Reimagining Genius Hour as a PBL Mastery Hour

In the 14th century, the term “genius” was regarded as a guardian spirit. Yet a person with “unworldly” talent was said to have a genius, because his/her gift (of genius) being a supernatural act. No one was said to be a genius, because that would quite literally mean you were a guardian spirit.

This changed in the 1600s, when the meaning began to morph and people would use the term genius to describe someone with natural ability, and someone with an exceptional natural capacity of intellect, not necessarily just a gift from a supernatural friend.

By the end of the 17th century, this usage was common, and the old terminology of having a genius seem to fall out of the public vernacular. When you look at Google nGram, the word “genius” was at it’s highest point of usage in the late 1700s and has been dropping in use steadily since the turn of the 19th century.

However, the word genius still resonates with people from various different cultures today. It conjures up images of Einstein, and we use it to describe contemporary leaders like Elon Musk. Elizabeth Gilbert – the author of Eat, Pray, Love – talks about this change in usage for genius during her very memorable TED talk. She muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses — and brings back the idea that, instead of the rare person “being” a genius, all of us may “have” a genius.

The Start of Genius Hour

Now seven centuries later and the term genius is being used by educators across the globe more than ever before. This is partly due to the explosion of Genius Hour. Genius Hour is a time given to students in classrooms around the world to work on inquiry-driven and passion-based projects that are built on intrinsic motivation.

I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of this movement, working with fantastic teachers and leaders who are letting students choose their learning path (if only for an hour a week). Other educators like Don Wettrick are taking this idea to the next level, writing in his book Pure Genius about his Innovation Class that uses this concept of inquiry-driven innovative work for an entire class period every day.

When I wrote, Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom: Using 20% Time, Genius Hour, and PBL to Drive Student Success, my thoughts were focused on bringing the creative and innovative power of learning back into our students’ hands. I had seen what wonderful projects my students created when given this freedom to learn and make what they were interested in, as well as working with teachers like Joy Kirr, Hugh McDonald, Gallit Zvi, and Denise Krebs who were using Genius Hour to inspire students in the K-8 grades.

Now as this inquiry-driven movement moves forward into more and more classrooms across the country and world, it is important to look at the impact of this kind of learning, as well as the ultimate goal for our students in exploring their passions with creative work.

The Hidden Problem with Creative Work

There are many people who see 20% time and Genius Hour projects as complete freedom for students in the classroom. To an extent this is true.

Students have the freedom to work on a wide variety of interests and content, yet there are time constraints. There are usually some constraints on the scope of the project, how it is presented, and what the process often looks like as well.

This is why I’ve seen many teachers struggle their first time running an inquiry-driven project:

Freedom doesn’t always lead to success. In fact, freedom is often one of the biggest factors for failure.

Students will struggle, and teachers will wonder why they are not excited to learn right away. They forget that for many students, this is one of their first opportunities of true choice in their learning path, and they have rarely had this chance to explore their interests inside of a school. Other students are fired up to do work that matters, but can’t seem to bring it all together in a way that works.

I had one student of mine, Evan, proclaim to the entire class how he was going to sell 500 wristbands to raise money for a charity organization that he cared about during our Project: Global Inform inquiry-based group project. The passion was there for Evan. His heart was in the right place, and he set out to do this creative work of designing a unique wristband (“it’s not going to be like those Livestrong bands, Mr. J”) that would sell out quickly to his peers. Three days before the project was due, Evan finally received the wristbands. They didn’t look right. He tried to sell them and wound up with under 100 sales by the time he had to present to the rest of the class.

Interestingly, here is where the learning took a turn. The problem with creative work is that it is often challenging to reach goals and find success. You’ll have to fail many times before finding true success with most creative work. Evan stood up in front of the class and talked about his failures. His failure to design a wristband, his failure to manage the project, his failure to sell, and his ultimate failure to raise money for the organization he cared so much about. His classmates felt his pain. They too had failed at many of their creative projects. But then Evan said a line that made it all worth it:

“Even though I failed at almost every piece of this project, I feel like I still learned more in the past month than in almost any other time during school.”

Failures are worth it when the goal is bigger than the task. Evan may have failed at this wristband idea, but he succeeded in learning.

Mastery is the Goal. Learning is the Habit.

Mastery is a process that we can work through and attain. Micro trials and failures play a huge role in mastery. Genius, on the other hand, seems to bring up the idea that you either have it…or you don’t. It’s why Genius Hour is so exciting because students get to play around with the notion that they are capable of great and wondrous creations, regardless of their age or abilities. Yet, there is a problem with Genius being the goal.

Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became “geniuses” (as we put it), through qualities the lack of which no one who knew what they were would boast of: they all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole. – FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE

The goal of the creative, passion-driven work our students are doing should be mastery. Mastering a concept, skill, or ability. It’s silly to believe that one year of Genius Hour will lead to true mastery, but does it help? Does Genius Hour build good learning habits? Do those habits then eventually lead to Mastery?

In Robert Greene’s fantastic book, Masteryhe weighs in on the imaginary wall we have crafted around people such as Einstein, DaVinci, and Edison:

Over the centuries, people have placed a wall around such mastery. They have called it genius and have thought of it as inaccessible. They have seen it as the product of privilege, inborn talent, or just the right alignment of the stars. They have made it seem as if it were as elusive as magic. But that wall is imaginary.

In fact, as Greene points out in the book, all of these great “masters” who we refer to as “geniuses” followed a similar path to attain a level of mastery in their specific field.

First, they found and accepted their life’s task. This is quite difficult. When parents, peers, and often teachers are telling students to follow a certain path…it makes it hard to truly listen to that inner voice pointing you in the direction that leads to a convergence of passion and purpose. This too, is the first step of an inquiry-based project: choosing what you want to work on (and it is often the most difficult task).

Second, they had various forms of apprenticeship. They learned from other masters and improved their skills. In our world today, this does not always have to be a face-to-face apprenticeship. A good YouTube channel can serve as a mentor depending on your chosen field. Often this is where we tend to jump around. We’ll get to this stage and go back to choosing a different task. Greene mentions the impact of feeling intrinsically motivated:

Our levels of desire, patience, persistence, and confidence end up playing a much larger role in success than sheer reasoning powers. Feeling motivated and energized, we can overcome almost anything. Feeling bored and restless, our minds shut off and we become increasingly passive.

Third, we must move on from the mentor to completely understand the field and all of the social intelligence that comes with it.

This leads into the fourth step, of creative and exploratory work. You cannot become a true master by studying and taking tests. There has to be years of hard, agonizing, and often deflating work. That will be followed by moments of creative genius, as the world might describe it. Again, the merits of Genius Hour demonstrate how much more a student can learn when they are doing, making, and creating (even if they are failing in their current task).

When I look at Genius Hour, 20% Time, and other Project-Based Learning experiences I see a strong connection to the steps to Mastery laid out in Greene’s book.

I see students working to find a purpose in the work that they do. I’ve watched students struggle to come up with ideas that they could stick with, and have seen what it looks like when a student is fueled by curiosity and an inner passion. I see failure as a part of the process to mastery and something to be celebrated during this time. I view apprenticeship (in its various forms) as a key piece to Genius Hour and any project. Finding a mentor (or mentors) is an area we should focus on even more when giving students the freedom to do creative work.

And finally, I see Genius Hour and PBL as a stepping stone. It may not lead to a mastery while students are in school. But years later I can’t wait to see what students will say about how their project-based learning and creative work in school led to them finding their life’s task and becoming masters at whatever they set out to do in this world.

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Join the discussion 18 Comments

  • Clara Maxcy says:

    I dsaw this in my 20 Time project this past spring. I saw kids really interested in what they were doing, I asked questions of them when they got stuck, made tiny suggestions of things to think about, and watched them go back, energized. I had kids who worked on their projects at home, or told me what they were going to do on the next 20 Time class. They shone! I’m doing it again this year – as a regular part of my course. I, too, believe that every person has a genius… And that failing is a very big part of learning. It’s the getting back up and trying again that develops that grit people talk about – which I think also lies in all of us. I don’t instill grit, so much as seek to uncover it, expose it, and have students find the joy of chasing a passion. Learning is such a passion for me, it has always been. I seek to spark that fire in my students. Teaching is my calling in life. Everything I’ve ever done, good, bad, or inbetween, has set the stage for my “genius” – it only took 50+ years for me to find it!

  • I have had a problem with the “genius” part of genius hour since first hearing about it, so I stuck with “Passion Projects” when launching them for the first time with my third graders. What I especially appreciated with the focus on passion was how it set them up to be lifelong learners and to replicate the concept – think about your passions, form questions, do research, take action.

    While I like the idea of mastery and think it is far preferable to genius, I still don’t think it is accurate for what these kids are doing. No child masters a topic after several weeks of research and a presentation. Mastery has a very “completed” sound to it, whereas the point of these projects is to launch kids into the beginning of an inquiry mindset. Passion, for me, better fits that ongoing, incomplete vibe.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Hi Katie, yes I do agree with much of what you said. I also said in the post that there is no way “Mastery” can be achieved in such a short time, but hope Genius Hour and these passion projects lead to Mastery. Mastery would be the ultimate goal and the inquiry-based learning experience gives students an opportunity to go into the depth needed to work their way towards mastery (later in life!).

      • Gallit Zvi says:

        Another point to add this, I think, is that it isn’t just about mastery right now…but it is about developing the work habits/learning traits/mindsets/persistance/etc that will help kids get to mastery later on.

  • Garreth Heidt says:

    In the late 1990s I read a small book by Thomas Armstrong called Awakening Genius in the Classroom. At the same time I was living through the resurrection of Apple Computers with the release of the iMac and the brilliant advertising campaign, “Think Different.” The ad campaign, with its striking portraits of groundbreaking thinkers and doers in fields as varied as quantum physics and modern dance or baseball and workers’ rights was accompanied by a “poem” penned by writers at Chiat/Day advertising called “Here’s to the Crazy Ones.” The convergence of these two aspects–reading the book, and the (re)emergence of Apple’s ethos through this advertising campaign, led me to see my students differently.

    Armstrong’s work begins with a redefinition of genius. Just as you relate in your post, Armstrong delves into the Roman mythology–that we are all born with an attendant spirit, a genius. He then looks to the etymological similarities between “genius” and words like “genesis”, “genetics”, “generous”, “genial”, and even “djinni” (“genie”). Thus in reading this book (which I have done every August since 1998) I came away with this tenet, which I make sure my students know every day of every year: We all have the potential for genius.

    So I created a unit of study in which students looked at the lives of some of the figures in Apple’s advertising campaign and, through such guided study, students were able to infer, from the evidence they had gathered, a series of traits that they all possessed: They were creative (applied creativity or artistic creativity or both), they persisted (“mastery”) because they loved their work, they took calculated risks and were not afraid of failure (hence persistence and the courage it takes to overcome obstacles), they challenged the status quo, and they pushed (for whatever small or large part of humanity it may have been) the human race forward.

    Looking back, in light of your own posting above and the research and work that’s come out since, it seems pretty clear that in striving to realize our genius potential one thing is clearly necessary, and it’s one thing most all the figures in the “Think different” campaign possessed, and that is what Carol Dwek calls a “Growth Mindset.” Persistence, creativity, “drive”, a tolerance for failure/failing forward and risk taking, as well as a “passion” for what they are doing–Apple and the writers at Chiat/Day had inferred so much of what underlies Dwek’s work. And it is these qualities that I think inquiry based learning develops in our learners, regardless of whether we call it “genius hour” (sure, that’s problematic), a “passion project” (that’s problematic, too–it assumes students know what they are passionate about…what if they don’t? What if they are just interested?) or “20% Time” (seems more neutral and technical).

    Evan’s words above remind me of several of my own students this past year when they presented their projects, and they remind me of the work of Edison (“I’ve not failed, I simply discovered another way that didn’t work”) or Samuel Beckett (“Every tried, ever failed. No matter, try again. Fail again. Fail better.”) And, in the end, they remind us of what real learning can be.

    Thanks for this post, AJ. I hope, at some point, to master this thing called teaching. Your posts help me move ever closer. And though I know I’ll never reach mastery (as it is an ideal), living such a professional life is an odyssey of great pleasure and . . . passion.

    • Gallit Zvi says:

      I am glad you brought up Carole Dweck’s work. We are reading her book, Mindset, for our #geniushour bookchat right now. Join us in August to chat about it! More info on geniushour.wikispaces.com

      Gallit

  • Thanks for the post!
    I teach kindergarten and we run our whole program as an inquiry based model. It’s amazing to observe the students – they attempt, they fail, they try again, until they get it. They could be working on building a ramp or something as simple as trying to cut a piece of paper. I believe when they do accomplish their goal this is the same as mastery.
    I think the big challenge is encouraging those student who even at this young age have stopped trying and have been conditioned to have an adult “do it” for them. I even see it at home with my own kids. We have to model and teach that it’s okay to fail and that it’s a learning process.
    Thanks again!

  • Sheila says:

    I tried implementing Genius Hour this past spring with my third graders. They loved the freedom to explore and really study their own passions. The struggle I had was in guiding them to really develop a question to research. Several of them ended up just telling about their topics of interest, such as one boy told about the mascots for a few teams in Minnesota, a couple girls told about different pets they like, others told about volcanoes. So I feel like I failed in guiding them the correct way, because we ended up with just reports about different topics. Also, in their “research” they seemed to spend more time looking online for pictures to use in their presentations rather than really finding solid information, and none of them really worked to answer a question about their topics. I would love to hear any advice you could give on how I could attempt this with better results for next year? I love the idea of Genius Hour and if you asked my students, they would tell you it was one of the best parts of their year, but I want it to be much more meaningful if I decide to do it again.
    Thanks, Sheila

    • Charlene Doland says:

      It sounds like the students need a more structured framework. Definitely the “driving question” is key to success. https://learninginhand.com/blog/drivingquestions provides some helpful ideas and links to resources you could use in the classroom to guide the students in developing their questions. I would also recommend you conference with each student on their question and guide them through refining it into a true inquiry question.

      To get them out of “report” mode, you might set some criteria, such as “must be presented in a format you’ve never tried before,” and give them examples, such as video, or dramatic performance, or spoken word, etc.

  • Diann Espinoza says:

    I am very interested in starting this in my dual language 7th and 8th grade science classes this year. I am wondering if there is anyone out there who has done this in a middle school science classroom where we only meet for 55min/day. I am thinking that since I teach science I should require the projects to reflect some sort of science reference. Everything in life has some science in it. But would that be too limiting to the students’ free choice?

    • Rachel Zonshine says:

      I teach TK-6 science. I’m starting this right now with my 2nd and 3rd graders. My plan is to provide the essential questions for the unit and have those be guides for picking their topics. That way we are still doing life or Earth science and it helps them narrow their focus a little. Like you mentioned, almost anything can fall under the questions I give them, but they need a little creativity to get there. Since it’s their first time picking what they want to learn, I feel like “just pick anything” would be overwhelming. I would be overwhelmed as an adult, let alone as a 7-9 year old. We are doing this in conjunction with tournament brackets to narrow down ideas.

  • Joy Kirr says:

    Hello, AJ!
    In your email with this post, you asked about the word, “Genius.” Here is my post on “genius”: http://geniushour.blogspot.com/2013/04/genius.html
    Thank you for sharing this “mastery” portion of inquiry work. I do hope that some day I’ll find out that my 7th graders have gone on to continue their work towards mastery – in something they really have a passion – and then a purpose – for. 🙂 Thank you for sharing your ideas again!

    • Wendy Heffler says:

      Hello!
      I have been trying to come up with an idea that would engage 5th graders during the last 42 minutes of their day. I think I may have found it! This is a quarterly class in middle school. My only concern is that as an older teacher, the various technologies included are not my strong suit. Any suggestions?
      Also, is the wiki the main source for resources?
      THANK YOU!

  • […] As we know, there are many ways to be innovative in solving problems in the world. Many companies have realized that as their employees have been given responsibilities for their positions their total skills, abilities, and interests are not always part of their job. The same is true for our students in which we have a set of lessons and activities that we ask them to do and yet there always seems to be those students who appear to have interests that they are passionate about that can’t seem to be incorporated into the day to day work. To solve this problem, companies such as Google, created what they called the 20% time policy. This policy allowed employees to devote 20% of their work day to projects that the employee would most benefit Google. Shifting this concept over to education the idea becomes one in which the student is allowed to work on something they are passionate about that would most benefit their own learning. As A.J. Juliana points out: […]

  • […] As we know, there are many ways to be innovative in solving problems in the world. Many companies have realized that as their employees have been given responsibilities for their positions their total skills, abilities, and interests are not always part of their job. The same is true for our students in which we have a set of lessons and activities that we ask them to do and yet there always seems to be those students who appear to have interests that they are passionate about that can’t seem to be incorporated into the day to day work. To solve this problem, companies such as Google, created what they called the 20% time policy. This policy allowed employees to devote 20% of their work day to projects that the employee would most benefit Google. Shifting this concept over to education the idea becomes one in which the student is allowed to work on something they are passionate about that would most benefit their own learning. As A.J. Juliana points out: […]

  • […] As we know, there are many ways to be innovative in solving problems in the world. Many companies have realized that as their employees have been given responsibilities for their positions their total skills, abilities, and interests are not always part of their job. The same is true for our students in which we have a set of lessons and activities that we ask them to do and yet there always seems to be those students who appear to have interests that they are passionate about that can’t seem to be incorporated into the day to day work. To solve this problem, companies such as Google, created what they called the 20% time policy. This policy allowed employees to devote 20% of their work day to projects that the employee would most benefit Google. Shifting this concept over to education the idea becomes one in which the student is allowed to work on something they are passionate about that would most benefit their own learning. As A.J. Juliana points out: […]

  • Fatema Zohny says:

    Thank you!

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