5 Genius Hour Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

The Genius Hour pages on this site seem to be getting a lot of views lately, which is good to see.  As teachers prepare for a new school year, I am hopeful that more Genius Hours will be incorporated into curriculums around the world.  Since I have been doing Genius Hour for several years, I thought it might help for those of you who are new to it to learn some of the giant mistakes I’ve made so you can try to avoid them.

Genius Hour Mistake #1 – Allowing Students to Work on Anything They Want  

I have never known what people meant by “deer in the headlights” until the day I announced to my 5th grade class that they would have the opportunity each week to work on a topic they chose.  Instead of the expected enthusiasm and “what an awesome teacher you are” smiles, I got a roomful of confused panic.  These students had already spent at least 5 years in school being told what to learn every minute of the day.  Suddenly being offered unlimited freedom was more debilitating than empowering.  I learned that I needed to scaffold the process of choosing topics by guiding them through brainstorming passions, and teaching the students how to select a good research topic that was not too narrow or too wide.

Genius Hour Mistake #2 – Telling Students They Could Choose Any Way to Present their Topic

Don’t get me wrong.  One of the most wonderful things about Genius Hour is that the final products can be in any format – even a puppet show.  However, when I told the students to, “Begin with the End in Mind,” I discovered the hard way that most of them only had the end in mind. They couldn’t wait to add their creative touch to the presentations, but that meant that there was little substance or learning in the research.  Now, I don’t even let them decide on a final product until they have shown quality research.

Genius Hour Mistake #3 – Thinking You Can’t Teach During Genius Hour

I wanted Genius Hour to be a sacred time of independent learning, and was reluctant to ever do lessons during that time.  However, when I noticed that many students were encountering similar challenges (such as searching for reliable information), I began to offer mini-lessons during Genius Hour every once in awhile to help everyone get back on track.  They never last more than 10 minutes, but can quickly help to fill in gaps that a large portion of the class may have when it comes to research, copyright reminders, and other general information.

Genius Hour Mistake #4 – Leaving No Time for Reflection

Giving students time for reflection has always been a weakness of mine.  We often get caught up in what we are doing and realize it’s time to go seconds before class is over.  I’ve been working on that for awhile, and one thing I have learned is how essential reflection is for Genius Hour.  It has to be varied, so it doesn’t become boring and rote, but it is so valuable to do it.  Regular feedback throughout the project from the student, peers, and the teacher will definitely help to make it better.  Last year, we did our research in Google Classroom, making it easy for all of us to give each other feedback and improve.

Genius Hour Mistake #5 – No Presentation Rehearsal

When students finish a Genius Hour project, that should mean that they are ready to present.  However, if it’s left up to them, they will spend very little time practicing, and just inform you that they are done.  After the first couple of years of erratic final productions,  I came across the, “What Would Steve Do?” slideshow that includes the following image.

RehearsalI show this to my students every year.  We talk about the ratios on the slide and how you should spend just as much time on practicing as you do on each of the other steps.  Sometimes, we choose a sample of students from the class and the presenters go to another room to practice in front of them and get feedback.  Keep in mind that some of their presentations are game shows and other interactive ideas, so it’s not always slideshows.  However, students can use slideshows with the simple rule that what they are telling us cannot be text on the slides (another suggestion from, “What Would Steve Do?“)

These are the 5 biggest mistakes that I’ve made while incorporating Genius Hour in my classroom – but there are many more errors I make each year.  Genius Hour/Passion Time/20% Time, or whatever you want to call it, is an inexact, often chaotic process.  It’s hard to decide when to add your voice to the mix and when to stand back. Sometimes everyone needs you at once, and other times you walk around a surreally silent classroom as each student immerses him or her self in research.  I often dread Genius Hour because so much is out of control.  I often can’t wait for Genius Hour because I learn so much from giving the students control.  Genius Hour makes all of us vulnerable and reveals who we really are.

It’s terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time.

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