I Can Haz Genius?

I don’t get Genius Hour.  I don’t.  Really.

Type “genius” into Google and you get this:  “a person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative, either generally or in some particular respect.”

timetolearnsmallThe obvious low hanging criticism of genius hour is the name itself, and that being a genius, or demonstrating the qualities of a genius, is restricted to a particular time frame.  Because in my understanding of this, it is indeed prescribed time by the teacher when there is the opportunity for students to explore learning in their own way, about what they are interested in.  And if its bigger than that, don’t use hour, because that implies that time to be a genius is limited – it sends the wrong message.  Name it something else, or maybe just expect kids to demonstrate genius all the time, in everything they do.  Have that expectation of them.  That’s simple.  And better.

So, during this time, you get to be a genius.  Other times, not so much.  Perhaps I’m just having some fun with words here.  But you know what, words matter.

From this blog post:   “Genius hour…is when they are allowed to develop their own inquiry question about whatever they want to explore.”  Allowed?  You can explore your passions, but only when I give you the time to do so?  C’mon.

Why should students need permission to explore what they are interested in learning about?  Guess what?  They’ve been doing that forever – and in most cases, outside of school.  Just ask them.

For me, “genius hour” represents another attempt, in a long string of attempts, to “containerize” learning.  You can be a genius, but do it at this time, and on our terms.  Learn on your own, and what you are interested in, but do so within our structure, when we give you the time to do so.   We’ll let you know when you can be a genius.  We’ll let you know when learning can be interesting for you.  Isn’t it ironic that the intent of the experience is to provide choice and agency, and to deepen engagement, but that it only can only occur at a time when the teacher “allows” it?   Not much choice in that…nothing genius about that.

I’m guessing that most teachers will think that genius hour is a great idea, and that adding an hour or two for kids to explore their interests is a good thing.  Maybe.

But maybe educators should stop and think about establishing a student learning experience, and school learning culture, where the exploration of individual interests is paramount, and that truly innovative approaches to school that encourage intelligence, creativity, and wonder are the basis of everything that is done in schools, and at all times.


  1. Sandra Succamore says:

    I am a public school teacher who does GH with my 3rd grade, and have thought of renaming it for some of the reasons described. I also have issues with the implication that 1 hr of self directed learning trumps all of the inquiry driven learning we do across the curriculum all the time. Truth be told, maybe this is just us educators overthinking the label though. I don’t recall what my teacher called it when I was a kid in intermediate classrooms some 40 years ago in BC, Canada, but it was in fact very similar to today’s GH. We could investigate an area of interest and were free to visit the library, read,mags or,books, or watch films that related to our study. If we couldn’t find resources, we wrote a request to the government for data on our topic. I don’t think it mattered what tech we used, or what we called it, because what was important was the empowerment we felt in choosing to pursue a question or interest not because it was curriculum, but because it was relevant for us. John Dewey was right, so,was Piaget (constructivism), and Vygotsky (peer mentoring). I think the business world of high tech has caught up to the classroom, and that the flipping is the other way around. I believe most teachers have moved beyond a concept of the banking model of education (Paulo Friere’s concern) long ago. Could it be that today’s employers are starting to catch up to the expectations of educated learners because they have started listening to their employees who are skilled in collaboration and decision making?

  2. I too have some objections to the term “Genius Hour,” but I think you present a false dichotomy here. You argue that establishing a designated time for agency and engagement eliminates the opportunity for a similar experience at any other time in the curriculum.

    “Isn’t it ironic that the intent of the experience is to provide choice and agency, and to deepen engagement, but that it only can only occur at a time when the teacher “allows” it? Not much choice in that…nothing genius about that.”

    Not ironic. Wrong.

    The scores of teachers I’ve met who have dedicated time for students to pursue independent projects to create something that serves an authentic audience are actually the same ones who are pushing for deeper engagement across the entire curriculum. To group these teachers and label them as lacking in your definition of “truly innovative” is a mighty broad stroke.

    You argue that there is a “long string of attempts” to “containerize” learning? Do you mean “compartmentalize”? If so, then yes, classes do need to be be MUCH more interdisciplinary, but that problem has been around a very long time, you don’t write about that at all, and Genius Hour certainly doesn’t further it. By “containerize,” I think you mean there is a conspiracy to prevent students from learning outside of the classroom. Do you think that any of these teachers are doing this because they DON’T want students to pursue their passions and learning outside of school? Teachers are not instituting this time because they want to contain student learning. They’re doing it because they see students are so over-scheduled that many do not have opportunities to explore. I know of zero teachers who tell students they can’t explore their learning on their own time. That’s simply an insane suggestion.

    Providing a time for students to pursue independent projects expands a culture of exploration and student agency. These courageous teachers are throwing their foot in the door with these projects. They are the ones on the front lines of education reform, and posts like yours are not helping the cause.

  3. I think I tend to have many of the same misgivings about education and the way we “school” students to death as you do. I agree that as a system, school tends to beat the life out of any authentic learning that students might engage in while within the four walls of our buildings. I think many schools/districts have relinquished their driving purpose to provide the very best educational experience for our students in lieu of the allure of sharing fancy data points with stakeholders.

    However, I believe that Genius Hour, or 20% time, or whatever we want to call it, is often used by teachers as a way to provide opportunities for a much more organic and authentic learning experience for their students. And, as Kevin stated above, these are often times the teachers who are pushing their students throughout the day, not just during that time. The other factor, is that the teachers I know/have seen/have heard/have read who are using Genius Hour are typically the ones who are more progressive, more vocal about their disdain for the insane emphasis placed on standardized assessments, and who want to make things better for everyone.

    I applaud teachers who try to provide these opportunities for their students, even when it might fly in the face of expectations placed upon them in their school/district/state/etc. And, while I might not completely agree with your post, I certainly appreciate your overarching message that school needs to be better…always. That we should be harnessing the passions and talents and genius that our students come to school with every day.

    Thanks for making me think this morning, David.

  4. Kevin and Devin speak my thoughts – I’m so happy to see comments on this post, and to see the conversation continuing.

    Because I have gone against the grain in my district to implement Genius Hour (by any name, really), I have gotten support from my administration (even after a PARENT called it “crazy”), buy-in from nine teachers (and growing) at my middle school, and now our district has a plan in place to implement it in elementary. Good ideas spread, even if it starts out as “compartmentalized” or “containerized.” The passions and struggles teachers learn about during this (albeit short) period of time affect the rest of our week. It turns out that now, more than ever before, all of my lessons revolve around my students’ skills and needs. This is how it should be. Students know each other more, as well, and the culture of the classroom has been altered as we learn from each other all week long. Since allowing myself (and thank goodness for supportive administration!) to allow this type of learning, I see myriad opportunities for student voice and choice throughout the school day, and have been emboldened to give over control to students.

    Genius Hour, 20%Time, Passion Projects… they are all a step toward handing the classroom over to student learners 100% of the time and to developing this type of culture or mindset. For those teachers who do not have any of this time built into their schedule, it may still be a very threatening prospect. We do not need to deter other teachers from starting with this baby step. … Time for me to go back and read Kevin and Devin’s comments so I can use their words to convince other teachers to jump on board and try something like Genius Hour.

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