Are students really learning what will help them succeed in life?

Is learning actually learning if you are forced to do it or if it is something students are doing to be compliant?

Many child development experts think that school is simply failing to teach students what is actually important. The overemphasis on grades and test scores may be causing students to lack the development of essential life skills like self-control, motivation, focus and resilience, which much research says is far better at predicting long-term success.

This begs the question: what makes for long-lasting, useful learning beyond simple compliance and the endless chasing of grades rather than learning?

For me, my fondest student learning memories happened when I participated in the science fair in middle and high school.

I was able to study, analyze, and create whatever project I wanted however I wanted. It was ultimate freedom. It was during those times where I cemented what I wanted to be when I got older... a scientist. I could picture myself doing what scientists do, learning about the topics as needed, and applying my knowledge to find more knowledge. This experience was not something that I was doing much in my classes. Don’t get me wrong. I loved school, but not in the same way as the science fair project. I loved the positive reinforcement that I received from school. This love of positive reinforcement went beyond the learning however. The love of getting good grades and praise from teachers and parents is not the same as the love of learning.

Imagine two different students that you are going to teach. Assuming all other things being equal, one student is taught strictly on things they are interested in while the other is taught on a strictly fixed curriculum where no student interest in taken into account. What sort of differences would be occurring within the students’ minds? In what ways is one more meaningful from the other?

Based on Choice Theory, humans’ choices are made to fulfill a psychological need of either:
  • belonging/connecting/love
  • power/significance/competence
  • freedom/autonomy
  • fun

The psychological needs that I gained from choosing to do well in school were mostly related to the sense of belonging and competence that I obtained from the results of my schooling, namely grades. As many teachers will tell you, grades and learning are not the same.

The science fair projects that I completed gave me a sense of freedom, autonomy, and fun as well as a sense of belonging and competence. Because I was given choice on what I wanted to study, I was able to feel a much stronger connection to what I was learning. The stronger the connection that someone makes to their learning, the more intrinsic motivation occurs.

This is where the power of the concept of Genius Hour can really transform certain aspects of your classroom.

As teachers, we are not always able to have complete choice in what we teach, however, if we allow more time and opportunities for student choice and ownership of learning, the results can have long-lasting positive effects on student learning much like my science fair project example. Research has shown that motivation is linked to students having chances to work on their own and have choice in their academics. Student choice empowers students which can help build responsibility and further motivation. Genius Hour provides an opportunity for teachers to be able to reach students in more personalized ways than a traditional classroom setting.

The Educational Challenges
The background behind Genius Hour started from Google which supposedly stole the idea from the company, 3M. 3M gave their workers 15% of their weekly work time to focus on projects of their choosing as long as they were related to the company’s goals and followed company policies. Workers were able to work on any project without the constant need of approval from their superiors. Google expanded on this ideas with their 20% Project. Google asked their workers to create a “pet project” that could be unrelated to their job descriptions but can benefit the company. The workers were to spend 1 day out of the work week (20%) to work on said project. This is where innovations like Gmail, AdSense, and Google News originated. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know what I would do without my Gmail!

Genius Hour can help address many educational challenges that both teachers and students face.

Educational Challenges STUDENTS Face that Genius Hour Can Help With

  • School feeling pointless
    • Many students feel as though what they learn in school is pointless and will not help them after high school.
    • Genius Hour not only helps give meaning to students' learning, but also helps them discover their interests.

  • School being boring
    • Genius Hour can also help with providing a positive outlook on school or the particular class that students are in. For example, students working in my computer science class choose to spend their Genius Hour working on something related to computer science. While doing this, it increases the probability that those students might see connections to the other work they are doing in the class. This, in turn, may help create a more positive outlook on school or, at the least, their class.

  • Too much focus on testing (rather than real world skills)
    • Too often, students are great at taking tests, but have little critical thinking skills when applying 21st century skills. In the same token, many students are so fed up with testing that they have been disenchanted from school as a whole.

Educational Challenges TEACHERS Face that Genius Hour Helps With
  • Students being extrinsically motivated
    • Extrinsic motivation stems from students doing things due to outside influences such as grades, parents, teachers, peers, competition, money, etc. Studies have shown that when this occurs, the focus of learning takes a backseat to simply getting the grade or appeasing other people’s expectations.

  • Teachers not connecting with students
    • When teachers have a jam-packed curriculum, this leaves little room for students to exercise their own thoughts and ideas in terms of what they want to learn about, even if it is pertinent to the course. This can cause teachers to be unable to connect with students as much as they might be able to.
    • Not connecting with students has been shown to have a negative effect on learning as a whole, namely less academic achievement.

'Parse' the Educational Practice
Although a lot of people get confused on what Genius Hour is all about, the premise of it is actually quite simple. Genius Hour is basically an open inquiry time in which students can choose what they want to work on as long as it somehow relates to the course as a whole.
  • Structure
    • Teachers can structure Genius Hour however they want and do whatever works for their class. It might be a good idea to get students’ ideas for how they would want it structured. For my computer science class, we do Genius Hour every Friday as a way of ending the week on a positive note. Furthermore, students can brainstorm their plan of attack throughout the week This helps students think about what they plan on doing at the end of the week while they are working on other required activities throughout the week.
  • Function
    • I try to keep Genius Hour as open as possible in my class. Saying “no” to a student’s idea rarely, if ever, happens. Instead, it is easier to say “yes” to a student’s idea and then help them develop and cultivate from there (if needed... #differentiation). It is important to note that all Genius Hour projects must be approved by me first. This helps increase communication between me and the students in regards to their projects as well as create a minimal amount of accountability so that students use their time as wisely as possible. However, the accountability factor does not come into play much given that students are completing a project that they love and are passionate about. In many cases, they will put more work into their Genius Hour project outside of the school day because of their love for what they are doing.
    • Genius Hour does not have to involve creating an artifact or project like is so often perceived. For example, if a student wants to simply learn a different programming language, they can choose to do so. The importance should be put on the learning and what is occurring within the students’ minds.
    • I have replaced the Final Project in my computer science course with Genius Hour. I also started implementing the open inquiry ideas of Genius Hour into each Unit Project as well.
  • Although Genius Hour should be left open to interpretation, I am including the steps that I generally use during implementation in case students need them. They are based on the ideas behind inquiry-based learning.
  • Ask First
    • It is probably best to start at the "Ask" step. All problems or questions to be solved are based on this step. This is where teachers really need to help their students stretch and think beyond what they are usually used to doing. This can be done with such activities as brainstorming, collaborative thinking, and researching online.
  • Investigate
    • Next, students go through the “Investigate” step to find data about that problem or question. This involves students learning as much as they can about their problem or question. This includes the work that others have done on the topic as well as creating possible experiments for themselves to gather their own data.
  • Create
    • From those investigations, students “Create” their own knowledge and understanding of the concepts they were investigating. This involves making sense of their findings and how they relate to their own worldview or present understanding of the topic. This is the most powerful of all of the steps, but it is also the one that teachers need to be most aware of so that students are learning the correct information.
  • Discuss
    • The “Discuss” step involves students communicating their ideas to gather feedback on their findings. This is primarily where their assessment will be completed by the teacher.
  • Reflect
    • Lastly, the students go through the “Reflect” step to go through the process of metacognition. This involves them thinking about their own thinking and how it relates to their previous knowledge.
  • This cycle then keeps going until the learner chooses to stop.

The Underlying Learning Theories
Besides just intrinsically motivating students, Genius Hour also provides teachers with the powerful learning benefits of student choice. As described above, the four psychological needs of Choice Theory are fulfilled when a classroom utilizes Genius Hour.
  • belonging/connecting/love
  • power/significance/competence
  • freedom/autonomy
  • fun

Inquiry-based learning is the backbone of what Genius Hour is all about. In fact, Genius Hour is simply setting time aside to allow student to do open inquiry. According to the National Institutes of Health, there are four major levels of inquiry. Open inquiry represents the fourth major level. This is where Genius Hour projects generally lie in terms of inquiry.

Issues of Implementation
While it is relatively easy to plan and organize Genius Hour, there are some hurdles that might need to be overcome:
  • Lack of free class time
    • Although time can be created by modifying how you teach (such as utilizing blended learning), some courses require students to take time to think about the concepts. For example, my calculus course that I teach seems rushed to many students because of the abstract and difficult concepts. Even with the blended learning model that I utilize in my class, I still struggle to open time for students to work on passion projects.
  • Students taking your course NOT based on interest
    • While this is true for many classes, some classes are simply a requirement for students. This lack of interest would make it difficult for many students to find a Genius Hour project that relates to the course. It is much easier in computer science class being that it is an elective that most of the students chose to be in so that interest is already there. Imagine (if you can) a student not being interested in a math class they are taking. It might be difficult to somehow relate that lack of interest into something that can resemble a Genius Hour project. While many might be optimistic that anything can be related to a subject, the truth of the matter is that it can be difficult at times if they interest is not there.
  • Students do not want to work on GH projects
    • If a student is struggling in passing your class, chances are they probably want to focus on the course concepts rather than trying to create a new project. This can easily be averted by allowing students a choice in whether or not they complete a GH project.
  • Students not being focused or knowing how to problem-solve
    • Tip: Conference with the students face-to-face as much as possible. The connections made with students during this will open them up to making mistakes and taking responsible risks with their project. It will also help them think about their own thinking (metacognition) as well as reflect on themselves.
  • Teachers not used to giving up control of their classroom
    • If you are afraid to learn yourself, then should you really be teaching? If you are not able to try a new thing in your classroom, then what does that really say about how you are as a professional educator? I believe that it is our responsibility as educators to allow students to control their own learning if there is extra time each week in your class.
  • To grade or not to grade... that is the question
    • I do grade GH project, but the grades are completely negotiable with the students. If you are conferencing with them and checking up on them periodically, they should be following your guidelines for success which translates into grades they feel they deserve. As described before, it is all about the relationships. The stronger the relationship, the more productivity you can get out of the students.
  • Knowing whether or not GH is working
    • Ask the students and reflect on the process as it is happening. Give anonymous surveys to students so they can tell you how they truly feel. There are a number of ways to tell if it is working and they all deal with gaining insight from students and communicating with them. As long you take the students into account and keep reflecting on your practices, you will know if it working.

Critical Analysis
  • The strengths of Genius Hour greatly outweigh its weaknesses. GH allows students autonomy to explore their interests and have control of what they are learning. Although it might seem like more work on the teacher’s end, that is not the intention. GH should be extremely student-focused and student-driven. Teachers should take on the role of facilitator and be a wise resource for students as well as a motivating, feedback voice for the students. I advise checking in with students often to keep yourself up to date on what their projects are about and how they have grown over time. Furthermore, giving the students challenges on how they can make their projects grow can provide the needed challenge for students to stretch themselves to their limits while also feeling cared for by their teacher.

Conclusions and Recommendations
  • The whole point of teaching is not just to install content into the minds of student. Instead, it is to promote the problem solving, critical thinking skills that are universal in any profession as well as inspiring students to become lifelong learners and make their dreams a reality. Using ideas like Genius Hour can help promotes those skills to students.
  • This blog is a Genius Hour for me. I spend every Saturday working on my passions and interests. It is not a requirement of my profession, but it does still help me thinking about and reflect on my own teaching thus making me grow and get better each day. Genius Hour can do the same for students so that they see schooling as not just something to comply with, but also something that can be inspiring.


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