My experience in getting started with Genius Hour

Since my return from the #STACCE13 tour, myself and a collegue (@rissL) had the ambition to trial Genius Hour with our students (You can read about her introduction to Genius Hour with her students here). One our trip highlights was our visit to Google in California and finding out more about Google’s 80/20 time, where engineers are encouraged to take 20% of their weekly load to work towards personal projects of their choice.

The question we both had was, what if students were offered the same opportunity? It turns out that many educators have been asking the same, and living the results. In California we had the opportunity to network with an amazing local educator (@bvandyck) who had been doing some “disruptive” things with his students for some time. His version of Genius Hour had 4 simple ideas:

  • 1) It had to be connected to academia, school or community
  • 2) Had to be digital, or use technology
  • 3) Was not to be marked
  • 4) Could only be worked on after core curriculum lessons were completed.

At the ISTE13 conference, we caught further murmurings of terms like Genius Hour and 20 Time. Upon further investigation, it was here that I realised that Genius Hour or 20 Time is essentially the same as “Passion Projects”, which I believe is a term and an idea which has been around for at least a decade. Calling it whatever we like, in essence it is about giving students true freedom to inquiry and follow their heart and mind to their interest areas and talents.

I believe that Genius Hour, for our students, would allow for the opportunities to be engaged and motivated in something personal, allow to exercise creativity, and encourage the development of self-directed learners. Even though we embed inquiry and student-centric pedagogy in a lot of aspects of our curriculum, Genius Hour is allowing for true freedom and discovery.


Starting out

I decided to pursue #GeniusHour further on twitter, and came across a few worthwhile resources, notably the Genius Hour LivebinderGenius Hour Wiki, and CybraryMan’s Library of GeniusHour links. These 3 resources are an absolute treasure trove of resources and ideas pertaining to Genius Hour, and are an excellent starting point. I also found the following media and blog articles useful:


Introducing to our students

In year 5/6 we have 130 students with their own laptops, which means researching and presenting their information for their projects should be a breeze. I teach together with 4 other teachers in our level.

We started by talking about the idea of Google’s 80/20 time to the students, and explained that we would be offering them a similar opportunity. We stressed that it will be their choice to decide what they learn, and present it however they like. They would be given roughly 1 hour during the week to work towards their projects. I also made this sweet banner as our Genius Hour poster, and explained that photoshop was something that no-body taught me, because I was never given the opportunity to learn it. But I decided to find out if I could teach myself. The result is that I now have a basic knowledge of photoshop! This was the idea that we communicated to them about Genius Hour, that they were to be the ones to decide what to learn, how to do it, and then what to do with it.

Our Genius Hour poster / logo, inspired by the wisdom and genius that was Albert Einstein.

We also talked about one notable genius in Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein was undoubtedly an incredible intellectual man, who contributed a great deal in the field of Science. But a genius is someone who is also creative and uses their natural talents. We aimed to communicate to our students that they are geniuses in their own right, as they have their own multiple intelligences, can all be creative, and all excel in some form of natural talent. It is going to be up to them to be a genius!


10 Principles of Genius Hour

In commencing Genius Hour, I designed 10 principles to guide our students in the desired direction (tongue in cheek!…isn’t this how class inquiry sometimes goes?). I based these principles from what I have read and understand about Genius Hour, and suiting it to our students and the desired process.

1) Start with a question – We want our students to lead an inquiry, and the question becomes the most important thing in determining how deep the project becomes.

2) Be larger than Google – This term comes from @rissL‘s idea (see her project guidelines). It means that we want our students to investigate a question that cannot be simply answered with a simple Google search, or a flick through a book. Why teach others about “What are reptiles?” when the answer can easily be discovered for oneself?

3) Work towards a project – We want our students to have a desired outcome, product or goal related to their question; so that they are satisfied that they have actually done or achieved something.

4) Make an impact – We want our students to think about how they can change the world, whether that is on a local, national, or global stage. We are raising the expectations that they can contribute something meaningful, just like our idol Einstein did.

5) Share your learnings – We want our students to communicate and celebrate their learnings and make those above-mentioned impacts. We plan on asking our students to present back to their class in any format they choose, as well as holding an open expo day in our school where other students, teachers, and the local community can come and see the student’s passions and interests. @rissL and I also plan on setting up a virtual expo where our students can share their learnings with each other in an online space.

6) Present and capture digitally – Even though our students have their own laptop, and would probably opt to use their laptop for research and presenting information, we didn’t want to force this upon everyone.  However, we do want our students to collect digital artefacts, even if they are making a poster, model, or completing an action. Having digital evidence means they will be able to participate in the virtual expo.

7) Include a bibliography – We want our students do be digitally literate and 21st century citizens, which means giving credit where credit is due! We are recommending to students that they write down their sources as they go.

8) Don’t ask for a mark – We want our students to be intrinsically motivated and self-critical of their own processes. We are placing emphasis on the students conducting weekly self-assessments and reflections, but we are trying to de-emphasis an expected “mark” as much as possible.

9) Work on your project only when your other work is complete – In some ways, Genius Hour is a direct contradiction to what goes on in most of our school day, where the teacher ultimately decides the content. Nevertheless, the nature of the beast is that there are certain things that the curriculum dictates that we teach, and students need to know. We are hoping that Genius Hour will motivate students to get through the normal syllabus as required so they maximise the time they could be following their passions.

10) Learn by yourself or with others – We want our students to decide for themselves if they are pursuing their interests individually or with others. We are trying to discourage groups larger than 4, as it may lead to some students passively standing by as others take the lead.

What happened next…

…was quite interesting. I was expecting massive enthusiasm and the grins to take hold around the room when the students do the token fist-pump “yes!” to each other when you introduce something as engaging and motivating as Genius Hour. There was a fair bit of that, which was great to see.

What I wasn’t expecting was a few bewildered faces! Maybe for one, because they were in a bit of shock about the whole idea, or for two because they didn’t know where to start. On the extreme end, sadly there were some tears to be had as well, even from “the smart” kids. Upon reflecting about this, the few students that struggled with this initial idea of Genius Hour are falling into 2 categories ; 1) the kids who struggle at being truly independent and taking charge of their learning, or 2) the kids that appear to be “clever” and are great at churning out the answers when spoon-fed, but struggle when it comes to creativity.

As mentioned at the top of this blog post, our goal is to give students the opportunity to be engaged and motivated, exercise creativity, and develop self-directed behaviours. While it might not all be plain sailing, our job is to ensure that we guide all students through this process.


Their ideas

We provided a proposal template in the form of a Google Doc and asked that each student submit their idea and plan to their teacher. As the proposals star rolling in, we are giving students feedback by leaving a comment on their document and suggesting changes or tweaks where necessary. A lot of our feedback is directed to students in firming up their essential question to set up their projects. By and large, there are some interesting, creative, and deep ideas coming through, including:

  • 3 students who want to educate drivers on the dangers of illegal street racing, and provide solutions for car enthusiasts in a safe environment.
  • 2 students who are investigating the pros and cons of radiation
  • 3 students who want to learn how to program in python to make an educational game for the junior years
  • A student who wants to promote surfing as a recreational sport, and re-design the surfboard
  • A student investigating the benefits of wind energy

Next steps

Overall there is a large amount of enthusiasm shared by students. I think they, as well as the teachers, are looking forward to what they will be coming up with over the next few weeks.


For anyone interested, here is a link to an example proposal template that we used with our students:

A summary our principles.

And also, for a bit of inspiration, this poster for students struggling to come up with their ideas (credit to @mrsdkrebs and her blog post where I got this idea from)

A Storify of our #STACCE13 & #ISTE13 study tour experience.

In capturing some extended thoughts, reflections, learnings and memories from our recent #STACCE13 study tour, I thought I would create a Storify of select tweets and photos from the trip. It has been enjoyable to sift and pick out the key learnings and moments from each part of the tour and curate them into one journal. I hope that you, the viewers, enjoy reading about our experiences.

View “The 2013 ACCE Study Tour ( #STACCE13 ) to #ISTE13” on Storify here.

An interview with Anthony Salcito for Daily Edventures

One of the highlights from my recent study tour to the USA and attendance at the ISTE13 conference was the an interview and informal chat with Anthony Salcito (@AnthonySalcito). Anthony runs a blog called Daily Edventures (a 365-day look at innovative education).

As Vice President of Worldwide Education at Microsoft, Anthony works with education institutions and partners on a global scale, and believes that “innovation in education is a worldwide challenge“.

We met Anthony when our study tour group visited Microsoft in Seattle. Anthony was also attending ISTE13 in the following week. Narrisa Leung (@rissL, a fellow Victorian on the study tour) and I were invited to share our learning experiences from the study tour, as well as our insights into the Australian and American education system.

Despite our obvious passion for technology, when Anthony asked us about what would be a our most memorable take away from the study tour both of our sentiments reflected “peopleware” rather than specific elements of technology itself. Crucially, the biggest push in educational technology integration needs not to be the technology itself, but the professional development for teachers, the relationships, the pedagogy, and leadership for all stakeholders.

You can read and view the full interview at Anthony’s blog from this link.


A refreshed view on Game Based Learning

One of the featured keynote speakers at the ISTE13 conference was Jane McGonigal (@avantgame), director of Game Research and Development at the Institute for the Future. In her keynote titled “Learning is an Epic Win”, Jane revealed the dynamics of gamers worldwide, and the potential of engaging gamers for a higher civil purpose.

Prior to hearing Jane speak I thought I knew a little about Game Based Learning. For the last few years #GBL seemed to be picking up pace in educational circles. At the conferences I have attended in the past few years, there have been various keynotes and presentations advocating games for learning in increased urgency. I would say that I have been mostly sceptical for a few reasons.

Firstly, GBL seems to carry quite a few “buzz words” that get thrown around when it comes to games in learning. Gamification, collaboration, virtual worlds, mass online rpgs, etc seem enough for anyone just to yell out “SOLD!”.  I feared that the hysteria and hype surrounding these words is that for seeking educators it means games are an educational babysitter, through the mindset that “games = fun = engagement = individual learning”

With this in mind, vendors are increasing to offer services, platforms and content in the form of “engaging” games. These are often offered as shining beacons of answers to effective and efficient student development of outcomes. However, for obvious reasons, there’s something about sitting a student in front of a game and expecting magic to happen that doesn’t sit well with me from a educationalist point of view.

At the risk of sounding overly negative about games, I can assure you that I’m not. I’m an avid gamer myself, and have been engrossed in digital and physical games since I could talk. I have been sceptical though, about the benefits and opportunities of GBL; and more importantly, how it is best integrated to support learning.

For this reason at recent conferences I had elected to attend sessions where presenters would give insight into how they have been using GBL as the vehicle for learning. The use of minecraft as a platform seems to be a popular choice. Unfortunately, of the sessions I have attended at ICTE13 and ACEC12, the examples seemed to lack rigour, purpose, and student outcomes tied to curriculum. I don’t think that minecraft can be justified as a worthwhile exercise for students on the basis that the kids are having fun, therefore it’s worthwhile. It might be argued that they are developing communication and collaboration skills, but where is the content? The purpose? The close integration of knowledge and learning? I love games, and there is no doubt kids love games. But I’ve always been wary of its justification in teaching and learning.

After Jane’s keynote at ISTE13, I felt there was hope for making sense of GBL. Still not completely sold, I decided to purchase Jane’s book: Reality Is Broken: How Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World for further pursual. And I’m very glad that I did! In fact I have enjoyed this book so much, that I thought I would write a blog post about it. It has been inspirational to the point where I think other educators, interested in GBL or not, should take note of the themes from this book.

So thanks to Jane McGonigal, I have hit the F5 button on my views on GBL which have now been refreshed. Here’s why:

Image courtesy of David Vignoni via Wikimedia

Why should we care?

  • Because whether we advocate games or not, Jane reveals that there are 183 million active gamers in the USA, closer to home in Australia it’s 15 million, and worldwide close to 1 billion. In Jane’s words: This is “creating a massive virtual silo of cognitive effort, emotional energy, and collective attention lavished on game world’s instead of the real world” (pg4). Collectively, the planet is spending a staggering 3 billion hours a week in gaming. Jane explains that these hours are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy.
  • In the USA, 97 %  of youth play computer and video games (pg5). Whilst one out of 4 gamers are over the age of fifty, the average game player is 35 and has been playing games for 12 years (pg5). However, today’s students live and breathe a digital world and expect to consume video games.

What’s behind a” good” game?

  • Games have a goal, rules, feedback system, and voluntary participation (pg21). These determine how effective a game is. Jane quotes Bernard Suits in revealing that “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”  (pg22). This is precisely what is fun, motivating and rewarding about playing games.

Fun, Fiero & Failures

  • Games are fun, but shouldn’t only be looked at as escapism. Rather, Jane reminds us of Brian Sutton-Smith’s words: “The opposite of play isn’t work.  It’s depression” (pg28).
  • Jane describes Fiero as “the italian word for ‘pride’…it is what we feel after we triumph over adversity…we throw our arms over our head and yell” (pg 33). She also goes on to cite studies that confirm that “Fiero” moments are one of the most powerful neurochemical highs we can experience. It made me think about whether our students experience enough if any “Fiero” moments in their learning. Are they being stimulated, challenged, satisfied, and rewarded with genuine highs in the classroom? Students should be craving satisfying work, with the hope and experience of being successful, just like in games. So do we take note of this, and design lessons accordingly? Or use games as the vehicle for this type of learning?
  • Gamers spend 80% of their time failing, and still love what they are doing (pg64). The culture and mindset of failure in the classroom here plays a big part in embracing learning opportunities and persistence to higher goals and achievements. The nature of games is that the gamer still wants to persist in order to reach that next target.

 Participation & Motivation

  • “If we are forced to do something, or if we do it half heartedly, were not really participating. If we don’t care how it all turns out, were not really participating. If were passively waiting it out, were not really participating” (pg124). These 3 eloquent sentences summarise what it actually means to be participatory. This quote made me think about how teachers allow or disallow students to direct their own learning; learning where students are self-motivated and self-directed, and where interest and genuine enthusiasm is fostered. This is a large positive of GBL because students have to voluntarily participate in the game, therefore they immediately become effective participants if they are interested.

 Re-inventing reality

What the digital realm offers

  • Investigating Your MP’s Expenses is an example of what people are capable of when collaborating through the power of technology. Jane points out that Wikipedia has required crowd sourcing to the tune of 100 million hours of thought.  That is like rounding up a million people and asking them to contribute 100 hours to Wikipedia, for free. Or persuading 10,000 people to dedicate five full time work years to Wikipedia. As Jane puts it: “That is a lot of effort to ask a lot of people to make, for no extrinsic reward, on behalf of someone else’s vision” (pg225).
  • Jane argues that with 1.7 billion internet users, it shouldn’t be hard to pull off projects to the scale of Wikipedia. “If the right motivation could be provided, we should be able to complete 100 Wikipedia sized projects every single day” (pg225).

In light of Jane’s book, I don’t think I will look at the potential of games and student learning in the same way that I used to. In particular, I have been amazed at what Quest To Learn are achieving in the way that they are structuring their teaching and learning around GBL.

However, I still think there is the danger of laying games over existing  lesson plans and expecting magic to happen. This is not gamification!

In convincing others about what GBL could offer for education, I am predicting that most hesitant educators, particularly those who have largely grown up without video games, will continue to deem video games as a distraction from our real lives, and therefore irrelevant.

To a large point, living our reality is important. However, we can now think of games as having much more potential than just entertainment that serves as a disconnect from reality. As Jane argues in the final chapter: “games don’t distract us from our real lives. They FILL our real lives: with positive emotions, positive activity, positive experiences, and positive strengths” (pg354).

Thank you Jane McGonigal for refreshing my views on GBL! If you haven’t already done so, I highly recommend Reality Is Broken: How Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World as your next read!

*Disclaimer: I do not work for Jane, nor am I receiving any commission on making this post! :p

Have you read “Reality Is Broken”?

What are your thoughts on GBL?