Genius Hour Transforms Classrooms With Student-Driven Learning

cheerful multiethnic little girls doing homework together

Students are less and less engaged in school.  Especially now that some schools are completely virtual.  How can we help students learn to love learning again?  How can we get them to want to complete a project?

Genius Hour is one way.

Have you heard of this trend?  Have you tried it in your own classroom?


When I was in graduate school one of my classes told me all about these schools that did not teach in a traditional way.  In fact, there was very little schooling going on, but there was a lot of learning.  Students studied what they wanted to learn and were passionate about.  For some kids, it was video games, and for some kids it was pre-med.

I thought this sounded amazing and chaotic all at once.  The kids who were playing video games learned to code and make them.  They brought their passion to a whole new level.  They were fully invested in learning everything they could.  And the responsibility was on them.

As wonderful as this seems I know that it’s unconventional.  I know that not every student would flourish in this setting.  But could we take aspects of a school like this and bring them into our classrooms?

Genius Hour: What Is It?

Genius Hour is one hour a week (some formats say 20% of your school hours) where you let your students determine what it is that they should study.  It’s one hour a week in school where students get to be curious and ask questions.  It’s one hour a week where a love of learning can be ignited.  It’s a passion project. 

I know what you’re thinking.  You don’t have one hour a week.  

Keep reading and see what it is.  That way you know what you will be finding time for.

There are many catchy YouTube videos that can explain Genius Hour to you.  There are actually way too many so here are some of the best I picked out.

Genius hour is a student-driven study.  Students pick out a topic they want to study.  Then they do just that.  It can involve research, interviewing people, practicing, finding a mentor, learning, and presenting the information.  

Some examples of what my students have focused on for their Genius Hour projects are website building, coding, music, baking, hairstyling, yoga, or gymnastics.  They set a goal and work towards learning it.

The key is that students like it because they decided what to learn.  They will master a variety of standards as they work.  And this will be deep and meaningful learning because it is student-driven.

How to Avoid Chaos

As much as I like Genius Hour I will say I have seen it implemented really well and I have seen it implemented poorly.  My whole school took part in Genius Hour for two years.  Some teachers loved it and some hated it.  Their like or dislike seemed to be related to how they formatted the hour of work.

Here’s what you can do to make sure you aren’t ripping your hair out because you tried something new.

The Pitch

When you decide to have Genius Hour you need to have expectations, structure, and a plan.  Actually, your expectations will require your students to come up with the structure and a plan.  

I require my students to create a pitch or proposal for their project.  Before they get to start on whatever crazy idea they have in mind they need to tell me all about it in a slideshow presentation.  

I have requirements for what they will include, such as materials, what could go wrong, and who their mentor will be.  They will determine with you if any parts of their project will have to be completed at home.  Some things just can’t be done in school.  They have to present this to the class and get my approval to start.

All of this preplanned and ready to go structure is available for you to purchase in my Genius Hour lesson. 

Working Periods

Students will have one hour a week to work in class.  They need to know when their working period is because they need to bring in materials.  Being prepared is part of the grade.  Problem-solving what they can work on when they forget materials is a valuable lesson. 

In class, they should follow the plan they laid out for you in their pitch.  They should know what to do and how to get started because they already planned it and explained it to you.

You will want to be somewhat involved as they work, but most of it should be independent.  You’re there to support them if they ask for help and make sure they stay focused.  

Feel free to sit at a desk and get a little extra work done.  Maybe sit near some of the more distracted students.  

Some projects will require them to work outside school too.  I had a student who wanted to learn to do tricks on his scooter.  He had to work on his research about how to do tricks in class, record himself at home, and then edit video for his final presentation. I would check in with these students to make sure they are on track about the home parts of their project.

Wrap Up

We work on our Genius Hours for the quarter.  At the end of the quarter, they evaluate themselves.  Did they learn what they expected?  What problems did they face?  They put all of their reflective thoughts into a slideshow and present it to the class.  Again I have requirements for what they should include. 

I will allow students to continue their Genius Hour the next quarter if they didn’t finish their goal, but they will need to update their pitch.  What are they going to learn now?

Implementing Genius Hour

Now that you know all about Genius Hour the hardest part is finding time to implement it.  Actually, the 2020-2021 school year, when I am writing this, is a perfect time.  It provides an alternative way to learn after being on screens for such a large portion of the day.  It’s an easy year to say this is what we are doing now.

However,  it’s important to have a time like this every school year. I know there is never enough time in the classroom, but time can be made for the things we value the most.  Here are a few ideas where you could find the time:

  1. One school I worked in started an extra help time at the end of the day and had students rotate classrooms. Maybe you can talk to your school and get everyone on board for something like this, but instead, have Genius Hour.
  2. Show the kids what you want them to do, but tell them that in order to make the time they have to work on faster transition or change the way they write down homework.  There must be something in the routine that can be slightly altered to free up time.  Something that would work better if your students cooperated a little more to have time for Genius Hour.
  3. Skip morning meeting once a week and start your first-period subject a little late.  As soon as they get in the classroom they start working.
  4. If you’re like me at some point in your career you were assigning extra work because you felt like you had to.  Assigning more work or busy work does not make you a better teacher.  However, replacing busy work with Genius Hour would make you a better teacher.  Ditch the extra work, correcting and grading for student-driven learning.
  5. Think about the standards your students could meet while working on Genius Hour. Use time from that subject to have Genius Hour.  Maybe give a different subject each quarter as a theme for their genius hour.  If I told my students it must have math components I can see them coming up with crazy creative ideas.

If it’s something you’d like to try make time.  It could be a great experiment that could change your teaching life.

Genius Hour is worth trying in your classroom.  Student-directed learning can help students love coming to school.  It gives them skills they can transfer to other academics. And it can take some stress out of school.  

If your ready to get started here is an easy, ready-to-use Genius Hour unit. 

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