I’ve read with great interest several blog posts and Twitter conversations about the idea of “Genius Hour.” The basic idea is that students are given some regular time in class, for example an hour every Friday afternoon, to work on a project of their choice – anything they have an interest in and want to learn more about.
More than ten years ago I heard about and stole a similar idea from a teacher I’d met in a summer class. She called them “Passion Projects.” Her enthusiasm for these projects was contagious, and I tried something similar with my students that next school year. It didn’t go as well as I’d hoped the first try; I hadn’t considered how much my 5th graders would need to be taught to work independently. They just weren’t sure even how to get started without specific directions. But as I got better at supporting them and at providing opportunities in other parts of class for them to make choices about how they worked, they created some fantastic things.
This idea is supported in research around business as well as education. In his TED talk on what motivates people and in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink talks about the idea of “20% Time,” used by companies like Google to give employees time to work on projects of their choice, and out of which many of their most innovative ideas originate, including Google Mail and Google Translate.
On a closer-to-home level, today marks the first day of my kids’ summer vacation. This will be the first year in several years that they are home for the summer and not in part-time summer camp at their preschool, as they are now “grown up” and heading this fall into kindergarten and 1st grade. The school they’ll attend is an arts-focused magnet school, which I’m hoping will mean lots of project-based learning and lots of opportunities to be creative and to make choices about how they learn. I’ve heard, though, that the 1st grade teachers tend to be “traditional,” which I’ll admit concerns me a bit. We didn’t choose a magnet school to get “traditional” instruction.
While the kids are home this summer, though, I have a tremendous chance to give the kids time for their own Genius Projects. My 5-year-old loves building with Legos, so we’ll be doing some Lego Challenges, like, “Can you build a bridge high enough for a My Little Pony to walk underneath and strong enough to hold up this book?” and he’ll also be making some how-to videos about his own creations, something he’s been wanting to do more of.
My 6-year-old, who wants to grow up to be an artist or a scientist, is constantly making projects of her own anyway, so as long as I keep her supplied in paper and tape, she’ll create all summer long.
Her personal project in over the last few weeks has been a pop-up book about dinosaurs. She cut the dinosaurs out freehand and figured out how to make them stand on their own. She completed several pages on her own before I (or anyone else) even saw what she was working on.
That’s exactly the kind of self-motivated, creative learning that I want her summer (and, ideally, much of her school year) to be about.