When You Say #GeniusHour “Isn’t Enough”…You’re Missing the Point

By AJ Juliani, 4 comments

It seems there has been a lively debate going on for the past few years about whether or not 20% time is “dead” at Google. Some in the education space have picked up on this and used this as fuel to talk about the relevancy of Genius Hour or 20% time in the classroom.

An article by Ewan McIntosh a few years ago stirred up the Genius Hour community, and I’m sure a recent article by Audrey Watters in Educating Modern Learners will do the same thing. There have also been conversations about this type of learning on social media where many teachers and educational leaders go back-and-forth on whether or not it is “enough” and why Genius Hour and 20% Time may not be worth it.

Let me say that both Ewan McIntosh and Audrey Watters are educators and writers who I insanely respect. Their work is phenomenal and I believe that we need leaders in the education community (like Audrey and Ewan) to talk about these things and go deeper into the conversation.

As I mentioned in my article, “The Research Behind 20% Time“, there is a lot of support for this type of  inquiry-based learning in schools. However, I want to point out a few important pieces of information in this post on why many of the folks talking about the demise of Google’s 20% time and whether or not Genius Hour is enough…are simply missing the point.

When You Say #GeniusHour Isn’t Enough - You’re Missing the Point

1. Google’s 20% Time is Not Dead

On August 16, 2013 Quartz published a post on “The Death of Google’s 20% Time” that went viral. The comments on Hacker News turned into an awesome debate on whether or not this was true and what it meant for Google and other tech companies.

Then on August 20, 2013 Quartz published an official response from Google that “20% Time is Officially Alive and Well” taking back some of the earlier claims they had made.

Want to know what happened in the four days between the two posts? Almost every major publication ran with a story about the demise of 20% time. Finally, on August 21st WIRED’s Ryan Tate (who wrote the book on 20% time and has done more research than anyone else on this topic) put out an article that summed up the whole debate, “Google Couldn’t Kill 20% Time Even If It Wanted To“:

Google didn’t invent the idea of giving employees time to experiment with their own ideas, nor will it have the final word on how best to bestow such time. Plenty of other large tech companies have implemented their own takes on 20 percent time, including widely admired, innovative companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, and, reportedly, Apple.

The core idea behind 20 percent time — that knowledge workers are most valuable when granted protected space in which to tinker — is more alive in Silicon Valley today than it ever has been before.

So whether or not 20% time is being slowed down at Google is kind of a moot point. The company says it is still alive. We see projects like Google Now that have recently come out of 20% time. But, more importantly this idea has permeated start-up life and company culture around the world…and is not going anywhere.

2. Inquiry-Based Learning Has Been Successful for a Long Time

Genius Hour. 20% Time. These are nice names for inquiry-based learning opportunities. But that is all they are. I don’t care what you call it… It is always going to be based on inquiry.

The reasons I used “20% time” for my project, and others have used “Genius Hour” for their projects stem from where the idea originated to “market” this type of learning and project to our students, schools, and each other. It is easier to get administrative buy-in when you can say “this is what Google does” or “this is what Dan Pink was referring to”…and no there is not much of a difference between the two.

Beyond the “name” is a type of learning that has been going on for centuries: Inquiry-Based Learning. This can also be “Venn Diagrammed” with user-generated learning, passion-based learning, compassion-based learning, and many other educational terms that hit around the same point: Allowing students to learn skills through content they care about. As I mentioned before you can look at a round-up of some research I posted last year.

Again, you’ll sometimes see educators talking about John Hattie’s book, Visible Learning, in which he lists a rank order of those factors that have the greatest effect size in student achievement (based on analyzing a ton of research and studies that have been done over the years). Here is the “Top 20” list, as Grant Wiggins broke it down to take out a few factors that were not relevant to most teachers. I’ve bolded the items that take place during Genius Hour, 20% Time, and any inquiry-based project:

  • Student self-assessment/self-grading
  • Response to intervention
  • Teacher credibility
  • Providing formative assessments
  • Classroom discussion
  • Teacher clarity
  • Feedback
  • Reciprocal teaching
  • Teacher-student relationships fostered
  • Spaced vs. mass practice
  • Meta-cognitive strategies taught and used
  • Acceleration
  • Classroom behavioral techniques
  • Vocabulary programs
  • Repeated reading programs
  • Creativity programs
  • Student prior achievement
  • Self-questioning by students
  • Study skills
  • Problem-solving teaching

Not too bad, eh? We can’t account for teacher clarity and teacher credibility, but they could also be added to the list of “factors” that impact student achievement taking place during Genius Hour and 20% Time. I could go into more details and specifics of how each of these factors is incorporated into an inquiry-based learning experience…but I’ll save that for the bonus listed at the end of this post.

3. It’s About the Students and Their Learning Opportunities

Quite frankly the most frustrating piece of the argument that Genius Hour “isn’t enough” is that I don’t disagree with that statement. I’d love to see schools with a strong focus on inquiry and experiential learning across the board. When critics say that we need to change our entire outlook on how we assess and what types of activities we do with students…I also think this is relevant.

The issue is that we all have constraints. Are we supposed to as teachers and leaders NOT do Genius Hour or 20% Time because it is not enough…or can it be a start?

This isn’t a case of all or nothing.

It’s like saying that “Edcamp” is not enough and even though it is an awesome way to do professional development and professional learning….”let’s not do it unless we can do professional development like that every time.”

I think Joy Kirr put it perfectly in this comment:

I cannot redesign my entire school like I know you dream of. I am one teacher. I can, however, with the blessings of my administration, give 60 minutes of my week over to the students. It is TOO LITTLE time, I know. And I can’t make sure each project will change the world. But it is a start. And the lessons we all learn during this time seep into the other four hours I have with these students throughout the week, thank goodness. I don’t have numbers to show student progress. But I’m trying to create life-long learners. How do you measure that? 

Genius Hour, 20% Time, and Inquiry-Based learning experiences give students opportunities that they would never have in school otherwise. To ME that is enough. It is enough to try this type of learning with your students. It is enough to take a risk and go beyond the curriculum.

I’d ask anyone who is criticizing Genius Hour or 20% Time in the classroom to talk to the teachers and students who have had this opportunity. I’d ask them to look at what students are creating, making, and building during this time. I’d ask them to talk to the parents about their students’ attitude towards learning.

I’ve heard from so many colleagues and teachers around the country (and world) who have said this time has changed their teaching and the way they view learning.

I’m so passionate about the impact this type of experience can make in the classroom that I’ve put together the GENIUS HOUR MASTER COURSE (use coupon code “AJ” for $30 off).

If you’ve been on the fence, or ever wondered about doing Genius Hour and/or 20% Time with your students, this guide will walk you through the “why”, and then how to get started, what to expect during the project, and how to gauge success/next steps at the end of the project.

When you say Genius Hour “isn’t enough” you miss the point of inquiry-based learning experiences: They give students rich opportunities for learning…but also for creating something they are proud to share with the world.

And there is no substitute for that type of experience…even if we can only offer it some of the time.

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