Be Careful of Genius Hour!

Genius Hour has been traveling around the internet a lot lately.  Our sixth grade holds one each trimester.  I think it’s a great chance to challenge our students to learn more, do more, be more.  However, I’m also concerned that it could devolve into “building a sugar cube White House”.

Years ago, I listened to an educational reform speaker who pointed out the folly in “projects”.  Not that projects are bad. I think a good project can challenge our students and help them learn more and show what they’ve learned better than any worksheet.  The caution lies in choosing a good project.

When I was a kid, any time you learned about the government, it culminated in a project that usually involved building a sugar cube White House or Capitol.  While these are fun activities, they don’t really get at what was learned about government.  This type of activity would better represent architecture or teamwork, or even some sort of artwork.  There’s no actual learning about the branches of government, or how a bill becomes a law when you build something with sugar cubes.  In other words, you need to make sure the project involves the type of learning and thinking you want your students to engage in.

I’ve seen a number of Genius Day projects that are more along the lines of the sugar cube building.  We’ve had students bake brownies, make loom band bracelets, and other “fun” projects.  While these are enjoyable, there’s no real learning taking place.  When a student spends the day playing minecraft, it’s certainly fun for him or her, but doesn’t necessarily involve learning.

What I try to do with my students is make sure it’s something valuable.  In the classroom, time is gold.  I do my best to spend it wisely.  Something a student would spend time at a sleepover doing doesn’t seem like something they’re going to learn from in my classroom.

For our second trimester Genius Day, we gave a focus to the work:  we had been reading about Thomas Edison, so the students had to make a list of three problems that needed to be solved, then invent something to solve them.  While the invention didn’t need to actually be inventable that day, it needed to be in the realm of possibility.  A flying car would be acceptable, but a time machine would not.  We ended up with some wonderful ideas!

We had students invent a Roomba like snowplow (uses the technology involved in a Roomba to plow your driveway), a heated bike, and a reminder app to help students remember to turn in their homework.  All of these items are possible to build, given current technology (but all of them were represented with a drawing).

We also required them to get a “patent” from the “patent office” (their teacher) and any inventions that had already been invented were denied.  As we looked at their proposals, we tried to consider whether it was truly something new, or if it had been done before.  As we explained to our students, the iPod wasn’t a totally new idea – we already had music we could record and take with us, it was a new tweak on the idea.  Or, looked at another way, the lightbulb merely improved on the candles and gas lamps of the time.

I was really happy with the way the inventions turned out, and the students learned a lot about a wide variety of topics.  They had to research machines and technology to try to learn how to create the invention they had come up with.  It definitely made them think differently, as well.  Asking them to think of a problem to be solved changed how they approached the day.

Do you do Genius Hour with your students?

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4 thoughts on “Be Careful of Genius Hour!

  1. “What I try to do with my students is make sure it’s something valuable. In the classroom, time is gold…. Something a student would spend time at a sleepover doing doesn’t seem like something they’re going to learn from in my classroom.”

    I am new to the Genius Hour idea. Thanks for the cautionary example of how it could devolve into “cutesy project time”. The quote at the top of this comment says it all — there should be higher expectations for how time is used in the classroom, and new ideas like Genius Hour should be held accountable to that expectation, and not simply ran with because of their novelty factor.

  2. Joy Kirr says:

    Laura,
    I really appreciate your thoughtful posts. You post spurred on many thoughts I had, and yet the comments section was not large enough for my ramblings, so I decided to write a blog post about my thoughts here: http://geniushour.blogspot.com/2014/03/whats-value-in-frozen-marbles.html

    I love the fact that your students created patents for their ideas. I believe that would be a great introduction to Genius Hour, but not something to do each time. It would be great to model that structure, and then let go students who can run with ideas on their own. I’m all for scaffolding. Let’s keep this valuable conversation going!

    • mrsfenger says:

      I love your post! http://geniushour.blogspot.com/2014/03/whats-value-in-frozen-marbles.html
      It got at the very essence I was speaking of. I totally agree, there can be value in baking brownies or playing minecraft. The job of the teacher is to ensure the students are gaining value from these things. Your suggestions would be perfect. It’s so important that we, as teachers, as advocates of education, keep students learning. We don’t have the luxury of “letting it go, it’s not worth fighting over”. So glad your students have you guiding them!

      • Joy Kirr says:

        Phew! I feel like we need to make a list of guiding questions for students for when they’re learning something we see as “not as valuable” as it can be. I love that your post made me really think and forced me to put my thoughts in order. It helps me communicate better with my students (and parents and coworkers and admin) as well! 🙂

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