We hear all the time about how we need to give students more choice. About how we should be helping them discover their passions, how we need more student-directed, inquiry-based learning in the classroom. But all of that can feel like a load of abstract, pie-in-the-sky hooey without practical instructions for how to actually do it. We need a structure, a format, a plan for delivering this kind of experience.
Good news: That plan is here, and it’s called Genius Hour. More and more teachers are implementing this brilliant learning practice in their own classrooms. Chances are, you already have a pretty good idea of what Genius Hour is. You might even have it on your list of things to try “some day.” If that day hasn’t come yet, it’s probably because you have some unanswered questions.
So to help you out, I invited my friend A.J. Juliani to answer the 10 most frequently asked questions about Genius Hour. A.J. is the Director of Technology and Innovation for Centennial School District in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He did his first Genius Hour project back when he was an 11th grade English teacher, and since then has supported many other teachers as they implement Genius Hour in their own classrooms.
Now A.J. has created a full online course, the Genius Hour Master Course*, where he walks teachers step-by-step through the implementation process. (Learn more about the course at the end of this post!) The teachers who are already enrolled are seeing incredible results with their students, so I wanted to share some of A.J.’s wisdom with you and maybe get you one step closer to trying Genius Hour in your own classroom. To learn more about the course, scroll to the bottom of this post. In the meantime, there’s plenty here to keep you busy!
1. What is Genius Hour? Is it different from 20 percent time?
Genius Hour is a teaching practice that has absolutely exploded in popularity over the last couple of years. It’s where the teacher sets aside a certain amount of time every week or every day—maybe one class period per week or one hour per day in an all-day classroom setting—for students to learn about whatever they want. “There are lots of terms for it,” Juliani says. “Genius Hour and 20 percent time are probably the terms people are using right now the most for this kind of inquiry-based learning, but that’s really what both are at their heart.”
2. Is Genius Hour just “do whatever you want,” or is there a way to structure it?
If teachers want a Genius Hour project to be successful, they definitely need to structure it. “Even though students get to choose, and they have the freedom of choice,” Juliani says, “the project is very, very much structured and put together. And I think it has to be in order for students to actually have the ability to get to the final end result.” In our interview, he outlined how the basic structure works:
Step 1: Planning
First, Juliani says, teachers need to decide how much time they are going to set aside, and when that’s going to happen. “Whatever works in your classroom, in your school, with your curriculum, I think dictates how much time.”
Step 2: Topic Selection
After introducing the project to students, they choose what they are going to learn and what product they are going to create at the end to demonstrate their learning.
Step 3: The Pitch
Next comes the “Shark Tank” phase. Juliani explains how this works: “Each student either puts together four slides, and it’s 30 seconds to a minute long, and basically what they tell their peers in the class is (1) What they’re going to make, what they’re going to learn. (2) Why they’re going to learn it. Why they want to learn it. Why they want to make what they’re going to make. (3) How they’re going to go about doing it, kind of a brief schedule of how they’re going to get there. And (4) What would be a success in their mind?”
Step 4: Research, Learning, and Documentation
Now students start learning the thing they said they were going to learn. “Kids might go to the library and research some things, or they may pull out technology and research,” Juliani explains. “The teacher really facilitates where they’re going to research and kind of get information. They could be watching videos. They could be talking to people who are experts. They could be reading books or articles. So research doesn’t have to be typing something into a database. There’s lots of different ways students can research the world.”
At the same time, students are also sharing their progress along the way. “You want to have them documenting in their journal, sharing on a blog, doing videos and sharing them on YouTube, doing a podcast,” says Juliani, “because they want to share out what they’re doing with the world. You don’t want to keep this hidden. You want to actually put it out there.” Doing this builds classroom community and helps students learn from each other.
Step 5: Making
“You don’t want to spend too much time in the research phase, because you really want to get into the making, creating, designing phase and start building your project into a reality,” Juliani says. “For many students, this is where they get a little bit fearful, right? They’re scared that they’re going to fail. They’re scared it’s not going to turn out well. And so what I suggest is you put up what we call ‘epic failure’ boards. As the teacher, you share out when you fail, and you get kids, every time they come in the class for Genius Hour, putting up on there, ‘Hey, here’s how I failed on my project this week.’ And you’re celebrating those failures as steps toward success.”
Step 6: Presentations
After the students have made their final products, they present them to their peers. The presentation can take a lot of different forms, Juliani says. “I’ve seen classrooms do TED-style talks where they live stream students doing three- to five-minute presentations and classrooms do gallery walk museum, wax museum, inviting parents in, community members, and putting it out there.”
Step 7: Reflection
“After the presentation,” Juliani says, “you have to take time to show the world what you made, what you did, and also reflect. What went well? What did you learn? What do you want to keep on learning? How’s this going to keep growing?”
3. How do I grade Genius Hour work?
Those in the Genius Hour community handle this one differently, and whether or not this kind of project should be graded at all is still up for debate, but Juliani recommends that teachers grade students’ work during the whole process, rather than the final product. To do this, he uses something called a GRIT rubric. “It’s an acronym, and it stands for guts, resiliency, integrity, tenacity. It allows you to grade the process of students each and every time they come in or overall on, basically, are they having guts in the process? Are they actually taking on a challenge? Are they having integrity? Are they not cutting corners? Are they following through? Are they having the tenacity to go after something big? And are they having the resiliency if things don’t go well to bounce back?”
4 & 5. How do I find time for Genius Hour in an already packed schedule? Can Genius Hour meet my required standards?
For some teachers, Juliani says, a Genius Hour project is a natural fit with existing coursework. This would be the case in an all-day elementary classroom or in any English language arts class, regardless of the grade level, because nonfiction reading and writing are being emphasized so much these days in many standards. In other classes, teachers may need to get more creative. “There was one elementary school that really couldn’t fit it into their typical elementary school day, until the librarian said, ‘Hey, I’m going to do it during my library block.’ Library connected to research, connected to reading, and it fit right in there. I had a middle school science teacher tied it to the lab work that they do, where they research something and they create something in kind of the STEM subjects, and so they connected it there. So I think it’s first just finding those pieces in your curriculum that overlap with inquiry and kind of seeing where it could fit in there. It’s going to be different for everyone.”
Teachers may also use Genius Hour as a special project during times when it’s harder to get much academic work done. “A lot of folks have chosen to do Genius Hour projects in their class right around the time of state testing. It’s a way for students to learn and have fun and actually be thoroughly engaged in school during that window of time that traditionally is just not that fun for kids.”
As for standards, “This project hits so many of the common core and other types of standards,” says Juliani. “Everything from standards that connect to reading and researching, standards that connect to analyzing and applying. Standards that connect to writing and presenting, creating and evaluating. And then you have standards for mathematical practice, ones like construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. Another standard for model of mathematics. So you’re hitting a lot of them in a Genius Hour project.”
6. What if students want to study something weird or inappropriate?
Juliani believes we shouldn’t reject a topic right off the bat if it’s something unusual or completely unfamiliar to us; we might just need to learn more about it or send students to someone who shares their interest. “If you get a topic like that, and you’re kind of really uneasy about it and not really sure, talk to some other teachers, talk to some professionals and see.” But if it’s inappropriate, he says, reinforce the idea that although they have free choice, the choice has to be something appropriate for a school assignment. “Just say, ‘Hey, this is still school. It’s got to be appropriate.'”
7. What if students just slack off instead of working?
When students don’t take to Genius Hour right away, Juliani advises us to proceed slowly. “Just focus on the kid, because if they’re not invested in this, there’s probably some other things going on. So it’s about coming alongside of them as a guide and a real teacher and building that relationship first, then those other pieces start to fall into place as you kind of work with them.”
He recommends three strategies for helping students who get stuck or seem uninterested in the project:
- First, talk with the student about life, not the project. “I think often we want to kind of just jump ahead and kind of force them down a path, but Genius Hour is as much about students finding what they’re passionate about as it is about them kind of finding themselves. So I would talk with a student about life. ‘Hey, what’s going on at home? How are things going?’ Talk to them about their interests. Come to find out what they’re interested in.”
- If that doesn’t get the student back on track with a topic they’re truly invested in, the next step would be to ask them for help. “If they’re not going to be able to work on a project, I wouldn’t just let them sit there. I’d say, ‘Hey. If you’re not going to work on a project, let’s go help somebody else. Let’s see what John’s doing over here or see what Susie’s doing over here, and let’s go.’ And that lets them know in just a nice and friendly way that, ‘Hey, I’m not giving you an F for this project, but you’re going to do something. You’re either going to do what you want to do, or you’re going to help somebody else.'”
- Finally, “I’d help them find a new purpose. Sometimes they get stuck on the passion part. They get stuck on ‘I’m not really that interested in something.’ And so now I’d start the opposite way, which is, ‘Let’s find a purpose. What have you ever wanted to make? What have you wanted to build?’ ‘What job do you want when you’re older?’
8. How do I convince parents, my administrator, or my colleagues that Genius Hour is worth trying?
“When you start this, Juliani says, “tell your colleagues what you’re doing. Invite them in your classroom. Show them other Genius Hour presentations and let them see what the end result of this is. With parents, send a letter home.Tell them what’s going on in your class. Invite them into the classroom. Share your student blogs, give regular updates to your parents, to your colleagues, to your administrator, and then finally invite them into the presentations as well. Whatever type of presentation you’re doing, invite them in, bring them together, share it out with people, be as transparent as possible.”
9. Will this work with younger students?
“In K-2, it works really well,” Juliani says. “Now, the researching might look different. Maybe they’re not reading to research. Maybe they’re watching some presentations, they’re watching videos, they’re looking around the world, right? Their purposes may differ too. They may not want to build a video game or clone carnivorous plants. But their purposes may differ as well. The end products are going to look different. The presentations are going to look different. But the learning is going to be just as powerful in kindergarten, first and second grade.”
10. How do I get started?
“Start with just a day or two,” Julani says, “Start with an hour where students are just kind of going through this process really quickly. Like, what do you want to learn? Take a whole period just to learn something and tell everybody at the end of the period what you learned, why you wanted to learn it. Just kind of get that inquiry going in the classroom. It doesn’t have to be a full eight-week unit or anything like that. Start small, and bring inquiry and choice into your classroom. It doesn’t have to be a big, long project.” From there, teachers can learn more from the growing community of teachers online who have run successful Genius Hour programs in their own classrooms.
The Genius Hour Master Course
This course equips you with everything you need to run a successful Genius Hour program in your classroom: step-by-step instructions, printable and digital downloads to help you get organized, plus membership in a private Facebook community of experienced Genius Hour practitioners who can answer your questions every step of the way.
* I am an affiliate for the Genius Hour Master Course. That means if you enroll after visiting the course through my link, I will get a small commission for referring you.