provide a sense of purpose to the experiences we want our students to have. It is these big ideas that we are able to target through the Genius Hour projects as the research process, the design thinking, the freedom of choice and the questioning are highly relevant. Expressed as questions our Big Ideas served by a Genius Hour model are:
- How might we make sense of the information available to us?
- How might we create a culture of thinking and learning?
- How and why do we create an environment of collaboration?
- How can we be creative problem finders and solvers?
- How do we use language to communicate with our audience?
Not that Genius Hour is the only way we address these ideas but it is one in which the level of student autonomy offered allows us to see evidence of understanding not as clearly evident through other means. Genius Hour offers students the opportunity to apply and extend their learning connected to these ideas into new settings thus creating uniquely personalised performances of understanding.
For some students the process of planning and then implementing that plan comes naturally. Sometimes this is a result of the student’s innate learning style, at other times it flows from the nature of their project as one phase of the plan leads naturally to the next. Many students struggle with this process and the initial enthusiasm for the project wanes as they discover the need for a detailed plan. We introduced the project to our students with a visit from a project planner because we want the students to understand that this is such an important part of a successful project it has spawned a profession. We wanted our students to recognise that the quality of their plan will enhance their final project and allow them to enjoy the process along the way. We have thus developed a planning scaffold to guide them through the process and this is where we are likely to incur the wrath of Genius Hour puritans.
There are those who believe strongly an essential element of a Genius Hour project is that students have total freedom; freedom to pursue any interest in any manner and without an expectation that the project will be completed. At its extreme this is the adoption of the ‘fail fast’ or 'move fast and break things’ credo of the hacker/software community. That a maturing Facebook has recently shifted from this ideology is a fair sign that long term it may not be a workable strategy. We want our students to have choice in their projects, but we also want them to result in projects that get finished and that demonstrate a wide range of learning objectives. To do this we need to provide a measure of scaffolding but we must do so in a way that will allow our students to develop 'long life skills' for managing this style of learning and creating.
The scaffolding we have developed aims to support students as they engage with the processes that would come naturally to a skilled and experienced project manager. They embed ‘design thinking’ and reflect the stages of the ‘Creative Process Planner’. Our students are relatively young and this is their first experience of a Genius Hour style project. As such the scaffolding caters for little to no experience with this style of learning. We would hope that from this experience students begin to internalise the process and for future projects require less structure and guidance from the scaffolds provided. Ultimately we want them to have the knowledge and skills to scaffold their own learning. As Ewan states 'Any piece of creative genius generally stems from some healthy design constraints set out at the start.’ and we hope this scaffolding allows the students to establish those for themselves while retaining ownership and agency.
Schools are busy places with multiple pressures on the time we have. It is right and proper to ask questions about how we use that time and how we ensure we are maximising the learning opportunities available to students. Autonomy and choice are important elements to be included across our curriculum and it would be disappointing if a student’s singular experience of this was within a Genius Hour project. If nothing else restricting this sort of learning opportunity to one element of the day devalues its overall importance and could be seen as permission for an overly restrictive environment to pervade the remainder of the child’s day. Our students deserve many opportunities to practice their ‘long life skills’ and to become agentic learners with experiences behind them that reveal the success they are capable of.
By Nigel Coutts
Flowerday, T., & Schraw, G. (2003). Effect of choice on cognitive and affective engagement. The Journal Of Educational Research, 96(4), 207-215.
Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78