In my last post, I started talking about the opportunities we have as educators and collectively, as an educational system, during this pandemic to be able to make some positive shifts in our instruction. In the last post, I discussed assessments that involve application or creation and the opportunity to spark more intrinsic motivation in a time when we may not be grading student work. I ended by promising to address how we might amplify students’ intrinsic motivation to learn.
One exciting opportunity for students to have a voice in what they learn is Genius Hour. It’s also been called “20% Time.” This 20% comes from Google’s “Innovation Time Out” practice of having employees dedicate 20% of their workweek to a project they are passionate about. Gmail was created during this 20% time!
This idea has since been embraced by educators and translated into a classroom practice. In short, students get one day a week or 1 hour a day to work on a passion project of their own. This is an incredible opportunity for students to find intrinsic motivation for learning.
When I taught high school, I tried Genius Hour on a large scale. I created a semester-long unit in which students designed and completed their own project-based units. It was a lot of work, but it was really cool. Now, I’m not saying you should do this, but I wanted to share some things I learned from this experience as well as a free resource you can use to support students to get started.
Learning #1: Students may initially struggle with free choice
I was shocked that many of my students’ initial reactions were a variation of, “Just tell me what to learn.” I realized older students have been “doing school” the same way for a decade! To have one teacher all of a sudden interrupt that was a shock to their systems. They came around eventually, but it took a lot of modeling (What might this look like?) and scaffolding (How exactly do I design a unit?).
This week’s freebie is the set of student worksheets I used for the first days of the unit. Click the button below to get it!
The free planning doc includes: initial brainstorm questions students filled out individually; an outline of the proposed project (unit) to be completed by the group or individual (depending on whether they chose to work alone or with a partner(s); and two examples of a completed outline—one for a Science-based unit and one for an ELA-based unit.
Learning #2: You can require alignment to course standards
At first, I thought if I require students to meet specific parameters for this project, it’s erasing the students’ voices in the project. Then, I realized, students actually wanted and needed some direction (especially for our full-time, 4-month project.) So, I included a section in the outline (see freebie above) for skills, and I told students they needed to select skills from the appropriate grade’s ELA standards.
I gave students a choice of which standards they wanted to include, and I made a cheat sheet for them with all of the standards, examples of each standard, and a “difficulty” rating (based on my opinion). This scaffolded support helped, and students were able to thoughtfully choose to work on skills that not only fit with their project idea, but also that met a need they had as learners. Students impressed me with their ability to deeply reflect on their mastery of the standards and choose skills they personally needed more time to practice.
Learning #3: It’s okay to ask for help
This is a valuable life lesson I’m still learning, but for this project, it was essential. I had 100 students tackling over 50 topics, most of which I was completely unfamiliar with. So, I emailed some friends as well as the staff at my school, shared the list of students’ topics, and asked if anyone had any contacts with people in these industries. I also encouraged students to reach out to their own contacts or find people online.
I am still blown away by the manner in which people showed up for our kids. One student established a professional photography contact who gave her a used camera! Of course, not every student had a professional from their specific field as a mentor during their project, but teachers and adults who simply wanted to be a part of the project offered to act as a general, independent learning mentor.
If you’re interested in starting a project like Genius Hour, I suggest giving students a few questions to think about to support them in choosing a meaningful topic and goal. Feel free to use the template I shared! Don’t be afraid to add in requirements for standards, even if it’s as simple as: I need to see you analyze something by the end of your project. Finally, reach out to your contacts and see who’s willing to support kids during their exploration of new topics and their self-exploration of how they learn best.
In the opening of this post, I framed this as an opportunity. It’s something we can test out in the short term while we’re teaching in virtual spaces, but we can also use Genius Hour once we’re back in brick and mortar classrooms again. Sparking students’ motivation to learn is beneficial in all spaces!
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Lindsay Lyons (she/her) is an educational justice coach who works with teachers and school leaders to inspire educational innovation for racial and gender justice, design curricula grounded in student voice, and build capacity for shared leadership. Lindsay taught in NYC public schools, holds a PhD in Leadership and Change, and is the founder of the educational blog and podcast, Time for Teachership.