My Genius Hour Plan of Attack (Part I)

Every once in a while I get so excited about learning something new I can’t stop. It is the equivalent of a book you just can’t put down or those rainy days when you watch an entire season of your favorite show. This is an element that I can’t say necessarily exists in my classroom, or the majority of high school classrooms I have seen. But what if it did? What if students were so grossly engaged they didn’t know they were learning and didn’t even want to stop? What if innovation and creativity found their way into high school classrooms?

Enter Genius Hour (aka: 20% Time, Passion Projects, etc.). Genius Hour gets its roots from Google. Google employees use 20% of their time to focus on projects they are passionate about so long as the project has the ability to move the company forward, and it has! So why not bring this to education?  Over the last couple of years a select few have. In genius hour students create projects they are passionate about but may not necessarily relate to the course curriculum (often because the projects are far ahead of it!). Genius Hour lends itself nicely to Elementary Classrooms because of the cross-curricular nature of this setting. Students can make projects that dabble in science, technology, and English all at once, what a beautiful thing. This got me wondering what it would look like in a High School math classroom.

Last year I experimented with a couple of these projects and they were hugely successful. So much of what we do in education is cookie cutter and I wanted this project to be far from this. As a result freedom was one of my main objectives. I didn’t want students to make me a project, I wanted them to create something for themselves; something they were proud of, passionate about, a project that pushed their learning. I wanted students to quit playing school and focus on something other than harvesting points. I students to take risks and do something extraordinary.  As you might imagine this was like a completely different language to them. So I decided to make project pass/fail. If students did the project to a high enough quality (we established a B) they would pass. If they didn’t they would not pass and would be required to redo it. This really seemed to blow them away because it was so foreign to them. Just like it was foreign to me when I took a pass/fail class in my Bachelor of Education degree program. I thought I would only do mediocre work since there was no incentive to work hard, in fact I think I worked harder and I took more risks. My students did the same…. I had a pair make a computer program that after multiple iterations designed a dragon fractal, another pair looked at the math of card-counting, a young lady looked at how we are mathematically running out of music, and another group proved that babies have number sense by a cool experiment they performed on their dog!

The feedback I heard from my students was through the roof and I couldn’t have agreed more. Many said it was their favorite math class ever, right from the research, creation, and presentation of the projects. But unfortunately I felt I only had time to do it once a semester. This year I plan to do things differently, so much so, that this is will be my main focus going into my third year of flipping my classroom.

I have taken a look at the learning outcomes and have identified areas that I can be more efficient and cut out the fat. So my goal is approximately once every two weeks we will spend an hour or two researching and creating projects to present a couple weeks after.

Over the next week I am planning to hammer out the specifics of what the projects will look like during our districts summer Pro-D days, this will make up part II of this blog post. During that time I’ll try to walk the fine line of giving students guidance on what Genius Hour projects can be while not stifling their creativity by giving them too much structure.

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About flippingmath

Math Teacher, Flipper, Blue Jays Fan
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9 Responses to My Genius Hour Plan of Attack (Part I)

  1. lukecampbell314 says:

    Great post. I really like the idea of genius hour. Looking forward to seeing it this year with students.

  2. I was hoping to do something similar to genius hour in my physics classes this year. I hadn’t thought about having shorter turn around times (less than two weeks). I was leaning towards slightly bigger projects, where one interim feedback cycle is used. I also wonder how students would spend class time on their projects. I can imagine having a bunch of students sitting there, doing nothing, explaining that their project is at home and they’ll work on it later. Side note: I’ve had several students that are forced to do 2+ hours of homework a night by their parents, so they plan their day accordingly… 😦
    Maybe the shorter project cycle is a really good idea…

    Like you, I would make the project pass/fail. No question. And like you, I had pass/fail courses for my B.Ed. I found it to be extremely liberating, and if a person is motivated, they will do their best. For the projects, students would have to submit one interim progress report (could be the project itself, or a written report, or whatever) where I would give them feedback). The main requirement for passing would be for the students to take my feedback and improve their projects accordingly.

    Finally, I based my project idea in the frameset of the Maker movement. If you’re interested, I would recommend reading “Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom” by Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager. I’ve done physics projects before, where I would tell the kids what they’re supposed to build (teacher centric). The results were horrible, and it’s no wonder. We have to give kids the freedom and agency to create something that is their own. I think Genius Hour can accomplish this!

    • flippingmath says:

      How students use their class time is always a concern of mine. Although I have started stressing about it less as I have realized what may appear to be nothing going on doesn’t mean there necessarily is. Often some of my students aren’t in a place where they can focus or even learn some days for a variety of reasons, yet I find when they do it on their own time they still can demonstrate a strong understanding. I like the idea of a shorter project cycle because the deadline is in sight. I originally wanted to do larger projects too, and we may get there, but I worry about how those hours spent here and there would have contriubted to the overall project.

      I think your point at the end is very important. When we tell kids what to do and how to do the results are less than impressive. I even find open ended projects that have rubrics/criteria that are too details crush creativity. I like the idea of leaving things wide open. Thanks for passing on those books.

      I appreciate the comments Doug, all the best.

      • I’ll be watching your blog for updates. I just landed a job teaching math 8 and math 10, and I’ll for sure be doing some Genius Hour. I’m also going to focus on trying to establish some project or problem based learning, using Essential Questions. Just say no to lectures!

  3. Shellie says:

    How did they choose the initial project?

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