Reimagining Genius Hour as a PBL Mastery Hour

By AJ Juliani, 18 comments

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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