Research to Practice: Implementing Genius Projects in the Middle Grades

A genius project—also called genius hour (Davis, 2022; Mulvahill, 2018), enigma mission (George Lucas Educational Foundation, 2019), or passion project (Bowersox, 2020; Wormeli, 2018)—is a form of personalized learning in which students engage in sustained, self-directed inquiry for part of the school day. Genius projects are a natural fit for the middle grades because they promote active, purposeful, democratic learning and a curriculum that is “is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and diverse,” as recommended by The Successful Middle School: This We Believe (Bishop & Harrison, 2021, p. 32).

While genius projects may take many forms, they generally share some common characteristics.

  • Genius projects involve deep personalization of learning as students choose the focus for the inquiry based on individual interests, expertise, and curiosity (Bishop et al., 2019; Davis, 2022).
  • Students manage their own learning throughout a genius project by setting goals, establishing work plans, determining the format for final products, and evaluating their own performance (Bishop et al., 2019).
  • Teachers have a facilitating role during genius projects, acting as an instructional coach or guide (Flood, 2019).
  • Genius projects exhibit the three fundamental tenets of authentic achievement: students (a) construct original knowledge, (b) apply academic knowledge and skills through disciplined inquiry, and (c) share the final product of their inquiry through a public demonstration, performance, or exhibition (Newmann & Wehlage, 1993).

While genius projects have grown in popularity in recent years, few research studies have investigated their implementation and impact in middle level schools. A recent study published in Research in Middle Level Education Online reports teachers’ perceptions of the implementation of genius hour in their school and provides some useful insights for middle level schools considering this innovative approach (LeGeros et al., 2022). This article shares some key insights from the study to help middle grades educators further explore ways to incorporate genius projects in the academic programs in their schools.

Teachers Find Genius Hour Supports Personalization

LeGeros and colleagues (2022) explored teachers’ perceptions of the implementation of a school-wide genius hour in a school that had been aiming to strengthen personalization in the academic program. The qualitative case study drew on interviews with 17 teachers and one administrator during a period that spanned four years. The study focused on three questions:

  1. How did teachers perceive the school-wide genius hour to affect student engagement and learning?
  2. How did teachers describe their experience with the school-wide genius hour as a collective endeavor?
  3. What did teachers learn from genius hour in relation to their pedagogy? (Legeros et al., 2022, p. 2)

Regarding the first question, teachers interviewed for the study reported that genius hour supported student learning and engagement in several ways. Because genius hour afforded students choice and voice in their learning, teachers perceived them to be highly engaged in the learning process. Students were invited “to assume control over most aspects of their projects, including the topic, the learning process, the end product, and the sharing process” (LeGeros et al., 2022, p. 9). Furthermore, students developed self-directed learning skills, which some teachers saw them apply in the classroom beyond genius hour. Teachers also ascribed increased student engagement to the genuine relationships forged as they became more deeply and authentically aware of students’ interests, talents, and capabilities.

In response to the second research question, teachers reported that genius hour provided a powerful model for personalization and helped strengthen the sense of community in the school. The school was in a state that had mandated personalized learning in the middle grades, yet the teachers found a “paucity of existing models [depicting what] personalization should look like in practice” (LeGeros et al., 2022, pp. 10–11). The successful experience with genius hour helped fill teachers’ gaps in understanding about personalization and provided “a visible model” to guide future efforts (p. 11). Because genius hour was a school-wide initiative, it gave teachers throughout the school an opportunity to experience a collective success with personalization and supported the sense of community.

Finally, the researchers were interested in learning how teachers bridged the learning during the genius hour period with the practices in the regular classroom. How did the teachers’ positive experiences with personalization and greater student voice and choice transform their day-to-day classroom practices? While teachers enthusiastically acknowledged the positive outcomes of genius hour for students, they also wondered whether it could or should represent the norm for all classroom instruction. Teachers noted the limitations of the mandated curriculum as a constraining factor, and they also tended to feel students should not only pursue projects or subject matter that interest them; they should experience a broad curriculum that exposes them to various ways of knowing and seeing the world.

Considerations for Implementing Genius Projects

Although it focused strictly on teachers’ perceptions of genius hour, the LeGeros et al. (2022) study offers some important general considerations for implementing a genius project program.

  • Design the program with broad input from stakeholders. The program in the study was designed by a leadership team consisting of administrators, teachers, students, and a university-based consultant, and throughout its implementation it was refined by an ad hoc committee and supported by regular meetings of teaching teams and a student leadership group.
  • While genius projects can be implemented by a single teacher in one classroom, consider having a school-wide program as described in the study. The school-wide approach allows teachers to work and form relationships with students across teams and grade levels and may strengthen culture and community in the school.
  • Consider making a multi-year commitment to the program. The study chronicled the implementation of genius hour over the course of four school years and showed how the program evolved over time. Some schools allow students’ genius projects to continue across multiple school years, allowing for deep, sustained learning (see, e.g., George Lucas Foundation, 2019).
  • Look for ways to help students transfer the self-directed learning skills they develop during the genius project program into the regular academic program.

David C. Virtue is the Taft B. Botner Professor of Middle Grades Education at Western Carolina University and the editor of Research in Middle Level Education Online.



  1. This sounds a lot like the capstones I got to do in my honors undergraduate program. It was really enjoyable for me to get to research and study something that I was passionate about. I think the Genius projects are a great way for students to take point in their own education.