What Do You Want to Learn? Genius Hour

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SWBAT explore their own passions in a creative and independent inquiry process.

Big Idea

What would you do and learn at school if you could do anything?


15 minutes

Learning occurs in the intersection between play and work. The real trick in middle school science is how to make the work feel more like play, so the elusive Venn Diagram intersection has more overlap, resulting in more learning. 

As my teaching career has evolved, I've learned that some instructional strategies no longer work well for contemporary learners. This Genius Hour lesson is a strategy that can increase the engagement and learning that occurs in your cutting-edge classroom that coordinates work and play. According to recent research, play must have the following attributes:

1) Students make their own decisions.

2) Students tap into their own intrinsic motivation.

3) Students become immersed in the moment.

4) Play is spontaneous and unscripted.

5) Play is enjoyable.

Genius Hour (also known as 20Time) uses all of these attributes to engage students and light their minds on fire with curiosity. The premise is that students will learn more if they are making choices about the curriculum content and delivery. For more on using student interests to drive curriculum, refer to this lesson: What Lights Your Fire?

So, what is Genius Hour? In short, Genius Hour is a movement that allows students to explore their own passions and encourages creativity in the classroom.  It provides students a choice in the topic and type of project they learn about during a set period of time during school.

Visit my Web-site for comprehensive explanations and links: Genius Hour.

Genius Hour is a vehicle for students to practice writing across the curriculum that links directly to the Common Core English Language Arts Standards for Science and Technical Subjects, in particular WHST.6-8.7  - Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.

Additionally, Genius Hour projects provide opportunities for instructional rigor in terms of the NGSS science practices. All of the practices could be addressed during a Genius Hour project - most notably, the following science practices play a major role: projects help students investigate questions within the scope of the classroom (SP1); conduct an investigation to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence that meet the goals of the investigation (SP7); and develop students’ ability to read and produce domain-specific text (SP8).

In order to ENGAGE students in this lesson, I show them the following inspirational video:

Following the video, student write responses to two prompts on an index card. On one side, students write:

In one word, describe how the Kid President video makes you feel.

On the other side, students write:

In one word, describe how school makes you feel.

I collect the cards, shuffle them, and pass them out randomly. Students form a circle, and each student reads the word from the school prompt. This creates an atmosphere in the room that is often neutral or negatively-tinted. Then, each student reads the word from the Kid President prompt. The atmosphere in the room undergoes a palpable shift. After the last word is read, silence is allowed to fill the room. I then pose the question:

As a group, why don't we feel the same inspiration about school as we did about the message from Kid President?

Student responses are very enlightening, and it is important to maintain a respectful listening environment while students share their feelings. Once a few students share, I share with students about the pressure teachers feel with the many responsibilities we have to teach every student every standard, about standardized testing, helping kids feel happy at school and trying to make sure class isn't boring. Now, I tell students that I think I might have an answer to our problem: Genius Hour!


35 minutes

The EXPLORE stage of the lesson is to get students involved in the topic so that they start to build their own understanding. To help students explore their Genius Hour projects, we review these guidelines together:

What Do You Get to Do?

1) You get to choose own project.

2) You earn Genius Hour time by being up-to-date on your science classwork (including projects, homework and retakes).

3) You are responsible for yourself and your choices.

4) You prove a connection to science or science standards.

5) You monitor your own work and your own time.

6) You will present your project.

After clarifying the requirements and answering questions (students have lots!), they work on their Genius Hour Proposal Form. Once these proposals are submitted, I review them to ensure student projects are specific, detailed and have a concrete connection to science. For examples of student proposals, check here: Genius Hour Proposal Form - Student Example 1 and Genius Hour Proposal Form - Student Example 2.

Upon approval, students follow the instructions: Genius Hour To Do to begin working on their projects.

For students who struggle generating ideas, I provide an Ideas Parking Lot (a shared document) that allows students to share good ideas that others might want to use. Additionally, the activity provided in the Genius Hour Proposal Form is meant to help students get in touch with their passions.


The EXPLAIN stage provides students with an opportunity to communicate what they have learned so far and figure out what it means. The EXTEND stage allows students to apply new knowledge to a novel situation. The purpose of Genius Hour is to provide students with the freedom to pursue their interests, complete and independent project and create a final product representing their learning. Through the Genius Hour process, students choose to explain and extend themselves at their own level of motivation. The guidelines you set up for the Genius Hour projects dictate how students proceed. For example, I specifically required a connection to science, so I could justify science instructional time being used for Genius Hour time. You may have other goals for your students; Genius Hour can be modified to fit any learning objective.

As students work on their projects, they are accountable to update their Genius Hour Tracking Form as a way to keep track of the time spent and tasks completed. Students are required to have some type of final product to present, so this tracking form helps students manage their time and and track the tasks they need to complete.


10 minutes

The EVALUATION stage is for both students and teachers to determine how much learning and understanding has taken place. One of the hallmarks of Genius Hour is that it is ungraded. In this spirit, we have a "Teach Something, Learn Something Day" where students present their learning to each other and the greater community of teachers, parents and administrators.

Without formal assessment, I do evaluate student learning informally by interviewing students about their levels of engagement and enjoyment. This video shows students discussing their take on Genius Hour:

Student engagement is a main goal of Genius Hour. By reviewing student projects, it is possible to gauge how much learning has taken place. For example, this project: mygeniushourprojectesay - Student Example Final Project is the work of a student who has never produced written work in science class. He is highly interested in science topics, but has traditionally avoided all output regarding his learning. This project showed me a dramatic and surprising view into this student's motivation, writing ability and ability to learn about science. In addition to interviews, students write an informal reflection about the Genius Hour process and any suggestions they have regarding how to make it a more effective learning tool.