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March 1, 2017

The Genius of Design

Properly structured, Genius Hour can encourage creativity and enable students to take learning into their own hands.

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Doubts swirled through my mind when, more than a decade ago, I attempted my first-ever Genius Hour project. What if my 8th grade students couldn't handle the independence? What if they selected texts that were too hard for them? How would they learn project management? What if they got bored? What if they acted out? What if people thought I was just being lazy and not teaching?

It was a sharp departure from previous years, when I had spent the entire first week of class on rules, procedures, and team-building. This year, students were going to chase their passions, explore their questions, and own the learning process. Or at least that was the plan. But in that moment, I had my doubts. A quarter of the students already seemed frustrated and confused.

Suddenly the door opened. I stood there, petrified by the stream of clipboard-wielding district office guests who entered to observe my classroom.

The superintendent approached with a puzzled expression. "Is this a transition time, or a study hall?"

"It's, um, it's a Genius Hour project," I sputtered.

"Help me understand," he replied.

I took a deep breath. "It's based on Google's 20 percent time concept. This is where their employees …"

"Oh, I've heard of that," he interrupted. "They get 20 percent of their day to do whatever projects they want."

"Exactly. So, I'm piloting this."

"What about the curriculum map?" he asked.

I handed him a project handout detailing the process, the rationale, and the standards that aligned with each piece.

"Instead of spending the first week on rules and procedures, I figured we could start with inquiry, research, and creativity," I said.

As the visitors walked around, asking students about their learning, something changed. Students got excited about the research they were doing. They cited evidence and talked about the plans for their projects. The room buzzed with curiosity, and it became contagious. The coaches and specialists were as excited as the students. They were seeing a glimpse of what can happen when students own the learning process.

It's All About Empowerment

Despite its exciting beginning, that first Genius Hour project more than 10 years ago actually failed on many levels. I provided too much structure in areas where students needed more freedom and agency. I didn't provide enough scaffolding in areas where they lacked necessary skills. I failed to anticipate some of the social and emotional challenges of giving students the freedom to learn what they wanted to learn.

Still, even with all of these mistakes, something was different. My students were empowered to take their learning in their own direction.

Genius Hour begins with the idea that students should actively create their learning rather than passively consume it. It allows students to make decisions about every aspect of the learning, including the strategies they want to use when developing a new skill, the pace of their work, the materials and resources for the project, and the format for the products they'll create. Students choose their topics or themes on the basis of their own interests. This honors their identity and allows them to explore areas where they are already intrinsically motivated.

But this type of empowerment isn't simply a matter of leaving students alone and letting them learn independently. In a successful Genius Hour format, the teacher works as an architect, designing the invisible ecosystem in which student voice and agency can thrive. To achieve this goal, I eventually adopted design thinking as the framework for our Genius Hour projects.

Empowering Students Through Design Thinking

The term design thinking is often associated with maker spaces and STEM labs. However, design thinking is bigger than STEM. It begins with the premise of tapping into students' curiosity and allowing them to create, test, and re-create until they eventually present what they made to a real audience (sometimes global but often local).

Design thinking isn't a subject, a topic, or a class. It's a creative thinking process that focuses on developing actual products that solve real problems.

Design thinking is used in the arts, in engineering, in the corporate world, at universities, and in social and civic spaces. You can use it in every subject with every age group. It works when creating digital content or building things with duct tape and cardboard. It can even be used in planning events or designing services.

There are many frameworks for design thinking in existence. I worked with A. J. Juliani, education and technology innovation specialist at Upper Perkiomen School District in Pennsylvania, to develop a student-friendly K–12 design thinking framework we call the LAUNCH Cycle:

  1. Look, Listen, and Learn

  2. Ask Tons of Questions

  3. Understand the Process or Problem

  4. Navigate Ideas

  5. Create a Prototype

  6. Highlight and Fix

Once students complete these phases, they "launch" their product to an authentic audience. Let's consider how this framework can guide Genius Hour.

Look, Listen, and Learn

The Look, Listen, and Learn phase begins with awareness. Students might start with an interest or passion they want to study, a problem they want to solve, or a social issue they want to explore. They might have a sense of empathy with a specific group, or an audience they want to reach out to. They might even have an initial product idea. The unifying concept is a sense of wonder and curiosity. To tap into these qualities, we use the following guiding questions: If you could learn anything in school, what would it be? What are you most interested in right now? What do you care about deeply? What are your passions and interests? What nagging problem would you like to solve? If you could make anything, what would you make?

Using these questions as the starting point, students develop their topics and determine whether they want to work independently, in pairs, or in small groups. Through this process, my students have chosen topics that are all over the place. One student began with the history of skateboarding and eventually designed a model of a hybrid skateboarding museum and skate park. Another student curated her favorite recipes from around the world and combined them with interviews she conducted with immigrants. A small group focused on ranking existing roller coasters and eventually designed their own model ride. Although there have been popular categories (sports, fashion, social issues, food, culture, politics, video games), students often focus on specific niche areas that they can explore in-depth.

One of my favorite Genius Hour projects revolved around school beautification. Students began with a specific problem in mind: They knew that graffiti was a major issue on campus, and they wanted to design and implement a solution to this problem.

Ask Tons of Questions

With a topic idea solidified, students move into the inquiry phase. The questions they ask might be philosophical and personal—or they might be practical, specific, and tied to research. The teacher can help by providing optional sentence stems and sample questions that students can modify. In the school beautification example, students asked questions about why vandalism and graffiti were so prevalent. They jotted down a list of research questions about the causes and effects of graffiti, as well as potential solutions. They also developed a list of survey questions to understand the concerns of people in the surrounding neighborhood.

Understand the Process or Problem

Next, students move into the research phase. They might gather data with a needs assessment; conduct hands-on research; interview an expert in a given field; or go online to read articles, check out videos, or listen to podcasts on their topic. In this step, the research is highly personalized. You might have one group of students conduct market research while others read about the physics behind an engineering problem. One student might research how to learn a new skill while another explores a social issue.

In the school beautification example, students searched online for organizations that had engaged in graffiti removal. To their surprise, they found that most graffiti removal programs were temporary fixes. They also conducted a needs assessment survey and looked at trends in the data. One girl met with a family member who had been arrested for painting graffiti; she used this qualitative research to guide her group's potential solution.

In the next phase, students develop a plan for the product they will create. They begin by thinking about their ideas individually and recording them on a list or mind map. Next, they move into small-group brainstorming, in which they propose ideas for one another's projects. If students are working on a group project, they leave their original group and brainstorm with others; often, a fresh set of eyes can add ideas the original group might not have considered. Afterwards, students move back into their original small groups and begin to share, add, and combine ideas, and finally decide which idea works best. Students working individually often pair up at this point and help clarify each other's ideas, but some students choose to work alone, getting into their own personal creative flow.

In the second half of the Navigating Ideas phase, students clarify their product idea, their audience, and their group roles. They break down tasks and set deadlines. In many cases, students will create an annotated product sketch. The product doesn't have to be a tangible work. Sometimes students create a digital work. Sometimes they plan out a service activity or an event. However, they must have a solid plan for their final work.

The school beautification group generated a list of solutions that ranged from a new type of paint to security cameras to neighborhood watch programs. But as the ideas evolved, they landed on a different solution: They would paint a mural in the most tagged-up area of the school. They cited their needs assessment (neighbors wished the neighborhood had more art) and their interview with a former "tagger" who had described himself as an artist who would never mess with other people's art.

Create a Prototype

The next phase can feel messy and chaotic as students work on creating prototypes of their Genius Hour products. You might have one student building a model roller coaster, another student recording a video with the green screen, and a group of students making phone calls and setting up an event. Initially, I struggled with the idea of a classroom where so many students were engaged in such different tasks at the same time. But the chaos never feels out of control. Students are zoned in as they create their initial prototypes. Often, the class works at a quiet hum, with students lost in the act of creation.

The students working on the school beautification project drew a series of pictures for a mural and asked the entire class for input. They reached out to an artist in another group who ultimately sketched out the final mural design. With my help, the group got permission from the principal to form an after-school mural club. A local store donated painting supplies. Students from other class periods joined in. What began as a small Genius Hour project grew into something much larger.

Highlight and Fix

Next comes the Highlight and Fix phase, in which students work on revising their initial prototypes. Feedback can take many forms: We've used a SWOT matrix (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats), a peer feedback system, self-reflection questions, and one-on-one conferencing to help students determine what's working and what could be improved. When students have enough time to revise and permission to make mistakes, they embrace a mindset of iterative thinking. Students internalize the reality that great works take time to create and require countless revisions before they're ready to send to an audience.

In the case of the school beautification project, students engaged in constant revision throughout the painting process. They made tons of mistakes that they had to fix on a daily basis. But each day, we talked about what was working and what we needed to improve.

The Launch

In the final phase, students share their product with an audience. It's important to allow students to define the audience as well as the strategies they want to use to reach that audience. Students think through core ideas of marketing, including product-market fit, persuasive methods, and empathy toward their audience. Although they aren't selling a product, they still learn how to build systems to make their work both appealing and accessible.

Students also have the opportunity to share their creative process. This might happen at a culminating event, like a Maker Fair or a Genius Hour presentation (a short, creative slideshow talk). Students can also share their journey in real time through reflective blogging or by posting about their process on social media. By showing their work, students articulate what they're learning while also teaching classmates a new idea, skill, or process.

In the case of the mural project, the students created a digital launch, in which they wrote about the process on their blog and shared pictures of what they had created. Looking back on it, I wish we had created a ceremony for the project along with a press release. However, their finished work became a permanent fixture on campus—one that nobody ever vandalized with graffiti. And it sparked a series of murals in the years that followed.

Take the Risk

Genius Hour projects are not guaranteed to go smoothly. In fact, they're almost guaranteed to have rough patches. There will be moments of frustration and confusion. Some students will lose motivation and give up too easily.

But in the midst of the imperfection, something powerful happens. When students own the learning process, they grow into the reflective, insightful, creative, lifelong learners we believe they can be.

Getting Started with Genius Hour

If you're a teacher getting started with Genius Hour, here are some suggestions to consider:

  • Start early. Instead of going for a gradual-release approach to student choice, begin your school year with a Genius Hour project. This sends the message that you trust students and respect their agency as learners.

  • Align the Genius Hour project to standards. The Common Core standards for English language arts, for example, tie in nicely to inquiry, research, writing, collaborative work, and presenting to an audience.

  • Communicate with stakeholders about students' projects. Genius Hour can feel like "free time" to administrators, parents, or fellow teachers who have never experienced it.

  • Collaborate with colleagues. Find like-minded teachers in your school who are willing to take the creative risk.

  • Choose a structure for Genius Hour (such as the design thinking, project-based learning, or inquiry-based learning frameworks) so that Genius Hour doesn't become simply "free time."

  • Think strategically about time. Conduct a time audit and figure out where you can fit Genius Hour into your curriculum. Do you want to spend one day a week on Genius Hour? Do you want to run the project as a two- to three-week unit? I've found that the first and last week in a semester are a great chance to launch smaller Genius Hour projects. You can then extend this as an optional at-home extension.

If you're an administrator implementing Genius Hour schoolwide, consider the following:

  • Encourage your teachers to take creative risks. Remind them that Genius Hour will not work perfectly the first time, and that's OK. Each iteration is another step closer to success.

  • Demonstrate how Genius Hour fits into the standards.

  • Give your teachers their own Genius Hour. Carve out time in your professional development for teachers to learn about the process by experiencing it themselves.

  • Provide professional development on student choice, agency, and Genius Hour. If the ideas of design thinking or project-based learning are new to your staff, invest in faculty workshops or book studies on these frameworks.

  • Work collaboratively as a staff to develop proactive solutions for potential issues around classroom management so that students can thrive in a choice-based environment.

John Spencer is an assistant professor of education at George Fox University in Portland, Oregon, and the author of Launch (Dave Burgess Consulting, 2016) and Empower (IMPress, 2017).

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