Genius Hour: 3 Strategies for Incorporating it in Your Class

genius hour
(Image credit: Image by S K from Pixabay)

Genius hour, also called passion project or 20 percent time, is an education strategy built around student-directed learning. 

The strategy was first inspired by a practice at Google in which the company allowed employees to spend 20 percent of their workweek on passion projects. In education, teachers who employ genius hours have students devote time weekly, per class or per term, to projects based upon their interests.  

Proponents of the practice say it engages students by allowing them to bring their passions into the classroom. Here are some tips for implementing genius hour in your classroom. 

1. Remember Genius Hour is Flexible  

Despite what the terms “genius hour” and “20 percent time” imply, teachers can and should find the genius hour format that works best for them and their students, says John Spencer, an associate professor of Education at George Fox University and former middle school teacher. “If you're a self-contained teacher, teaching all subjects to one group of students, you might have the permission to devote a whole chunk of time, say half a day on Friday, to Genius Hour,” Spencer says. Other teachers might have shorter chunks of time each day they can devote to genius hour projects and that works as well, Spencer says. 

Vicki Davis, Director of Instructional Technology at Sherwood Christian Academy, found her technology students tend to lose interest in genius hour projects if they spend too much time working on them. To guard against this, she has students devote time to their genius projects in the final three weeks of class. These short and super-focused projects are highly effective motivators for students, Davis says.  

2. It’s Not the Same as Project-Based Learning 

A genius hour project should not be confused with traditional project-based learning, Spencer says, even though he’s a fan of both pedagogical practices. “Often in regular project-based learning, you have students doing a project that's on a topic that they're also discovering for the first time,” he says. “But with Genius Hour, they have that prior knowledge. So they're able to go really deep with a project because instead of making the subject interesting, you're tapping into their interests.”

Since the projects are built upon students’ existing interest, the learning tends to delve deeper and be more authentic, plus students hone key skills while working on these projects. “They develop all of those critical, soft skills,” Spencer says. “They learn how to communicate, they learn how to be more resilient, they continue working on it, even when they run into challenges and mistakes.” 

3. Students Still Need Guidance  

Even though genius hour is student-directed and built on students’ passions, it’s not a free-for-all. Davis estimates she spends the first of the three weeks dedicated to the genius project working with students to fine-tune their efforts. Since she teaches 9th-grade digital technology, projects have to be tech-based and specific. 

“The secret in a genius project is making sure you have a really clear project that can be done in the amount of time that you have,” she says. “It needs to be a good fit for the student, and everybody has to understand clearly what's going to be accomplished.” 

She also reminds students to pick a topic they are passionate about. “I always tell my students, if they're bored, it's their fault,” Davis says. 

Past student projects have included making, editing, and posting a video on horseback riding to YouTube, designing a digital citizenship app, and programming detailed World War II simulations using Fornite Creative. “We want to work until we can find a topic that they're really interested in, and something that they'll be proud of, that they can talk about in scholarship interviews, or even job interviews,” she says. “When everything that they do at school is scripted, they can never write their own script or come up with their own ideas or engage in something that they've invented, I think that's a problem. Kids need to have a reason to come to school, and pursuing their personal passions and interests gives them that reason.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.