Welcome to the Genius Hour

As I drove home one evening after hosting a showcase of student work, attended by the community, all I could think about was how a new project called Genius Hour had transformed my seventh graders over the course of the school year.

The work the students presented was not about talent, athletic ability, or even appearance. This showcase had been about their intelligence, what they had learned, and how they had learned it. People throughout the community were able to hear these young people’s voices and recognize what they had to offer.

What’s the Genius Hour?

The concept of the Genius Hour was born from Google’s 80/20 principle, which allows its engineers to spend 20% of their time working on any pet project they want that might help develop the company. The idea is simple: allow people to work on something that interests them, and motivation and their productivity will increase. Gmail and Google News were created by developers during their 20% time.

I had been thinking about implementing this kind of student-driven learning work for some time, but wasn’t sure how to make it happen in the formative instructional cycle that is a middle school reading and writing classroom. So I took the time to gather information and bounce ideas off someone.

The library media specialist and I did some research and discovered that teachers across the nation were doing Genius Hour–like projects—just calling them something else, like Passion Time or Project Inspiration. Regardless of the name, they all were inquiry-based, student-driven projects. I learned more about what the Genius Hour process could be in my classroom through the blogs, videos, and other online resources created by teachers who are doing what I wanted to do in my classroom.

Teachers were setting aside 20% of their instructional time each week for students to pursue their own learning—and student engagement and learning outcomes were significantly improving.

I wanted this learning experience for my seventh graders too. There was no way I could walk away from Genius Hour now.

One of the first things I did to set up Genius Hour in my classroom was establish learning goals for the project. I wanted students to:

  • Explore a topic they were curious and passionate about.
  • Create something to show their understanding of that topic.
  • Be able to present what they learned to the world around them.
  • Realize that they have the power to affect their community in some way.
  • Know that they would drive the work, but I would guide them in the process.

I shared the goals with the students up front—we began with the end in mind.

An assignment sheet and calendar that chunked the nearly year-long project into monthly tasks helped students manage their project.

Month 1: Generate topic ideas. If the idea or question can be researched in less than a minute or with one click, the idea is probably not a very good one. Try again.

Month 2: Narrow the topic.

Month 3: Continue narrowing the topic. Start exploring and curating resources from the web.

Month 4: Continue exploring topics and curating resources from the web. Pitch the topic to the classroom community.

Month 5: Pitch ideas and findings to the classroom community. Work on the project.

Month 6: Make a thought bubble and draft to map out your display with these prompts: What are you doing for Genius Hour? How will it affect the community?

Month 7: Make a draft of your display. Put it together. Use the checklist to fine-tune the display. Practice your presentation and elicit feedback.

Month 8: Fine-tune and finish the display and presentation. Set up the exhibit for the showcase. Present the project to the community at the showcase.

It started with students looking into topics they were curious about or interested in. Those ideas turned into ways to bring change to the world around them. Their projects were based on research, service, technology, or charity. Examples included the effect of media, fundraisers to improve conditions in puppy mills and animal shelters, research into how the brain learns best, and projects to provide clothing for needy families in the community.

Caution: Students Thinking

Genius Hour is about students driving their own learning about a topic; if I wanted the process to work, I needed to guarantee them time in class to develop their projects. However, Genius Hour is not an unstructured “free time” for students to play or do nothing. Genius Hour is learning time. While they worked on their Genius Hour projects in class for one hour every week, students were almost always in different places in their work process. I monitored their work with colored cups. Students displayed the cup that described their current status:

  • Green: I know exactly what I’m doing with my project
  • Yellow: I have a quick question or need to check-in with you, but I will keep working until you get to me
  • Red: I am stuck and cannot work until you meet with me. I need you right away.

I ensured that students were using that time wisely. In addition to conferring with me and with one another about their projects, students provided status updates and check-ins through digital tools. This allowed me to not only monitor their progress, but also take the opportunity to provide some advice, direction, or some needed encouragement.

Using digital tools for check-ins made their thinking visible for me and anyone else helping with projects, such as the mentors from the community who came into the class to talk about a particular topic, met with students as a resource for their project, or simply served as sounding boards.

As students worked on their Genius Hour projects each week—individually or in pairs or small groups—I began to see signs of the increased student engagement described by other teachers who had implemented similar projects. The further students got into their topics, the deeper their learning and the more eager they were to work on their projects outside class time.

I knew students were learning. The conferences, the check-ins, the feedback they were giving one another, even the questions they asked were all ways for me to see that learning was happening. They conferred with me, with peers, and other mentors. They learned to overcome problems and adapt to new situations. Some students had to become comfortable with an open-ended, ambiguous task, and that it was ok to take a risk.

Some kids became obsessed with their project. They were completely engaged in learning this way. A few students who pursued several topics that led them to a dead end impressed me with their level of grit and willingness to try another path to see where they would end up. What an incredible lesson to learn in seventh grade!

A final detail in implementing Genius Hour was having the kids write a reflection about their finished project. They had to connect the work they did to the standards for the course. They also had to explain how their work connected to real life outside school.

The culminating activity was the Genius Hour Showcase. Parents and community members were invited to see the student projects and learn more from the students themselves.

Innovate, Collaborate, Learn!

The students accomplished all the goals I had set when I envisioned this project. I was able to give them an intentional place to demonstrate learning for the course. They needed their reading and writing skills to synthesize their projects. I asked students to think outside the box of how they usually learn and take charge of their own learning. The skill set they developed throughout this project can undoubtedly be used in any situation. Through Genius Hour, my seventh graders became innovative, collaborative, investigative, and productive.

As I pulled into my driveway that night after the showcase, I knew that the kids had experienced how powerful learning could be. They had set the bar in my mind about what inquiry-based learning should be. Now I needed to figure out how to do this with my incoming sixth graders—along with teaching them how to do middle school. One thing is clear: I’ll have another project and goals to set for my next round of Geniuses.

More about the Genius Hour

Genius Hour: Impacting the Community


Parkway Middle School Genius Hour Slideshow


Cryslynn Billingsley is an English Language Arts teacher at Parkway Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. cbillingsley@pkwy.k12.mo.us

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2014.