How My Genius Hour Mistakes Helped Students Succeed

Adobe Spark (11)This blog post is part of the CM Rubin World Global Search for Education which poses a question each month to leading educators for reflection and sharing. This month’s question is “How could this Google model be modified and utilized in schools? How might it harness the innate power of human curiosity, innovation, and creativity to build cognitive skills and enhance knowledge in students?”

Google’s “20% Time” has made its way into the education realm through such things as “Genius Hour”, “Passion-Projects”, and J-Terms. Conceptually all of these labels parallel the “20% Time” model which places learner’s passions at the center of their learning for part of the day/week/semester/year/etc.

When I first introduced the idea of Genius Hour to my students it was met with both excitement and fear. They were enthusiastic at the idea of choosing their own topic of study but nervous about two major things:

First, what should I choose to learn about?

Second, how will this be graded?

The traditional education model has little room for differentiation within the classroom. Students progress through grades by age, they are grouped together to learn the same content at the same speed and are “graded” with data from standardized tests where the results are mostly focused on measuring students against each other, not the individual growth one has made.

This factory-like model has done a disservice to our kids and highlights my first mistake; we have produced students who are problem-solvers instead of Problem-Seekers. Traditionally, educators feed information to students with an end goal or learning objective in mind. We ask kids to solve a problem that we have identified and deemed important. Asking a child to find meaningful discourse in which to study, seek out an issue that plagues today’s society in order to remedy it, is tough. If you don’t think so, start a class period off posing the question: Why are we studying Hamlet? (or any current classroom concept/unit/etc.) and see if you get anything different than the common response of – because we will need to know this in college (or other required demands to pass the class).  Creating a culture of inquiry that places responsibility back in the hands of our students takes time, continued support and modeling, and does not happen immediately as I so foolishly thought.

Finally, my second mistake was neglecting to use the common practice of gradual release which helps to set students up for success. Sure, we all have students who come to class with those innate skills that will propel them to be successful in school or career, but far too often we see students who don’t have these skills (and everyone can work to be better). Take for instance research skills. While most students know how to use Google to search for answers that are low level and offer little cognitive demands, most do not know how to tackle those higher order thinking tasks that demand research, synthesis, and analysis.

Genius Hour is not about a quick answer that is regurgitated in front of the class, instead, we are asking students to become experts in that particular field and have the audacity to manipulate their knowledge in ways that will allow them to construct thoughtful responses with threaded experiences and support in multiple situations. Because of this cognitive complexity, I found my students struggled in 2 areas when it came to their own learning: Identifying primary sources, evaluating the information they discovered based on relevance and reliability; and how to synthesize sources and information embedding them to their own knowledge base. Because of this early mistake, large group learning (my gradual release of responsibility) was threaded throughout the normal class period with the understanding that these skills would help aid in their future learning.

Genius Hour, Genius Time, 20% Time, Passion-Based Learning; whatever one may call it creates opportunities for students to take their learning by the reins and exhibit greatness that had not been exhibited before. Whether class-based or school-wide, long-range goals and careful planning must take place to help all students succeed in this foreign environment. Best of Luck!

Differentiation: Workshop Framework to Support All Students

Screen Shot 2014-10-19 at 3.55.32 PMA week after an invigorating ITEC conference, Matt Degner, a principal in Iowa City shared a blog post with me from a teacher implementing Genius Hour in his classroom. Matt and I have had many conversations about this topic, and while his teacher spoke about the various tasks students in his room may be working on; I realized, for many, constructing a framework that supports student-directed learning is difficult for many educators. Breaking the traditional model of a factory-like education system, where all students are expected to be in the same place and on the same content, is a daunting expectation.

Channeling my personal experiences with Genius Time, mixed with the instructional framework of Atwell’s Workshop Model Classroom and the refined learning from my experience at the Teacher’s College in New York this summer, it dawned on me that the Workshop framework would be ideal in this type of setting.

My Advice:

End Goal: A deep student understanding of a concept while honing skills necessary to tackle any project-based exploration. Through Genius Hour, or Passion-Based Learning, we want students to become experts in a particular area, obtaining a depth of knowledge that is transferable to multiple situations the concept is placed within.

Skills: For this area, the advice of my friend Cornelius Minor is a constant reminder! Identify the skills necessary to move all students forward. What does this type of exploration and eventual sharing of learning have in common no matter the student-chosen content?                                                        **********Teach the STUDENT, not the assignment!*****************                                      Example skills may include, developing a driving question that is unGoogleable, gathering reliable and relevant sources, or communication through writing.

Instruction: The beauty of the workshop framework is that it allows multiple student and teacher activities to be taking place in one class period. The 3 major type of instruction include:

  1. Whole Class Instruction – Identify a teaching point, decide on mode of delivery, model, practice and send them off to continue application. This should be streamlined to take 10-15 mins.
  2. Small Group Instruction – Identify a common need with a small group of students. Intentional learning with modeling, application, and follow-up is a basic template. Targeted instruction to enhance student application of skill identified. During small group instruction, it is an excellent time to leave specific “mentor texts” behind for continued reflection and application.
  3. One on One – During independent work time, teachers can confer with students about their progress, success and challenges, in order to collect formative assessment. This general pulse of the class allows future instruction that is targeted and relevant to the needs and end goal.

Share/Reflection: The workshop model also builds in the value of reflection and the sharing of work within the framework. Many times the learning is in the Process, not necessarily the end product. The sharing of their learning is not only valuable in Genius Hour, but in many other projects. A different audience than the traditional, lone teacher increases engagement and relevance and demonstrates the application of learning beyond the four walls.

The Workshop Framework is versatile to fit any content and time restraints. To orchestrate differentiation within the classroom, the focus must be clear and the ability to get many “plates” spinning at the same time an objective. The framework allows all students to progress simultaneously no matter where on the continuum they enter our room!