What to do when Genius Hour fails…

What to do when genius hour fails

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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Join the discussion 29 Comments

  • You stole my thunder! I’ve been thinking about this post for a few weeks, but you said this way better than I ever could. Many of the things you suggest to do, I have done and have seen new sparks from my students. Thank you so much for all of your work with 20 Time. It is an inspiration to be and a great guide for those of us going through it for the first time. Keep being awesome!


    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks Nick! Please share anything else you’ve done to help students who are “stuck”. I know this can be a tough situation for any teacher and we can all learn from each other.

  • Ben Gilpin says:


    Perfect timing! This is timely. I gotta tell you, you had me with this post…BUT then you really had me with your 3 Steps. These Steps are perfect! I wanted to say I love number #1, but honestly, I love all three. I will be sharing this with staff and with my PLN. Thanks for putting so many needed points out there for all to learn and grow from.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks Ben – appreciate the comment. One thing I’ve found is that Genius Hour and 20% Time give teachers much needed time in class to get to know their students…and it gives students an opportunity to get to know each other. When you are thinking and writing and talking about what is really important, great discussions take place. And like I said in the post, every great teacher I’ve ever had made it a point to have conversations with me. At least we can start there.

  • DJ ThompsoIn says:

    Hi AJ,

    Great post. I am starting Genius Hour after spring break in a grade 6/7 class. I can predict a few students “doing nothing” and love the idea of getting them to capture others learning on film. I am thinking I could easily “hook” a few into creating a documentary to reflect the learning of their peers and engage them at the same time.

    I also like the link to the “real world” with the T-shirt project. It’s shameful when teachers tell students we are getting them ready for the “real world” as it discredits their life as something not real. I know of students who would be very successful in the “real world” right now but are stuck in school.

    Thanks for sharing

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks for the comment DJ! Yes, the documentary idea is a great one. Plus, it allows them to see the passion others have for what they are doing and trigger similar thoughts. Let me know how it goes!

  • Don Allen says:

    Great post! I loved every word of it, especially since we are in the heart of our genius hour journey.

    In regards to Step #2, do you recommend taking time during the students’ work time to model your own project or do you work on it outside of their class time? I’ve debated that for quite some time because the 50 minutes I have with the 30+ students is cherished time, but I also want them to see me as a life long learner. Keep up the great work, you are changing education!

    • AJ Juliani says:

      I did take a bit of class time to model my project. But I also wrote about in on a blog that all of my students could see and read. We had time during class to write on our blogs and read what other students were doing (and leave comments). It made it easier to browse what everyone was doing instead of presenting to the class.

      • wtibbs says:

        Oh -MY — I am so glad I saw this post about the blog aspect! A teacher friend is using a blog with her class, and I didn’t see the point. But OF COURSE — it makes perfect sense! The kids all want to share share share, and if we used all of our hour for that, we wouldn’t be very productive!! *brilliant* — thanks for sharing all these little details, they mean so much!

  • Kristine Pelletier says:

    I always try to connect with students on a personal level. I try to find out what their interests are and incorporate that into projects. It doesn’t usually take the first time so I have to keep trying. Once those students trust me and see I do have their best interest at heart the flood gates open and creativity starts to flow.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Hi Kris! You are so right. When students have “trust” with their teacher then a whole new world of learning opportunities open up. It makes sense. Which is why I don’t always buy the notion that kids can learn as well online as they can with a great teacher who they connect with. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and what works!

  • Clayton Page says:

    Hi AJ,

    Thanks for this post. I “dabbled” with GH last year for first time, but didn’t feel the outcomes were great for all students. Food for thought as I introduce this year’s class to GH soon.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Hey Clayton let me know if you have any questions moving forward with GH this year. I know it can be difficult depending on many different circumstances — I did find it gets better each year as the teacher becomes more experienced as well.

  • Chip says:

    Great resource for IB teachers dealing with similar issues in the PYP Exhibition or the MYP Personal Project. Thanks.

  • Susan Phalen says:

    Hi AJ,
    Thank you so much for sharing your experience & wisdom on GH/20% here! I am about to start a Q4 20% project pilot with my HS seniors and am having a blast researching it. And I’m pretty nervous too, so your reassurance/redirections above really help.

    Your #1,2,&3 above cut right to the heart of student disconnect with school.

    Again, many thanks!

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  • Helena Hart says:

    Can you address what to do with kids who have the passion for a topic but not the ability to research and understand what they want to learn? I have a 12-year-old who has a mild learning disorder, and he struggles with school, especially with reading comprehension. He is DYING to learn how to code and wants to do something with coding for his project! But he doesn’t have the ability to understand what he reads about coding. Every topic he’s come up with has this same problem. Ideas?

    • Julie says:

      A day late and a dollar short, but just in case you (or someone else) still wants some ideas, you might look into some techniques that unschoolers or Sudbury schools use for older kids who haven’t learned to read yet. For starters, the internet offers a zillion and one videos on coding (and practically anything else you care to learn).

  • […] Juliani, A. (2014). What to do when Genius Hour fails… – A.J. JULIANI. Retrieved June 01, 2016, from http://ajjuliani.com/genius-hour-fails/ […]

  • […] Juliani, AJ (n.d.) What to do when genius hour fails. Retrieved from: http://ajjuliani.com/genius-hour-fails/ […]

  • S Banks says:

    I think I saw a version of this at Edith Bowen Lab School in Logan, UT. My son’s teacher had “Get Smart” time, a period of time for students to choose what they wanted to get better at and use the classroom resources to do it (computers, math manipulatives, etc). The Genius Hour concept takes the “Get Smart” idea a lot further. I’d be interested to see how it works in an elementary setting.

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  • Crystal Redford says:

    This is inspiring. I’ve had an idea to do something called Freedom Friday in my English Language Arts classes in future. They would pick their own genre and complete some kind of project that fulfills some part of the ELA Common Core. Have you had the students you work with work outside of class at all? Or is it only the time in class?

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