Can ‘genius hour’ bring passion into your classroom?

  • Imagine your boss telling you that for a certain period of time each day or week, you get to work on a project that feeds one of your passions, even if that project doesn’t directly have an impact on your current work. Sounds like a dream, right?

    That’s what genius hour is for kids. It’s an hour every week (or sometimes more) set aside for students to work on projects or ideas that they come up with, with parameters they invent, and results in which they have a primary interest.

    Dinosaurs. Creative writing. How to grow organic food. The history of London. Nutrition. The physics of soccer. Climate change. Inventions. Plants and animals in Latin America. Genealogy. The possibilities are limited only by your students’ interests and imaginations. And the result for you? A classroom of fully engaged students, eager to work on assignments they’ve created for themselves. It gives everyone a break from the regular standards-focused routine.

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    “From the outside looking in, it is less organized, less formal, and less standardized than traditional learning,” says TeachThought, a site for classroom educators. “Genius hour allows (actually, it requires) students to explore their own ideas and follow their own instincts in learning for the sake of learning, creating for the sake of creating, and doing for the sake of doing. An underlying assumption of genius hour is that if students are given space and tools and audiences and time, they will create something personal and compelling, and of course be learning in the process.”

    Meshelle Smith, a fifth-grade math and science teacher in Houston, wrote about her first experience with genius hour for Edutopia. She was impressed with the range of subjects her students chose, which included gender issues in the media, computer-coding languages, architecture in the Czech Republic, even blade-forging. Smith says the trial was a huge success, though it had room for improvement. To address this, she created more of a structure.

    “I developed a scaffolded, organized system that helped my students yet still encouraged the creative process,” she writes. “We began with four weeks of exploring ideas, spent three weeks narrowing topics, and then worked most of the year learning and creating, until the last four weeks, when we polished and presented our learning.”

    Jen Schneider, a middle-school language-arts teacher in Omaha, Neb., writes for EdSurge that genius hour helps students connect with passions and goals they will carry with them into life.

    “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.”

    Schneider had watched a TED Talk given by career analyst Daniel Pink called “The Puzzle of Motivation” in which he discusses the burgeoning science exploring motivation. Extrinsic motivators are traditional rewards or punishments – the carrot and the stick (if you do this, then you will get that). Intrinsic motivators, on the other hand, come from within, and have to do with autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Pink cited studies that showed how intrinsic motivation causes a direct increase in creative, conceptual abilities and results. Some businesses recognize this in their structure; Google, for instance, has an 80/20 policy in which employees are given 20 percent of their time to pursue projects of their own.

    Schneider enforces three rules:

    • A project must begin with a question that is not answerable with simple internet searches.
    • The research of that question must be done with credible sources: books, print documents, interviews, and reputable websites.
    • The student must create something as a result of the project, such as a digital presentation, a physical product or a service-oriented task.

    And one other important factor: No grades. Genius projects are about creativity, innovation, learning, and motivation. The results themselves are almost not important. What matters is that your students are engaged, exploring, and participating.

    All this may sound a little familiar to adults; it makes sense to us that we are more motivated when we are interested, that when we have passion for something, we are more invested in the outcome. It’s not a mystery that the same is true for children.

    Dominican University of California’s Professional Development Program for Educators ( has a Passion-Driven Education Series of three courses for teachers pursuing their continuing education/professional development . They are:

    • Teacher and Student Passion: The importance of bringing both student and teacher passion into the classroom in ways that replace “compliant” education with education that inspires, engages and produces results (2 semester credits/units).
    • Passionate Classroom Communities: If you feel that your classroom is in danger of becoming standardized and formulaic – and/or your students are doing just enough to get by – you need some new tools. This course will help you build rapport and give you strategies to keep your students creative and engaged (2 semester credits/units).
    • Passionate and Engaging Lesson Planning: Would you describe your lesson plans as reflecting your passion for your students? If not, back up and consider how they can be different. (1 semester credit/unit).

    Genius hour is a great beginning. And what if every hour in your classroom could feel like that?

    Photo credit: MoneyBusinessImages via iStock photos