What to do when Genius Hour fails…

By AJ Juliani, 26 comments

A teacher I work with asked me last week, “How do we deal with those students who aren’t doing anything with Genius Hour? I feel like I’ve helped and helped…but they don’t seem to care at all.”

Maybe you’ve had this same experience with a student (or group of students) while running a Genius Hour or 20% Project in your class. Maybe it is something that worries you about starting this type of learning project where students get to choose their learning path, and delve into their interests and passions.

While inquiry-based learning may be scary (and exciting) for many students, it can also be difficult for a teacher to manage..especially when the freedom you’ve given students is used to do “nothing”.

What to do when genius hour fails

Freedom Comes with Responsibility

First, let me set the context a bit. Since I ran a 20% time project in my class three years ago teachers in my school district have embraced the idea of inquiry-based learning. We’ve had various teachers present to our staff on the benefits of this type of learning opportunity. And as a district we wrote “Genius Hour” into our 9th Grade Common Core Language Arts curriculum.

Students at my school will hopefully be exposed to this project for the foreseeable future (or until we revamp the curriculum completely) and I’ve been so impressed with the 9th grade teachers’ abilities to work with their students over the past two years.

Second, this question is not a new one. I’d be hard-pressed to find a teacher who has run an inquiry-based project in their class and not dealt with some resistance from students. I had many students who “pushed back” at first…either saying they didn’t have anything to work on, or who wanted to use the 20% time to do work they had for other classes.

Yet, it is a difficult position for a teacher to be in. We’ve given students the “freedom to learn what they want”, but with that freedom comes more responsibility than some students are used to. They no longer have the “reward or punishment” of traditional learning hanging over their heads, and for some this gives them all the reason in the world to do nothing.

Don’t Blame the Student

When this happened in my class my first thought was to blame the student. I couldn’t believe they would take the freedom to learn what they want and turn up their nose. Luckily, I quickly snapped out of that thought-process. Blaming the student not only fails to solve this problem, but it also misses the entire point of inquiry-based learning.

I open every Genius Hour or 20% Time talk with the same three points:

Problem #1: Students are’t allowed to learn what they want. And instead learn to play the game of school.

Problem #2: Students graduate or leave high school without knowing what they are passionate about or having a true purpose for learning other than grades.

Problem #3: The world is filled with many adults who hate what they do for a living. Only doing it to “get by”.

When a student chooses to do nothing with their Genius Hour time, it is not a complete “failure”. It’s merely their reaction to “Problem #1”. They’ve spent much of their schooling either fighting for a grade, complaining about grades, or worrying about grades. Every paper, project, and assignment they’ve worked on has been crafted by a teacher (or textbook) with guidelines, steps, and usually a rubric for evaluation.

If you don’t remember what it was like to be a student, let me tell you: It’s exhausting.

So, when a student “chooses to do nothing” resist your urge to be mad and/or upset and instead focus on getting to the root of the issue.

Genius Hour Never Fails

I was the type of student who loved to “fly under the radar”. I was completely content with getting “B’s” and sitting in the back of the class. I was friendly and didn’t cause too much trouble, but mostly I didn’t want to be bothered with school. I often wonder how I would have handled the freedom we give our students during Genius Hour and 20% time.

The three steps I’ve taken in the past (and try to help other teachers take) are based on my initial experience with this issue, and how it reminded me clearly of my own education experience.

Step 1: Talk with the student about life (not the project)

Have a conversation, or a few conversations about life in general with the student who is doing nothing. It’s simple, but something that all the great teachers in my life have in common is their ability to talk with me. When I’ve noticed a teacher caring about me the person, instead of only me the student, I’ve responded positively.

The structure of inquiry-driven learning allows for teachers to talk with each student individually. Many students will want your advice on their project or ask you questions about their ideas…but some will shy away from this one-on-one conversation. Use this time to get to know your students better. For the student that doesn’t want to work on anything, make it a point to talk about things other than the project and school. Share some of your experiences with him/her…it will make all the difference in forming a stronger connection.

Step 2: Ask them for help

Most of the teachers in my school actually participate in Genius Hour by doing their own projects along-side their students. This is a great way to model the learning process, especially when we can share our “epic failures” with students. This also provides an opportunity to ask the student who isn’t doing anything for help.

It can be something small and trivial, but I would ask for help with little things. I’d also ask this student to video what the class is doing. Recording the progress of certain projects, and give them a few questions to ask each student on camera. Keep them active helping you and other students…because motion creates motion.

Step 3: Find a new purpose

I recently wrote about how my own creative process starts with purpose. While passion and curiosity play a big part in my life…nothing inspires me to create and actually act than purpose. As I mentioned above, the only purpose for learning in school this student has experience with is grades.

They need to find a new purpose.

Have you ever thought about letting them make money with a Genius Hour project? I didn’t until I tried it with one student and they went into hyperdrive! This particular student told me he couldn’t wait to get out of school so he could start making some real money. I told him that I like money too…

We talked about what he would do to make money, and he told me that he makes money now designing t-shirts (bingo). He wanted to start his own brand. I asked why he didn’t bring this up before and he said, “They don’t let you make money in school, man.”

When I told him he could use this project to make his own t-shirt designs and sell them…he almost didn’t believe me. When I hooked him up with a friend of mine who had recently started his own shoe company, he knew I was serious!

The point here is simple: You don’t need to create the desire as a teacher. Instead, our job is to help students connect their existing desires to this project as a new purpose for learning. 

This is why I say that Genius Hour never fails. Even when you think you’ve failed as a teacher. Even when that student spends their time “doing nothing”. You’ve already succeeded in giving them choice.

They may not take the choice and run with it right away. They may think this is a trick. They may not believe the freedom you’ve given them is actually real. But if you take the time to get to know this student you may realize that this is a first step. The next time their given choice maybe they’ll handle it differently. All we can do is support our students through this process as best possible. We can’t predict what type of impact it will have on their future, but believe me, it will have an impact.

How do you help students in your class during inquiry-based projects?

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