Innovation: Education

The Problem with Genius Hour

Shouldn’t every hour be a genius hour?

the problem with genius hourAnyone paying attention to education in the US lately has seen the proliferation of the “Genius Hour.” Presumably inspired by Google’s 20% rule, through which employees of the search engine giant spend a day a week on projects of their own choosing, many schools are adopting a model described by best selling author Daniel Pink as “60 minutes to work on new ideas or master new skills.” By setting aside an hour of instructional time, schools enable students to connect, construct or create, without the constraints or distractions of business-as-usual. What could be better than that?

Genius Hour holds great promise at face value. It’s intended to provide students with a chance to pursue their own questions, delving deeply into their interests and concerns in a self-directed manner. Blogger A. J. Juliani shares the successful outcomes in his classroom, “I’ve never received a better response from my students than when we did 20% time. Our class came together and learned everyone’s true interests and passions. We got over the fear of failing together. We cheered for each other during presentations, and picked each other up when things didn’t go as planned. We had conversations about standards, skills and learning goals.”

I’m always heartened to read about deep student engagement, but the ramping up in our nation’s schools of Genius Hour has really thrown me. Have we come to expect so little from schools (and so much from this era of testing) that we now celebrate relegating student self-direction, dialogue about learning, and community building to a mere 60 minutes?

The danger of Genius Hour–just like Women’s History Month, Black History Month and all of those special months–is that it encourages people to think the problem has been solved.  For 60 minutes, students are engaged, they have choice, and they are following their passion. Yet, just as Black History Month relieves schools during the other months from seriously considering how an entire group of people was summarily excluded from America’s history books, so too can Genius Hour free schools up to devote the many other hours of the day to the kind of rote learning and test-taking we know to be both ineffective and disengaging.

We are fortunate that in Vermont we have long-standing examples of rich, student-centered learning that meet the Bernstein’s widely accepted description of Genius Hour: “Instead of giving students assignments with predetermined topics and step-by-step instructions, teachers set aside a designated amount of time during the week for students to engage in self-directed projects that allow them to pursue their own questions, interests, and passions.”

Check out this Vermont middle grades team that has long demonstrated that learning can- and should- be based on student interests and extend well beyond an hour.

the problem with genius hourStudents on the Alpha Team at Shelburne Community School  spend time brainstorming questions about themselves and the world around them. Here is an example of some of the rich and compelling questions learners pose, when given the chance. Their work reminds us that students truly do wonder about the world around them, and that those wonderings are rich fodder for curriculum.




the problem with genius hourThe Alpha Team uses Flex Time as a way to enable the ongoing pursuit of students’ questions. This sample of Alpha’s daily schedule illustrates how they integrate what many articulate as the goals of Genius Hour into everyday learning.

To paraphrase Ed Brazee, long time middle grades educator and researcher, the problem with school is that we expect students to answer questions they have not asked. The best outcomes of Genius Hour will appear when teachers recognize the power of student-directed learning as an essential component of the larger curriculum, and when teachers create consistent and prolonged opportunities for students to have a say in what and how they learn.


Penny Bishop

TIIE Director Penny Bishop is Professor of Middle Level Education at the University of Vermont where she teaches future middle grades educators and conducts research on schooling for young adolescents. Penny has served as Principal Investigator on numerous grants, bringing over $12 million dollars to Vermont schools to improve the learning and lives of middle grades students. A former middle level English and Social Studies teacher, Penny was appointed to the National Middle School Association's Research Advisory Board and is President of the American Educational Research Association's group on Middle Level Education Research. She is co-author of five books on effective middle grades practice. She has served as policy advisor on fellowship to the New Zealand Ministry of Education, providing input and research on effective schooling policies for students in the middle years in that country.


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