Genius Hour Ideas to Promote Creativity, Inspiration and Self-Directed Learning

Have you ever wondered what makes Google such an innovative company? Much of their creativity and inspiration can be attributed to a practice called “genius hour.” In this practice, 20 percent of an employee’s time is dedicated towards something they find interesting and exciting (other than their current work project). Genius hour is commonly referred to as 20 percent time, and it’s the reason behind many Google employee inspired ideas including Gmail.

Teachers and education experts have been taking this practice into the classroom to promote self-directed learning and ignite passion among students in their class. So what exactly is genius hour in an educational setting, and how can it be implemented?

Genius Hour in Education

Genius hour is a form of self-directed learning where students are given time in the classroom to work on projects of their choosing. It’s designed to give students skills in planning, executing and sharing projects — all important tools for learning across every subject, explains Tricia Whenham at collaboration software solutions provider Neureva.

According to the Google for Education Transformation Center, genius hour allows students to flex their creative muscles beyond the rigid structure of standardized tests and state learning requirements. “By choosing their own project and defining the rules, students can reimagine what’s possible — and motivate themselves to work on a problem they care about.The goal of this idea is to spark students’ curiosity, foster student agency, and ultimately help them become co-learners and innovators.”

While allowing students to work on their own projects and take ownership of their own learning outcomes, 20 percent time still helps students meet the standards and requirements of their grade level, says A.J. Juliani, literacy network facilitator at the University of Pennsylvania. In fact, students who engage in genius hour tend to be even more well-equipped to engage with work at their grade level and above. This is because “these students often go ‘above and beyond’ their standards by reaching for a greater depth of knowledge than most curriculum tends to allow,” he explains.

Genius Hour ideas

How to Start Genius Hour in the Classroom

The idea of starting a genius hour can be daunting — especially since students can be so creative in what they want to explore and learn about. 

The content itself is less important than the way in which the idea is executed, writes Susannah Holz at online learning platform, NEO. She recommends just going with the flow, as long as a student’s idea is appropriate for school. Encouraging students to stay detail-oriented and determined in the face of obstacles and challenges is especially important for moving these projects along at a consistent pace.

Once you’ve helped students settle on an idea that will work for genius hour, it’s important to set goals. To be successful, learning goals need to include rigor, commitment and measurable outcomes. Jeff Cobb, author of “Leading the Learning Revolution,” says these three elements ensure that goals are set clearly and effectively in order to achieve the best outcome.

All learning of this nature should involve a learning contract. This document helps define structure, deadlines and goals of the project on both a short and long-term basis, according to the team at Digital Marketing Institute. Moreover, a learning contract details information about evaluation and grading, so students have a clear understanding of how their work will be judged. It also creates deadlines for communications, outlining specific milestones for when teachers and students should meet.

Keep in mind that self-directed learning can be practiced at any age. In fact, starting earlier helps students take more agency in their learning and become more curious and explorative in the classroom. “Starting to practice student-led learning at an early age helps young children build confidence and experience in self-direction,” says Tony Siddall, program officer and director at Next Generation Learning Challenges.

Genius Hour ideas

Genius Hour Ideas

There are many ways to implement genius hour into your lesson plans, but how you do so depends on the learning outcomes, subjects and standards you’re working with. 

Regardless, genius hour is all about helping students pose and respond to open-ended questions that don’t have a specific answer. To help students warm up to the idea of genius hour for the first time, you might pose an open-ended question to the class which everyone creates their own answers to. 

Teacher and instructional coach Angela Watson suggests exploring questions that you’re not an expert in, and may not even know the answer to. She says that asking basic questions with specific answers can cause frustration and dull the desire to be creative. For example, instead of asking “What is the capital of our state,” ask “How does geography affect destiny?”

This encourages students to think about their own relationships to place, and how being born in a capital instead of a small town affects who they are as people. This simple question can serve as a launching pad for a number of other activities exploring identity, geography and culture.

Once you’ve modeled the types of questions students should ask during genius hour, you can encourage them to develop their own inquiries. This is the approach fifth grade teacher Scott Smith uses. He starts out by helping students determine a question they’re interested in solving. Reporter Valerie Wells explains how Smith uses a chart to help each student create a multi-dimensional inquiry that will drive the bulk of their project. He guides them towards making a specific question, which helps them order their thoughts and unleash their creativity for addressing the issue. 

Another way to start genius hour projects is through an activity called the “bad idea factory.” Kevin Brookhauser, director of technology and innovation at York School in Monterey, California, says the bad idea factory helps students brainstorm a number of different ideas before settling on one that can drive a project. It’s a fun way for students to explore and express their creative inquiries and ideas without pressure to create something perfect. It also provides a collaborative way for students to brainstorm and bounce ideas off each other in a supportive environment.

You might also refer students to a tool like Wonderopolis, which is all about helping students explore questions about history, science and culture. They can use this tool to browse topics, ask their own questions and see how collaborative learning works in action.

Genius hour isn’t just letting students learn on their own — it’s about helping them share that information with others. The most effective self-directed learning projects give students a platform to share what they’ve learned with an audience. “Teachers can increase the meaning of student project work by building in opportunities for them to share their projects with an audience. Have students produce an elevator pitch and share their work with the local community or online,” suggests Jennifer Gunn at the Room 241 blog by Concordia University, Portland. 

When a live audience isn’t available or you’d like to help students develop video skills, you could have them record a presentation and upload it to YouTube. You might provide a certain format for how these presentations should be, such as as a TED talk where research is presented in an engaging way.

Images by: Pragyan Bezbaruah, Fauxels, Daria Shevtsova

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