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Genius hour: Making time for passion in the classroom

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Voice of the Educator

Every student has a passion project inside, waiting to emerge if invited to do so. These dreams lie just beneath the surface, built on experiences and stories, fears and achievement. They just need a spark to catch fire.

It is the job of teachers and other adults to provide that spark. We need to give our students the opportunity to shatter the rules, become their own teachers and captains of their own ship on a journey where they set the destination and the route.

Genius Hour — a regular time in class during which students get to pursue their own passion projects — is a gift that opens students up to the world of their own talents and interests. It allows them to reach beyond the routine, unlearn the rules they’ve been programmed to follow and embrace the uncertainty of their own audacious dreams.

How Genius Hour evolved

The concept of Genius Hour emerged from some of the world’s most innovative companies, whose leaders invited employees to explore their own ideas for contributing to the organization’s success. These leaders recognized that they needed to loosen the reins to create the conditions necessary for employees to think disruptively.

The gift of trust goes a very long way.

Google famously allows its employees 20% time. For one day a week, employees work on projects of their choosing — a process that produced Gmail, Google News and several other important products in the Google family.

Google was not the first company to give its employees time to explore their own ideas and follow their passions. In the 1990s, when William Coyne headed research and development at 3M, he allowed his teams to work for long stretches without executive interference. He explained, “After you plant a seed in the ground, you don’t dig it up every week to see how it is doing.”

Daniel Pink was one of the first to coin the term “Genius Hour” in his book “Drive.” He discussed its implementation within several companies in a 2011 blog post.

Bringing passion into schools

The idea to bring Genius Hour into school crystallized for me in 2010 when Amy Sandvold and I were writing “The Passion Driven Classroom,” a book that bridges the passion gap in school. I wondered:

  • What if we respected and trusted our students as Google does its engineers?
  • What would happen if students were given the time, resources and opportunity to pursue what they were most passionate about?
  • How would this impact student engagement and students’ perception of school?

In our book, we wrote of students working on passion projects. After watching a talk by Daniel Pink in November 2011, I tweeted, “We need to have a Genius Hour in school.” This and other contributing factors led to Genius Hour becoming a global education phenomenon, with thousands of teachers and hundreds of thousands of students across the world participating.

Four months after I sent that tweet, a group of teachers started a Genius Hour Twitter chat to exchange ideas and experiences. A year later, four of them discussed the initial results in “The Genius Hour Manifesto.”

Hugh McDonald wrote, “This was something special that engaged learners like nothing I had seen before. The learning atmosphere felt amazing. I could walk down the hall … and return to see them all still on task, questioning, driving their own learning and having fun being curious.”

Gallit Zvi echoed some of the same themes: “Student engagement is at its highest. Some students are huddled around a laptop doing research on countries, others are creating websites or presentations, and some are filming movies. Some are building and creating things with their hands. The common thread is that it is something they are passionate about and/or wonder about.”

Denise Krebs wrote, “In this age where knowledge is ubiquitous and no longer belongs to the teacher to dispense during lesson plans, school needs to change. We need to inspire students to become lifelong learners. Genius hour can do that.”

Another teacher, Joy Kirr, was recently featured in an article on CNN, which reported that one of her students, Emily, was upset that a winter full of snow days meant missing Genius Hour. Emily told CNN, “It’s definitely the highlight of my week. It’s not a project a teacher assigned, it’s something that actually interests you, and it gets you learning in different ways from what we do the rest of the day at school.”

Taking it to the next level

Six months after we published “The Passion Driven Classroom,” I delivered a talk at TEDxDesMoines called “You Matter” in which I reported an observation I had developed over two decades of teaching: The most dangerous thing for any person or organization is to believe they don’t matter.

Choose2Matter is the intersection of You Matter and Genius Hour. It begins with a question that helps students explore their passions: “What matters most to you, and why?”

We then take it an evolution further, by asking: “What breaks your heart about that?” and “What are we going to do about it?” Students have moved beyond learning, to take action that has an impact on the world.

Interested helping students tap into their natural passions and talents? Join Angela Maiers and other innovative educators in a panel discussion about using Genius Hour to inspire creativity. Learn more at ISTE 2014.

This blog post was produced in partnership with the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). Stay tuned for one more guest post this month.

Angela Maiers is an award-winning educator, speaker and author of Classroom Habitudes and The Passion-Driven Classroom. She is the founder of Choose2Matter, a global movement that challenges students to work collaboratively to develop innovative solutions to social problems. Connect with her on Twitter via @AngelaMaiers.