If you ever really want to quiet a room full of 5th grade students, try telling them this: “I’m going to let you spend 1 hour a week studying whatever you want. Now pick a topic.”
That was, in essence, the way I introduced Genius Hour to my class for the first time many years ago. I would not recommend that approach.
After getting over the initial exuberance of such unprecedented academic freedom, they became paralyzed. It was like I had dumped them in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and said, “Choose a direction and start swimming” – and they’d never been in a body of water bigger than a bathtub.
I refined my technique over the years. If you visit my Genius Hour Resources page, you will see some QR Code Bookmarks you can use to get them started with ideas as well as some good websites to visit.
The thing about choice is that too much of it can be just as defeating as too little. This is what Barry Schwartz argues in his TED talk, “The Paradox of Choice.”
And it’s what I tell myself whenever I leave IKEA empty-handed 5 hours after I entered.
According to Mr. Schwartz, “Choice within constraint is essential. Choice without constraint is paralyzing.”
With that in mind, I tried a different approach to Genius Hour this year. My 4th graders started the year doing “Heart Maps” to brainstorm their passions. They also did Multiple Intelligence Surveys (the North Star Smart Stars iPad app is great for kids!) to get more data on their interests. In addition, I gave them a career list based on the Multiple Intelligences, and had them circle any that appealed to them.
Armed with those three pieces of information, the students were assigned to look for trends. They seemed surprised and delighted to find similarities and patterns in what they had chosen for each activity.
Then I dropped the bomb.
“Pretend you were allowed to study whatever you want in school starting tomorrow. Based on this knowledge about yourself that you have in front of you, what questions would you like to find the answers to? Brainstorm as many questions as you can in the next 5 minutes.”
And they did. Even the student who had told me all day, for every activity, “I just can’t think of anything.” Even he had three ideas by the end of the 5 minutes.
If you’re a teacher who is about to try out Genius Hour for the first time, I recommend that you keep in mind that there is nothing wrong with establishing limits and some parameters can actually give more freedom than none at all.
Now if I can just get Ikea to take that advice…