Thursday, 14 July 2016

A Rough Guide to Genius Hour

After participating in professional dialogue at #PubPD last night, I stumbled upon a #2ndChat which broadcast the topic of #GeniusHour as its theme. I tried my first Genius Hour this past year and I still had some beer left in my can from the previous session (I couldn’t make it to the Pub in person, so I participated at home via Twitter). More PD seemed like a good idea, so I jumped into the second chat. 

As I answered questions and shared my experiences (140 characters at a time) I was approached by some of the participants who wanted to know more. We shared emails through Direct Message (DM) and I told them I would type up some notes and share some of the Google Doc resources that I had available. As I was typing them out I thought - Why not just write this in a blog… so, here we go.

Full details on Genius hour can be found at this site. There, they define Genius Hour as “a movement that allows students to explore their own passions and encourages creativity in the classroom.  It provides students a choice in what they learn during a set period of time during school.” The idea was spawned at Google who “allow its engineers to spend 20% of their time to work on any pet project that they want. The idea is very simple.  Allow people to work on something that interests them, and productivity will go up.” Consequently, it is sometimes called “20 Time”.

My colleague and I decided to try Genius Hour with our students this past January. He had a Grade 6 class and I had a Grade 5/6 class with about 28 students in each. Our school has many new Canadians and more than half our classes are composed of students learning English as a second language. Some are very new and needed support from our ESL teacher but, most are quite competent in their new language. However, a lot of the terms we planned to use were new to them or had nuanced meanings ("pitch", "genius", "passion", "grill"). Consequently, we included opportunities to teach these ideas and build comfort with these words.

Step One

We launched a discussion by showing the short film Caine's Arcade about a 9 year old boy who made a carnival style arcade using cardboard boxes and household objects. We talked about ...

  • “how cool” his idea was.
  • how it would be fun to make something, even if it was just for ourselves.
  • his “inspiration” and the idea of being "inspired to make something".
  • the terms “passion” and “passion project”.

Step Two

We took the kids to the computer lab and provided them with access to desktops and Chromebooks. With nearly 60 kids, we needed to have access to many devices so they could explore independently before sharing. They were asked to research the following by sharing this document with them through a Google Classroom link. To start, they were given 10 minutes to find out anything they could about Genius Hour, 20% Time or 20 Time Projects. After they explored, we mixed and mingled around each other's screens and shared our findings.

Step Three

The rest of that same document details a full introduction and a step-by-step guide (through questions) to make a plan for a passion project. It even includes a worksheet for deadlines.

Step Four

The students prepare a "pitch" using this Google Doc to guide them.

We let them work in small groups to practice their pitch and to ask each other probing questions to make sure that their Genius Hour plan ...

  • made sense (supplies were attainable and didn’t take up too much class space).
  • could be achieved  (was practical for a classroom environment).
  • would take approximately 6 hours (six - 1 hour blocks) to complete.

We also sent notes home to parents to let them know about this project. (We both use Class Dojo as our parent communication tool). We wanted parents to know that they may have to purchase some supplies or to dissuade their students from project choices if they were unable to provide these supplies.
Step Five
They made their pitch and were “grilled” by the teacher and students. We talked about “being grilled” in an interview. The “grilling” was good natured but important questions were asked. Some students did have ideas that needed tweaking. For example, one student wanted to learn how to “juggle" a soccer ball 25 times in a row using his feet. That was not something he could practice for six hours in a classroom. Instead, he compromised and chose to make an interactive Google Slideshow of the top ten greatest soccer goalies.

Step Six

We then blocked off 1 hour of time (every Friday during the first 100 minute block of the day) and launched our Genius Hour work time. For those who forgot their supplies, I prepared guided reading activities and I did some Diagnostic Reading Assessment. To create mood, the best of Mozart was played in the background. Students were reminded that they should be working quietly and independently. This did not have to be policed as engagement was high. After each Genius Hour block, students were given about 20 minutes to document their progress. I took photographs and shared them through Google Photo links on Edmodo. Some chose to write in journals and others used a Google Doc. Some even recorded a short speech about what they had done as a voice memo. This hodge-podge made it difficulty for me to evaluate their progress effectively.


Final Projects

After about 8 weeks (there were unavoidable interruptions) we shared our projects. Each class set up a make-shift Passion Project Museum that allowed visiting classes to wander through the exhibits. My students created video games, foosball tables, comic books, doll houses, desk organizers, board games and cardboard villages. One girl knitted a hat for her doll while several made interactive slideshows on subjects like "The History of Modern Dance" or "Sea Creatures of the Deep".

Next Steps

My teaching colleague has moved on to a new position but, I will try Genius Hour again. The changes I will make are as follows...
  • I will share pictures of the best examples from the previous year.
  • The notes I send home to parents will be more detailed and will let them know that they do not have to buy expensive supplies (other choices are available).
  • I will have students all use a Google Doc Journal to document their progress.
  • Progress updates will require a photograph and at least a single paragraph entry. I will provide them with feedback each week too.
  • I will make sure we have 6 consecutive Fridays available without interruption.
  • Spend more time on the idea of "passion". Some students picked things they "liked" but were not passionate about.
  • Encourage them to consider creating things that can be shared with the world to increase the likelihood of feedback.


















  1. Marc, I have to comment on your goal to "Spend more time on the idea of 'passion'. Some students picked things they 'liked' but were not passionate about." This is a tough one. Especially for 6th graders. I struggle with this every year. I spend time in "regular" class promoting the idea that we should be doing things we are passionate about, and I try to give them time to figure out what they think they're passionate about, but so many just don't know. It hurts my heart to witness! Here are my posts about Passion: I've realized that my own passions come out of hurt. Those heartbreak maps that Angela Maiers promotes are essential.

    Then again, there's the other portion of Genius Hour / 20time - why not let students learn more about what they LIKE, or what they're GOOD at? Won't this help lead them to their passions? Won't this help them learn how to learn/research on their own? Won't this keep them more engaged in school? I am okay if students cannot (yet) find their passions, but instead want to grow in a skill or learn something new. They're still so young and experimental. Heck, some ADULTS still don't know what they're passionate about (example: my own dad). I have curated some articles here about Passion & Purpose - they might help. :) Thank you for sharing your reflection! I hope other teachers can learn from you and your passion! :D

  2. Thanks so much for your comments and feedback Joy. I'll explore those links you shared now.