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Genius Hour is Genius Part 1

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I first heard about Genius Hour via Twitter, and I was intrigued. Anything that allows students to be highly engaged in their own learning gets my attention. I did a little research on it, and most of what I have found is geared towards elementary and middle-school students.

I modified some existing resources I found on this wiki for Genius Hour and decided to give it a go with my two grade 9 English classes. We have an A/B block schedule, so the idea was that every time we had English on a Friday, we’d have Genius Hour on that class (great idea for last period on Fridays!), which winds up being every other week.

Here are my specific rules for Genius Hour:

  •  You can do anything you want as long as it is learning about or learning to do something (e.g. how to juggle, how to write a novel, carrying out donut taste testing)
  • You have to choose something you are interested in
  • You can learn anything you want but must bring all the materials yourself (e.g. if you are learning to practice frosting techniques for baking, you must bring all the food and hardware yourself)
  • You have to be engaged during the whole class. It is not time to catch up on sleep, passively watch TV, or half-engage. If you don’t like your GH project, change it.
  • You can work in pairs, groups, or apart.
  • You must have a research question that you are trying to answer (“Do students prefer McDonald’s or Burger King for their fast food?”; “When I take apart three different brands of cell phones, are the insides different or the same?”)
  • You must present to the class on your project every month, a 1-2-minute update on your project or what you did and the result when it was finished.
  • The presentation must have a visual component (live performance, a slide show with a photograph or screenshots, etc.) and state the research question clearly in writing.
  • There is no time limit — a project might last one session or six
  • There are no grades for Genius Hour at all, but there is lots of student and teacher feedback and self-reflection at the end of each project.

On the first day of Genius Hour, there was lots of excitement. Here were some of the proposed topics:

  • Donut taste testing
  • The scientific definitions/parameters for race
  • Cupcake and cake piping techniques
  • Writing a novel
  • Self-defense
  • Sign language
  • Learning about the Illuminati
  • Taking apart old cell phones to see what’s inside
  • Finding out why everyone prefers Burger King

Right away I realized an opportunity for learning when the proposed topics of interest were turned into questions. The students didn’t know how to create good research questions. Brittany and Mary, the girls doing the donut taste testing, started with the research question: which is the best donut?” Atash and Haley posed the question: “Why does everyone prefer Burger King?” Hamad and Ray asked: “What’s inside a cell phone?” Ibrahim asked: “What is the scientific definition for race and what are the scientific boundaries that divide the races?”

I decided to go back to my original Google doc form and add some columns, and I did this right in class while they started to work. I first changed the column about the research question to read “Original Proposed Research Question.” Then I added a column next to it that was “Final Research Question.” At the end of the doc, I added a column: “Approved by Teacher” where I could leave my initials once we had conferred and I could sign off on their project and research question as being strong enough that they will have a clear path to learning. Here is my updated Genius Hour Proposal Form — feel free to use, adapt, and share it as you desire.

I then went around to every group or individual and checked in. We talked through the research question and I helped them see that a research question that couldn’t be answered, or that was answered by opinion, or that assumed an outcome that wasn’t necessarily true, was not yet a strong research question. Through five minutes of chatting with each of the first three groups of students, I was able to make them see that they either couldn’t answer their questions or they could answer them too simply (e.g. What’s inside a cell phone? Open it up and there it is. But what did you learn?)

Here’s how the first three questions changed in the first half hour:

  1. “Which is the best donut?” became “Do people prefer chocolate glazed donuts or sprinkles, and do the donuts’ ingredients help suggest why?” (e.g. is there more fat/sugar in the one people prefer?)
  2. “Why does everyone prefer Burger King?” became “Do ninth-graders at our school prefer McDonald’s or Burger King and why?”
  3. “What’s inside a cell phone?” became “What does the inside of a phone look like? How do the insides of a Samsung, iPhone, and Blackberry compare?”

Suddenly, the students saw that refined, specific, answerable research questions set them on a clear path for their first GH. The donut group began designing their taste test; the fast food group began figuring out how to do a survey of all the ninth graders and seek out resources: a teacher who is expert at creating surveys in Google, class lists from the HS office to make sure they sent their survey to everyone, and the grade 9 English teachers to make sure they asked all students to complete the survey. The cell phone group was off and running, seeking advice from the tech director, borrowing tiny tools from the IT office to open the phones, and watching tutorials online as to how to open and take apart cell phones.

The fourth student, Ibrahim, was a little more problematic. I knew when I heard his initial research question, “What is the scientific definition for race and what are the scientific boundaries that divide the races?” that he was going to have a tough time, as science has evolved to move away from scientific definitions of race (e.g. eugenics). I could have just told him this, but I thought I’d see what he came up with. When I checked in with him on his research, he was finding lots of information on what distinguishes one race from another; for example he had pictures of albinos from three different races and he was reading through a page of comparisons of the men’s physical features, other than skin color, based on the photographs. But I quickly noted that he was using Wikipedia. I told him Wikipedia was not a reliable resource page, even though sometimes it can be very helpful as a general overview of something. But I told him he needed to evaluate the sources by making sure they were legitimate, by ensuring they were trusted news organization, like the BBC, or they were a .edu or .gov site, etc.

Ibrahim went back to his research and continued for only a few more minutes before he turned around and said, “Ms. Wiggins, can I change my topic?”

“Sure, why?” I replied.

“Because without Wikipedia, the only sources I’m getting now are ‘Ask.com’ and ‘Yahoo Answers.'”

“What does that tell you about your topic?” I asked.

He smiled and replied, “That it’s pretty sketchy?”

Bingo. It was such a great moment for me as a teacher to see that in about 15 minutes, a student had himself discovered the importance of good, reliably sourced information in order to proceed with authentic learning. I was glad I hadn’t jumped the gun and just told him to change the topic, because I think he learned the lesson more deeply on his own.

In the end, his research question became, “Is ethnic background a factor in certain medical conditions?” Now that was a research question he could work with, and within minutes, he was finding loads of sites and sources. He checked back in with me several times to ensure that the web site he was using seemed “legit,” and we looked together for the signs — that they were .govs or .edus, that the page had recently been updated, etc. Within one class, Ibrahim had learned what my Extended Essay students in grade 11 often took days and weeks to learn — a good question makes research easy, you can’t trust everything you read on the web, and there are ways to help figure out if sources are reliable.

Stay tuned for the next part on Genius Hour when I’ll share how these projects turned out and how the presentations went.

4 thoughts on “Genius Hour is Genius Part 1

  1. This sounds like such a fun class. I love the way these projects allow for self-directed learning. Do you think you could do this with your IB students as well?

    I’ve been struggling to find ways to give students more choice and relevancy in the classroom. So far my biggest success have been with an individual project (much like genius hour) that our seniors do during the two weeks between IB exams and graduation.

    And the second one has been something I call “Free for All Friday.” It’s basically time for students to write whatever they want as long as they’re working on something fun that’s not for class. http://oneteachersminddump.wordpress.com/2013/02/09/free-for-all-friday/

    Thanks for sharing more inspiring ideas!

    1. Might be hard with time constraints of IB, but I’m open to it. It would be ideal in the new IBCC — something I am dying for my school to adopt, but not likely any time soon.

  2. Genius Hour is – Genius! But it seems to me that if they are really going to become ‘geniuses’ at something then it suggests a different option: there should be opportunities to help others who need what they know (somewhat like Jigsaw), based on divvying up needed wisdom for an upcoming challenge by roles/choices/slants that they can choose.

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