Reaching Future Goals through Genius Hour in the Classroom

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This Genius Hour story was originally published on Edsurge as part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners. I was honored to have EdSurge share my (and my student Ava’s) story.

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Genius Hour Gives Permission

The most sobering response to one of three questions I ask my students before we start Genius Hour: (What bothers you? What do you love? What do you wonder about?) was this. . .

“It bothers me that I am not learning things in school that will help me become what I want to be.”

What would it take to help students find that connection between school and their future? Sometimes, all it takes is permission.

The kind of permission I’m talking about goes beyond raising a hand to share a thought or use the bathroom. As a teacher, in order to empower my students to make this connection, I needed to allow myself to let go of the prescribed daily curriculum, which provided a scripted narrative and a tight timeline to help me hit every standard, so that I could carve out Genius Hour, one hour each week for students to research, explore and create something they care about that will outlast their K-12 years. For my students, it was letting themselves to do something risky and take initiative to pursue their own pathway for learning.

The Puzzle of Motivation

I started implementing Genius Hour in 2014 after watching Daniel Pink’s TED Talk, “The puzzle of motivation” in which he discussed Google’s 20 percent time policy (employees spent 20 percent of their week working on their own passion project). I was inspired to bring Pink’s ideas to my classroom in an effort to make the learning environment less about me and more about my students. I was humbled last fall when Daniel Pink shared my first Genius Hour article from Edsurge in 2017! (OK, so I was total fan-girling! I mean, he inspired me to do this in my classroom, and he shared the article)!

DanielPinkTweetAboutGeniusHour

Genius Rules

When it comes to Genius Hour, however, there are three rules.

  • Students must start with an essential question that cannot be answered with a simple Google search.
  • Students must research their question using reputable websites, interviews, and/or print resources.
  • Students must create something. Their product may be digital, physical or service-oriented.
  • These projects are not typically graded. (I have implemented some small checkpoints for accountability purposes.) Genius Hour is about learning, and for some students, it’s the first time in their academic careers that they have an opportunity to research whatever they want, ask anything and anyone whatever questions they can think of and create something without strict parameters and measures of success. I give them permission to do this open-ended work, but they also have to let themselves take a risk and put their best effort into something that isn’t traditionally done in school—something that won’t result in a letter grade or a numerical score.

    Genius Hour as a Path to Future Goals

    Every time I launch Genius Hour, I ask my students those three questions to help them discover what they want to investigate and build. Last year, when I started to hear kids talking about how it bothers them that school is not a place where they learn things that support their future goals, I decided to focus Genius Hour on helping students find a connection between school and their career path.

    As one of my students, Ava, settled on her essential question,“How can I create healthy recipes to put into a cookbook?,” she spent time in class scouring Pinterest for ideas and reading about nutrition. After a few sessions, little progress was made, so I conferenced with her about her project and goals. I asked Ava of one of our original questions a second time: What do you love? I was really asking: What do you need permission to do?

    Ava immediately responded, “I want to be a photographer.” She focused first on recipes because she didn’t see photography as a viable option. Ava explained that she loved experimenting with her mom’s DSLR camera at home. She was often taking pictures on her iPhone, playing with filters and capturing the world around her. “I know I can’t bring mom’s camera to school.”

    She wrote letters telling her story, hoping to find a camera from a local business, but when that didn’t work, I gave her my DSLR, the one I refer to as my “baby camera” since we bought it just days before my daughter was born. If sharing my camera would empower Ava to develop a skill set that could pave the way for a future she was excited about, that’s all the reason I needed.

    Ava started out by reading ebooks and exploring online tutorials by photographers she liked. Her passion inspired other students in the classroom. They wanted to be subjects in her portraits and to understand the inspiration behind her images. Genius Hour allowed Ava to find her voice through photography. She even took a picture of me that I treasure.

    GeniusHour portrait

    Something happened to my classroom once I started decreasing the focus on rubrics, grades and stringent requirements. My students became invested in learning for the sake of learning. Ava started carrying a camera during Genius Hour and study hall, taking photos to share on monitors in the cafeteria and on the walls of the school.

    Ava’s learning experience translated into core classes as well. While reading The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, Ava took pictures to reflect the themes in the book. After I tweeted photos from her project, S.E. Hinton retweeted her work. Ava’s work was getting recognized outside of her middle school, and she was inspired to do more.

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    Images by Ava P. for Outsiders Project, Genius Hour

    It’s not just Ava. Other students are making the connection too, starting to view school as a place that offers opportunities to develop skills and gain experience doing what they love—and they’re taking it seriously. One high school student who is an animal lover with an entrepreneurial spirit is used Genius Hour to develop her own dog biscuit bakery company. A now college freshman is using the time to study farming and fishing, and with support from local sponsors, he started a bass fishing YouTube channel and is exploring farming internships for after high school.

    I was able to connect with a former student yesterday at her graduation party and bought a gorgeous piece of her string art. She works as a “craft waitress” at a local handmade craft store where people can come in and learn how to make specialized arts and crafts.

    Another student who graduated this year started her art career in my Genius Hour classroom in 2014. I am so humbled to have her first ever painting in my possession. (Follow her art on instagram!)

    View this post on Instagram

    My first painting 😽

    A post shared by Kanna Pokorny (@kannapokorny_art) on

    What comes next?

    We can give our students permission to explore their passions even if Genius Hour is not part of our repertoire. If you assign a project, consider making one element more flexible than you have in the past. Give students choices in content, process and product. If a student can meet the standards by taking photos, writing a musical ballad or creating a website, give them the opportunity to do it.

    In Daniel Pink’s book Drive he defines motivation as a combination of autonomy (desired self-directedness), mastery (a desire to improve skills) and purpose (a desire to produce something bigger than ourselves). It is important to drive our students by giving them space and time to pursue their own path like Ava was able to do with her photography.

    When I ask my students the question, “What bothers you?,” my hope is that their future answers do not include the disconnect between what they’re learning in school and what they need to be successful in their chosen career path, whether it’s farming or photography. Making this connection and finding purpose is key for motivation—and that’s what we need for stories like Ava’s to truly develop.

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