Dorset School

Looking to try more student-directed learning?

Test the waters with “Genius Groups”

Start by turning your class over to students.

student-directed learning at The Dorset SchoolYou heard me. Set aside classroom time to let your students design their learning. If you’re not quite ready for a full-on Genius Hour (where each individual student pursues their own learning passion), think about dipping a toe in the water by giving groups of students the space to create and implement learning activities for the rest of the class.

Let’s look at how it’s working for one math class down at The Dorset School, in Dorset, VT.

Genius Hour at The Dorset School?

Last year at The Dorset School middle school math teacher Micah Hayre realized the potential of turning over his classroom to his students. Genius Hour looked like a promising option.

What is Genius Hour?

Genius Hour (aka 20% time) requires dedicating a portion of class time to letting students work on their own individual learning passions. The things that interest them most.


Hayre established a version of Genius Hour in which every Friday, one group of students take over the class: designing and planning the math activities and learning opportunities for the day. Hayre establishes a rotating schedule that allows each group to be in control on a bi-weekly basis.

Here’s what it looks like, along with three amazing results Hayre has seen emerge from his experiment.

Students have stepped up their leadership and presentation skills.

Each Friday, students are literally in charge. It’s all on them to explain, implement and make their self-designed learning activities work for everyone. Hannah, one of Hayre’s students explains,

“We have to demonstrate teamwork, time management, and understanding of the unit that we are teaching.”

Most often, the kids step up to the plate. As far as communication skills required? This activity packs a solid punch. Students are writing lesson plans, speaking and listening to group members, and presenting verbally and in writing to their peers.

That’s authentic audience and communication skills in action.

Dorset School
An 8th grade student presenter explains some details of her group’s project to a peer.

Students are highly engaged and motivated

On one particular Friday, the student group in charge of the day had designed a math Easter egg hunt. Participants broke into groups, picked up clipboards and a set of math problems to solve, and set free to “hunt”.

Let me tell you, it’s a beautiful thing to watch students literally running to solve math problems.

The student participants were incredibly motivated to complete tasks and move through the activities. These kids were engaged. Inspired. Pumped.

In the video below, listen to these students talk through their math thinking and problem solving during the egg hunt organized by their peers. They are so focused and active; these are classroom conversations that we dream about!

Student-directed classrooms give creativity a chance

In recent years, we’ve heard from education experts about the concern that schools are killing creativity.

Sir Ken Robinson has famously said, “Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status”. Schools that focus on compliance and rely on the “sage on the stage” model will become the wastelands for creativity.

When asked about her math class’ unique Friday structure, one student, Arden, commented,

“I think that we learn about creativity and uniqueness because we like it to be that no project is the same. This way things are always exciting”.

If we give students the opportunity to invent learning opportunities, we invite them to unleash their creativity.

Where to go from here?

Implementing a Genius Hour or Genius Groups, is one manageable step in the direction of giving students more leadership and autonomy. Because when students own the learning, the rewards are sweet.

What do you think?