Journey to Genius

One of the things that I introduced my students to last year,  that I knew for sure I wanted to repeat again was Genius Hour.  I was so amazed at the ideas my students had when they could be in charge of their learning and in a lot of cases, I was equally as amazed by the things they learned and shared with others.

In September when school started, my, now, grade 7 students were already asking if we would do Genius Hour again and when we could start.  On the first day I asked my students to give me some feedback on what I had done last year that they really liked and what I had done that they hoped I would never ask them to do again.  What the majority of them told me that they liked, was the opportunity to do Genius Hour and learn about things they were passionate about.  I am not willing to share the things they hoped I would never do again, but you can bet I have taken their feedback to heart and will try to change my teaching to accommodate as many as possible.


So what is Genius Hour? To me Genius Hour is a set aside time dedicated to student driven and passion directed learning.  Students choose what they would like to learn about and teachers get out-of-the-way, basically, and let them follow the path to creativity and discovery.  It is learning from our mistakes, reflecting on how we could do things better, sharing and learning from each other in a culture of collaboration.  It is my job as a teacher to coach and advise them as they move through the process.  Some students require more support than others, but one thing is for sure…Learning is messy!

For our students to really learn, to learn vigorously, they need more than hypothetical questions, more than information, more than textbooks and tests.  They need to know how to dig in and really answer tough questions they have about the world, they need to know that it is okay to make mistakes and learn from them, that we need to open up our ideas to others and learn how to listen and learn from each other.  I was intrigued by a blog post I was reading the other day called What can I teach that a You Tube video can’t? It made me think about some of the things we spend time requiring students to learn and memorize that are easily at their fingertips.  Is this really the best use of our time?

The idea of Genius Hour was developed through many ideas from many people, but one of them was Google’s 20% time.  Many of Google’s products and innovations,  such as Gmail came from the 20% time their employees have to work on their own ideas.  It goes to show that learning and working do not always have to be directed from above.  Many good things come out of times when we are allowed to be creative and pursue our own thinking.  One could argue and prove through looking at history that we would not be where we are today without the opportunity for innovation.

Some of the ideas my students are working on right now are:

  • What role could Mind Craft play in the classroom?
  • Why do teenagers need sleep and have such a hard time waking up in the morning? (Stemming from a discussion we had in class about teenage brain development)
  • What are the origins of Halloween?
  • How does a bullet proof vest actually work? (Stemming from our recent tragedy in Ottawa)
  • What are optical illusions and how do they affect the brain?

I recently watched one of my grade 7 students present his ideas on Stan Lee and the Marvel Comics history.  He presented with such grace and knowledge there was not doubt in my mind he was passionate about his learning.  It was a very proud moment for me as his teacher.

Genius Hour Presentation
Genius Hour Presentation

As their teacher, I cannot argue the learning that is going on around me and I cannot deny the level of engagement in that learning.  I continue to think of ways to help them make the most of their time, help them dig deep and really find things out, help them know how to spread their knowledge and learning to others and use not only the experts in our classroom, but more importantly beyond our classroom walls to help them with their learning.

I can’t wait to see how many things I learn with my students this year.  I look forward to our Journey into Genius.

My Son, The Learner

Late last night as I was watching TV my son appeared from outside.  When I questioned him as to where he had been, he replied, “I was building stuff.”  He then proceeded to show me an elaborate potato gun he had constructed and explain to me how it would work.  He also made sure I knew that he did the best with the materials he could find in our shed. (Not his ideal materials apparently)  The potato gun was something that he had seen at a conservation camp he had attended recently sponsored by the Estevan Wildlife Association.

Many times I have been amazed at the learning attitude that my son Nate has.  He sees himself capable of many things.  He can picture how something will go together, how he can make things, even how he can mix chemicals to create elaborate fireworks displays for friends and family. (I know, I know… who lets their 15-year-old do that?)  If he does not know how to do something, he will “Google it” or “You Tube it” to clarify. He never sees limits in what he can learn and accomplish when he is busy with his passions.  He will construct, test, and reconstruct, test over and over again to create the exact chemical reaction he is seeking in a firework.

I am amazed by him.

The flip side of this story though, is that my son has struggled in school since he started kindergarten.  He had trouble learning his letters, then he did not learn to read until after most of his classmates were well on their way.  He still struggles to find the motivation to memorize things and apply them in the school setting. He hates chemistry, not because he does not understand chemicals and their reactions, but  because he is put off by the need to memorize the periodic table and the lack of hands on learning experiences.  He is struggling to complete his high school in a setting that does not allow for much flexibility or creativity.

I do not worry about Nate’s success in life, but I do worry about his success in the school setting.

Last night I was watching a video of Tony Wagner speaking on “Play, Passion, Purpose” thinking about my son and other students surviving their education.  Dr. Wagner speaks of the antiquated education system and gives many examples and reasons why we need to change our teaching and learning.  He talks about allowing students to play, to explore their passions and to find purpose for their learning.

At times, change in our educational system seems so slow it is hard to recognize.  I realize I need to be part of that change.  Meeting the needs of today’s learner is something I am very passionate about and spend quite a bit of time learning and collaborating with others about.  Last year I had the opportunity to go back into the classroom after spending 5 years as a Learning Support Teacher and school administrator.  It was such a learning experience for me to be “walking my talk” with my staff.  One of the things I tried with my grade 6 and 8 students was Genius Hour.  It was fun to allow time for students to pursue passions and work together to learn new things and it was such an excellent way to get to know them.  When I reflect back on this experience there were many positives, some negatives and, of course, many things I would change.

This summer I read the book “Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom” by A.J. Juliani and have been participating in a book chat on Friday mornings #2k14reads. We will be meeting for two more weeks, so please join us.   I plan to do Genius Hour with my students again this year, using some ideas from the book and things that were shared by the many wise teachers in the book chat.  One of the things I realized last year was that I did not front load my students enough about what passions really are.  Students are not used to having free time to pursue the types of learning they do outside of the school day.  They need to see themselves as learners and realize that learning does not have to be teacher driven.

I hope that I can encourage others to work toward project based learning, driven by students.  We need our young people to have the intrinsic motivation to learn from mistakes, such as the learning I see in my son when he is chasing his passions.