Teaching Our Kids to Scratch Their Itch

“Let me ask you a question,” she said.

“Ok,” I offered back, not too sure where this was headed.

“This whole Genius Hour and 20% project thing…isn’t that how we should be teaching kids all the time? I mean, isn’t that what learning should look like in our classrooms 100% of the time, not just 20% of the time?”

“Yes and no,” I came back with an answer she probably didn’t want to hear. I’d heard this question many times before after speaking about Genius Hour, and it was not a cut and dry type of answer.

“I’m very happy that someone taught me how to read. I’m thankful my teachers taught me the basics of mathematics, the scientific process, and the history of our country and world. I’m not sure my own personal choice at 8-years-old would have been to learn those things.”

She fired back, “So, you don’t think we need 100% of our school day to look like Genius Hour? Are you saying that an hour or 20% of class time is enough time to learn about your interests?”

She had a point…

¨School can provide students with a fundamental toolbox for learning. Some tools like reading comprehension, the ability to draw inferences, understanding mathematical concepts, being exposed to the scientific process, and analyzing cause and effect may be best taught with a teacher leading the learning at points.¨

She would not let up. ¨Let me get this straight then, you just spoke about the benefits of student-directed learning, but also believe teachers can lead valuable learning experiences.”

¨Yes, but would you let me clarify?¨

The room was a bit tense in this moment. I could sense the eyeballs on me as she shook her head.

¨If the teacher is a guide, a true guide, then sometimes we´ll have to lead the way. Especially early in the journey. But the goal of the guide is not to always lead the way, it´s to prepare them to lead as much as possible. Because one day we won´t be available to do any more leading.¨

She then asked the best follow-up question I´d ever heard: ¨So what do we do when teachers have been taught that they should be leading, and students have been groomed to follow, and parents and administrators have been told to watch and judge how well that interaction is going throughout the year?¨

I chuckled and said, ¨Now that is a loaded question!¨

The room laughed, but the seriousness of the question still hung in the air.

¨I´d say that all of those people – teachers, students, parents, and administrators – ultimately want the same thing. They want kids to be successful independent learners who have lots of opportunities to learn, work, and make an impact on the world. Regardless of how our current system is set up, or what our differing beliefs are on education, that end goal is fairly universal. So, I always work back from that goal when thinking about how to give students the best learning experiences possible to help prepare themselves for anything.¨

For the first time, she was smiling as I answered. Naturally, I kept going 🙂

¨For a long time you may have been able to get great opportunities by following the path of doing well in school, getting into a good college, getting good grades and internship, then getting a good job where you could work your way up the ladder by following the rules and being a good employee. Today´s world, by all accounts, doesn´t really work like that. The most successful people create their own opportunities. They take risks, solve problems, and tend to do one thing over and over again: They scratch their own itch.¨

The rest of the session was filled with laughter and work around the idea of Genius Hour as an avenue to give students an opportunity to scratch their itch. We shared stories of our personal lives, where we learned about something because it bothered us, or intrigued us, or we needed to figure it out.

Scratching your own itch

The Open Source world embraced this mantra a long time ago — they call it “scratching your own itch.” For the open source developers, it means they get the tools they want, delivered the way they want them. But the benefit goes much deeper.

As the designer or developer of a new application, you’re faced with hundreds of micro-decisions each and every day: blue or green? One table or two? Static or dynamic? Abort or recover? How do we make these decisions? If it’s something we recognize as being important, we might ask. The rest, we guess. And all that guessing builds up a kind of debt in our applications — an interconnected web of assumptions.

As a developer, I hate this. The knowledge of all these small-scale timebombs in the applications I write adds to my stress. Open Source developers, scratching their own itches, don’t suffer this. Because they are their own users, they know the correct answers to 90% of the decisions they have to make. I think this is one of the reasons folks come home after a hard day of coding and then work on open source: It’s relaxing.

—Dave Thomas, The Pragmatic Programmer

Scratching your itch is what all of us do when we want to learn something new. We hear a song on the radio, then YouTube it and listen to it a hundred times, until that little part of your brain starts saying, wouldn´t it be cool if we could play this song on the guitar. Then we borrow a friends guitar, look up some tutorials on how to string it and tune it properly, ask our friend for advice. Watch some more tutorials on where to put our fingers, how to strum, what chords to play…and then we practice and practice, again and again.

Finally, one day we wake up and play the song correctly. The one day we play it flawlessly. Then we share it with others and play for them. There is no one holding you accountable for this type of learning. No one telling you the exact steps and what order to do them in. There are mentors and teachers along the way, but it is a natural process og inquiry and action. It´s how we learn everyday. And it starts with an itch we have to scratch.

More specifically, it starts with the belief that we can learn this, then action to do it and learn it, then the results:

The Self Fulfilling Cycle via Train Ugly


What I find disturbing is how little time we give in our schools for our students to go through this short cycle. This is why I love Genius Hour and 20% time. It gives students an in-school opportunity to scratch their own itch.

They choose what they want to learn. They have to believe they can learn and make/create some type of product or solution. Having the belief is often the most difficult part. Often student will choose something for their project that is easy or beneath them because they want success. Ultimately we want students to challenge themselves. Then they get to put in place a series of actions that drive their learning and product creation during the project. Each action has a result or outcome. Some might be little failures, some mistakes will happen, but a lot of learning will happen along the way.

With each result comes a new belief. Maybe that student playing the guitar never believed they could play the whole song, maybe only the chorus. But then when they finally achieve playing the chorus, their is a small belief they could play the whole song. So they jump in with their actions.

This repeats itself over and over again, until that person who scratched their itch to learn a song on the guitar, ends up writing their own music, getting up in front of a crowd, and playing their original songs on stage.

Getting to that point is hard work. It takes time. It takes a lot of missteps along the way. A lot of results that are not success. But ultimately each one builds the belief that they can do better, they can do more, and they can accomplish what was once thought to be impossible.


If you are interested in learning more about Genius Hour and 20% Time projects sign-up for my free MINI course below. I will also be offering a live webinar on the topic on August 3rd.

I know our kids need to scratch their own itch as much as possible in today´s world. Genius Hour and 20% time projects are just one avenue to provide that experience in school. The cool part is that thousands of teachers and students are already doing this type of work in classrooms around the world, and you can connect with them online in many different ways. I share everything in the course and webinar. Hope you can join us!

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Join the discussion 7 Comments

  • Kaleigh Richards says:

    It sounds like that teacher was a Montessori teacher, because that is what we strive for on an daily basis!

  • Linda Houtz says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article. As a library teacher who teaches each class in the school for 45 minutes weekly, I’m feeing spurred on to find a way to encourage students to explore topics of interest during library time. I need to learn more about Genius Hour (and will check out your mini course), but am enjoyng reading that allowing students to scratch their intellectual itch is something others are valuing. I’m in a great position to support that.

  • Denise Harts says:

    I took the code.org course this summer and am excited and anxious when I consider where I am going to fit in genius hour.

  • Liz says:

    Love this. It’s exactly what I’m shooting for in my home ed approach – sometimes more successfully than others, but we’re getting there.

  • Michelle says:

    I want to be included in the webinair.

  • […] of music education. It needs to find ways of supporting student centred inquiry (termed elsewhere, scratching their own itch), but also incorporating a framework that helps them learn, opening new paths and building their […]

  • Last week a few of us parents organized a coding party for our kids to introduce them to the fun and creative world of programming . Given that our kids spend so much time interacting with computers, teaching them how to control these machines with some creative programming is a powerful life skill.

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