The Research Behind PBL, Genius Hour, and Choice in the Classroom

Research Behind Genius Hour and Choice in the Classroom

Updated: I’ve updated this post and page since publishing my most recent book about student choice and project-based learning. I’d love for you to add resources you’ve found in the comments section of this post so I can add them to the list!

Since experimenting with “Genius Hour and 20% Time” in my class a few years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the research and history of this practice in education and the business world. This has led me down a long road to eventually writing Inquiry & Innovation in the Classroom (published by Routledge) on inquiry-driven education and choice-based learning experiences.

During that time I’ve had hundreds of conversations with fellow teachers practicing choice-based and inquiry-driven learning in some way shape or form (Genius Hour, 20% Time, Passion Projects, Choose2Matter etc). Lately, through the book-writing process I’ve had some more in-depth interviews about inquiry-based education, and I’ve spent a great deal of time researching the beginnings and reasons behind Genius Hour’s effectiveness.

Today I want to shed some light on the research behind choice, and more broadly, inquiry-driven education. When folks such as Ewan McIntosh (who I really respect as an educator) stir up the pot with posts like this one, I believe the best way to defend inquiry as a practice is to look at the results. It’s easy for me to praise Genius Hour because I’ve done it in the classroom, and seen many other teachers do it successfully with their students. However, I also understand that if you have not had that experience it may be difficult to justify. This post is for those that need more resources about inquiry-driven education, and for those trying to get research to back them up when bringing it to a principal, school board, parent committee, or even colleagues.

Research Behind Genius Hour and Choice in the Classroom

I’m breaking the post down into four sections. The first section is how choice and inquiry-driven learning increases student engagement and achievement. The second section is success-stories from fellow teachers using the choice and inquiry-driven learning model. The third section is how choice and inquiry-driven learning is connected to the common core standards. The fourth section is related books, whitepaper, and research linked to inquiry-driven education.

  1. How choice, PBL, and inquiry-driven learning increases student engagement and achievement
  2. Success-stories from fellow teachers using the choice and inquiry-driven learning model
  3. How choice, PBL, and inquiry-driven learning is connected to the common core standards
  4. Related books, whitepaper, and research linked to choice and inquiry-driven education

The Connection Between Choice, Inquiry, and Student Engagement/Achievement

The Gallup report Creativity in Learning is based on a survey conducted in 2019 as a “nationally representative study” of teachers, students, and parents of students. The focus was the extent to which “creativity in learning” is being fostered in American classrooms, what respondents think of it, and how technology supports it. Project Based Learning is cited throughout the report.

Here are some highlights via PBLWorks:

“Teachers who often assign creative, project-based activities are more likely than other teachers to say their students display a range of learning and development goals, including building self-confidence, utilizing their unique strengths, and developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills.”

“68% percent of teachers say project-based assignments are a good measure of student learning, far more than the 12% at who say the same about standardized tests.”

When asked what they believe are the most important learning outcomes, the top three choices were:

  1. “learning to think critically” (chosen by 64% of parents and teachers)
  2. “problem-solving skills” (chosen by 51% of teachers; not asked of parents)
  3. “developing students’ curiosity to learn beyond the classroom” (chosen by 36% of parents and 41% of teachers)

Parents want their child to have learning experiences like what happens in PBL.

Take a look at this chart from the report, showing how the learning experiences were ranked, with the percentage of parents who say it’s ”very important.”

chart showing percentage of parent who say "very important"

Students want the kind of learning experiences that PBL delivers.

According to Gallup,

“Most students say they would like to spend more time on activities that give them input on their educational path, such as choosing what they learn in class and learning more about topics that most interest them. 

“Two other activities a majority of students would like to spend more time on to help them see how what they are learning relates to real-life problems outside the classroom are 1) working on projects that can be used in the real world, and 2) publishing or sharing projects with people outside their class or school.”

When Edutopia came out with this overview of the research around PBL I nodded my head at the results:

Studies comparing learning outcomes for students taught via project-based learning versus traditional instruction show that when implemented well, PBL increases long-term retention of content, helps students perform as well as or better than traditional learners in high-stakes tests, improves problem-solving and collaboration skills, and improves students’ attitudes towards learning (Strobel & van Barneveld, 2009Walker & Leary, 2009). PBL can also provide an effective model for whole-school reform (National Clearinghouse for Comprehensive School Reform, 2004Newmann & Wehlage, 1995).

A 2016 MDRC/Lucas Education Research literature review found that the design principles most commonly used in PBL align well with the goals of preparing students for deeper learning, higher-level thinking skills, and intra/interpersonal skills (Condliffe et al., 2016).

No longer could the argument be about how well (or poorly) students would do on standardized assessments. The research was clear. When PBL was implemented well, students thrived in traditional tests and in a wide variety of soft-skills that are crucial to development and success beyond school.

The Buck Institute for Education also put out a research summary on PBL and 21st Century competencies that states, “Project Based Learning has been shown to yield a number of benefits for students, ranging from deeper learning of academic content to stronger motivation to learn. Looking specifically at how PBL supports 21st century learning goals, we can find several promising areas, including:

  • Academic Achievement
  • 21st Century Competencies
  • Equity
  • Motivation
  • Teacher Satisfaction

I urge you to dive into this research more here on the BIE website if you have any doubts.

If you asked any teacher, administrator, parent, school board member, student, or community member to list their top goals for an academic program, you would see achievement, 21st century competencies, equity, and motivation all at the top.

Project-based learning is shown to work in all kinds of schools, in all different grade levels, with students of varying backgrounds and abilities.

Inquiry Project Learning Research via Edutopia

“Research shows that such inquiry-based teaching is not so much about seeking the right answer but about developing inquiring minds, and it can yield significant benefits. For example, in the 1995 School Restructuring Study, conducted at the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools by Fred Newmann and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, 2,128 students in twenty-three schools were found to have significantly higher achievement on challenging tasks when they were taught with inquiry-based teaching, showing that involvement leads to understanding. These practices were found to have a more significant impact on student performance than any other variable, including student background and prior achievement.”

An Introduction to Inquiry Based Learning via Neil Stephenson

“As contrasted with more traditional forms of teaching and learning, inquiry emphasizes the process of learning in order to develop deep understanding in students in addition to the intended acquisition of content knowledge and skills. Inquiry draws upon a constructivist learning theories where understanding is built through the active development of conceptual mental frameworks by the learner. This approach is supported and enhanced by a broad research base which has identified three key implications for effective instructional practices”:

1. Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about the world. This means teaching practices must draw out and work with students pre-existing understandings and make student ‘thinking’ visible and central to the learning.

2. Competence in an area of study requires factual knowledge organized around conceptual frameworks to facilitate knowledge retrieval and application. Classroom activities should be designed to develop understanding through in-depth study of curriculum topics.

3. Meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) helps students take control of their learning. Opportunities for students to define learning goals and monitor their own understanding need to be embedded into classroom tasks.”

The Everyday Classroom Tools Project (Project Zero) via Tina Grotzer and Harvard GSE

“The goal of the Everyday Classroom Tools Project is to provide opportunities for students to learn that inquiry and their own experiences can help them achieve a deeper understanding of their world. It aims to foster a spirit of inquiry in all students. These goals promise to help students grow into life-long learners who are curious and set out to seek and achieve deep understanding of the world that they live in.”

“This document has two sections. The first is a series of six brief essays to address the kinds of questions teachers often have about inquiry based learning and learning from one’s experience. The intent is to place the central concepts of The Everyday Classroom Tools Project in context–to provide a sense of the variety of ways that the concepts have been thought about as well as how they are interpreted in this project. These essays are written for a teacher audience. The second section is a set of big ideas, questions, and attitudes that are central to the project. This section is written with the expectation that teachers will communicate these messages to their students.”

Why Use Inquiry-Based Learning via Amelie G. Schinck

“An inquiry-based approach was recommended by the National Science Foundation in their 1996 report of a year-long review of the state of undergraduate Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology (SME&T) education in the United States entitled Shaping the Future (NSF, 1996). In this report, the researchers stated that it is imperative that: All students have access to supportive, excellent undergraduate education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology, and all students learn these subjects by direct experience with the methods and processes of inquiry (NSF, 1996, p.6).”

Hole-in-the-Wall Education Findings from Sugatra Mitra

“Over the 4 year research phase (2000-2004), HiWEL has extensively studied the impact of Learning Stations on children. Hole-in-the-Wall Learning Stations were installed in diverse settings, the impact of interventions was monitored and data was continually gathered, analyzed and interpreted. Rigorous assessments were conducted to measure academic achievement, behaviour, personality profile, computer literacy and correlations with socio-economic indicators.”

Preparing Students for Work in the 21st Century by Rob Mancabelli and Will Richardson

“How can education professionals modify the way they teach and engage students today in order to prepare those students for tomorrow’s changing work environments? In part one of this three-part series, education experts Will Richardson and Rob Mancabelli explore the realities of the 21st century workplace. It can be said—without a doubt—that the future world of work for today’s students will be vastly different than what we have traditionally prepared these students for. But what implications does this have for today’s classrooms?”

List of other applicable research on Inquiry-Driven Learning:

Success Stories of Teachers Using Choice and Inquiry-Driven Learning Models

The following is a list of teachers from all levels, principals, professors, and other educators who are currently practicing inquiry-driven education. They write and share their experiences online, and each is a great resource for those getting started.

What’s Going on in Mr. Solarz’ Class?

Paul Solarz does amazing inquiry work with elementary students. If you ever thought, “Oh my students are too young for that”, then check out Paul’s site and his writing on inquiry and project-based learning in the classroom. And his new book, Learn Like a Pirate, is another great resource.

The Innovation Teacher

Don Wettrick’s blog is “pure genius” and his work with students surrounding choice and innovation will inspire you to actually implement the strategies he talks/write about.


My Own Genius Hour

Joy Kirr is a leader online with the #geniushour community and you can always find her giving inspiration to others starting inquiry projects on Twitter (through that hashtag). Joy will tell you that she doesn’t do a full “genius hour” but she does allow her students choice and inquiry which makes all the difference.

Cool Cat Teacher Blog

Vicki Davis is one of the people who really got me moving in the right direction with my students when I started the Flat Classroom Project. Since then I’ve worked with Vicki on some different projects and have loved what she’s been doing with her students. Inquiry is a huge part of Vicki’s class and she’s one of the best at describing this learning process.

Oliver Schinkten

Oliver’s Compassion-Based Learning site takes inquiry-driven learning one step further: it’s about helping. I love this idea and you can’t help but get excited when you read his post’s on compassion-based learning.


User Generated Education

Dr. Jackie Gerstein’s work with User-Generated Education is highlighted in this blog. She is consistently drawing on resources and research to support user-generated education, including inquiry-driven learning experiences.


Practical Theory

Chris Lehmann is the founding Principal of the Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in Philadelphia, PA. The Science Leadership Academy is an inquiry-driven, project-based, 1:1 laptop school that is considered to be one of the pioneers of the School 2.0 movement nationally and internationally. Chris also is the recipient of ISTE’s 2013 Outstanding Leader of the Year award. If you want to see a Principal’s perspective on inquiry-based learning, this is the spot!

I teach. I think.

Kevin Brookhouser is someone I greatly respect as a teacher and speaker on inquiry-driven education. He is one of the original folks I know who began doing 20% projects and his blog is filled with great posts and reflections on his (and his students) experiences.

Angela Maier’s Choose2Matter

Angela is an inspiration. Her Choose2Matter Quest and campaign have spread the idea of passion and compassion based learning far across our country (and the world). Stay tuned for a big way that Choose2Matter will be working with the inquiry-driven community this year.

Cogitations of Mr. Cockrum

Troy Cockrum is a teacher and author. He is a great teacher to learn from and has also used flipped-learning in conjunction with 20% time. Last year he participated along with his students in their inquiry-driven project…the results speak for themselves!

Kate Petty’s: 20 Time in Education

Kate has outdone herself with this site. She has put together resources on getting started with inquiry-driven 20% projects, and has linked to many other teachers doing inquiry-driven learning in their classrooms. Check it out for a much fuller list.

The Nerdy Teacher

I was so pumped to see Nicholas Provenzano (ISTE’s 2013 Teacher-of-the-Year) starting 20% projects in his class. Nick has been a leader in project-based learning and using Evernote in the classroom. If you want to see someone just starting the inquiry-driven experience, follow Nick’s blog this year.

Dare to Care

Denise Krebs runs Genius Hour (an inquiry-driven project) in her class, and shares what her (and her students) are doing through this blog. It is a must read for those planning on running an inquiry project with middle school students.


Integrating Technology: My Journey

Gallit Zvi is another Genius Hour teacher who consistently inspires. She recently started the Genius Hour collaborative website with Hugh McDonald, where many teachers can cross-share and post their inquiry-driven stories. Please check it out!

Today Is A Great Day For Learning

Hugh McDonald is a teacher I would want my kids to have! His passion for learning and inquiry is shown on his blog, twitter, and instagram feed. Check out what Hugh is doing with his middle school students, and make sure to read the post, “Dear Mr. McDonald, I will never forget Genius Hour”.

The Genius Hour Wikispace

This is another collaborative spot where many teachers are sharing their inquiry-driven learning experiences and resources.

The Global Genius Hour Project Wikispace

Robyn Thiessen has set up an amazing site where teachers can come and share what their students are doing with inquiry-based learning in the classroom. You’ll find stories of learning from all over the globe, in the entire K-12 age spectrum.


Jesse McLean, Josh Stumpenhorst, Matt Bebbington, and George Couros

Each of these wonderful educators have run “Innovation Days/Weeks” in their schools. It allows the entire school (or grade levels) to use inquiry as a means for inspiring projects for that day/week. I’ve linked to each of their sites above and you should definitely see what they’ve been doing!

The Many I Left off this list

There are many others who have been left off this list, but it is not static! I will update it periodically as I read different blog posts about inquiry-driven learning experiences. For a much longer (and better) list of educators running inquiry projects in their class, check out this Twitter List put together by Joy Kirr (along with her LiveBinder).

Connection to the Standards

There have been a number of posts (like this one) that tie the standards to inquiry. However, I wanted to point out the large quantity of standards that already tie to inquiry-based learning in some way/shape/form.

Standards That Connect to Reading/Researching with Inquiry

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2 Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.3 Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.6 Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.10 Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

Standards That Connect to Analyzing and Applying with Inquiry

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.8 Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.9 Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts.

Standards That Connect to Writing and Presenting with Inquiry

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.6 Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.5 Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.6 Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

Standards That Connect to Creating and Evaluating with Inquiry

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.1
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.8 Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.6 Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.3 Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.2 Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Standards for Mathematical Practice

  • CCSS.Math.Practice.MP3 Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
    • Mathematically proficient students understand and use stated assumptions, definitions, and previously established results in constructing arguments. They make conjectures and build a logical progression of statements to explore the truth of their conjectures. They are able to analyze situations by breaking them into cases, and can recognize and use counterexamples. They justify their conclusions, communicate them to others, and respond to the arguments of others. They reason inductively about data, making plausible arguments that take into account the context from which the data arose. Mathematically proficient students are also able to compare the effectiveness of two plausible arguments, distinguish correct logic or reasoning from that which is flawed, and—if there is a flaw in an argument—explain what it is. Elementary students can construct arguments using concrete referents such as objects, drawings, diagrams, and actions. Such arguments can make sense and be correct, even though they are not generalized or made formal until later grades. Later, students learn to determine domains to which an argument applies. Students at all grades can listen or read the arguments of others, decide whether they make sense, and ask useful questions to clarify or improve the arguments.
  • CCSS.Math.Practice.MP4 Model with mathematics.
    • Mathematically proficient students can apply the mathematics they know to solve problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace. In early grades, this might be as simple as writing an addition equation to describe a situation. In middle grades, a student might apply proportional reasoning to plan a school event or analyze a problem in the community. By high school, a student might use geometry to solve a design problem or use a function to describe how one quantity of interest depends on another. Mathematically proficient students who can apply what they know are comfortable making assumptions and approximations to simplify a complicated situation, realizing that these may need revision later. They are able to identify important quantities in a practical situation and map their relationships using such tools as diagrams, two-way tables, graphs, flowcharts and formulas. They can analyze those relationships mathematically to draw conclusions. They routinely interpret their mathematical results in the context of the situation and reflect on whether the results make sense, possibly improving the model if it has not served its purpose.

Other Resources:


Related Research, Books, and Articles

So, I hope this helps in justifying the use of choice and inquiry-based education, including 20% time and Genius Hour. Let me know what resources and research I may have missed and I am going to update this site on a monthly basis. I’m sure we can all pull together, even more research to do what is best for our students.

Getting Started with Genius Hour

I often get asked about the steps for running a Genius Hour Project or a 20% Time project in your class. I tend to give the same answer every time: It depends.

Genius Hour and 20% Time projects give students an opportunity to have time during school to explore their passions, learn with purpose, and make something for a real audience.

But, it can look vastly different in a 1st-grade classroom compared to an 11th grade Science classroom (and everywhere in between).

I’ve seen Genius Hour been successfully implemented at every grade level. In fact, in my school district, we have Genius Hour projects running K-12. They are run differently in each grade and each class, yet there are some consistent phases that say the same.

This led me to create The Genius Hour Blueprint. It is available below and you can download the PowerPoint file for FREE by signing up for weekly updates at the bottom of this post.

The Genius Hour Blueprint covers six different phases of Genius Hour and what steps/activities you can do at each stage. It also has suggested resources, activities, and ways to share your work broken down by K-5, 6-8, and 9-12. Take a look below, and download the PPT to modify and change for your purposes in class!

Download the Genius Hour Blueprint.

Subscribe to updates and get the PowerPoint version of the Genius Hour Blueprint for FREE.

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