Putting the G in ‘Genius’

Inspired by my recent visit to the headquarters of Google, Microsoft and Intel in the United States, I returned to school keen to recreate the supportive atmosphere created by these big companies in my very own classroom. I wanted to recreate the breeding ground of creativity of these huge multinational companies.

I wanted my students to feel as inspired and supported to create and problem solve and grow ‘what ifs’ and ‘I wonders’ into amazing ideas.

Before visiting Google I had heard about their concept of 20% time for their engineers and thought it sounded like an interesting idea that could work in the classroom. I didn’t understand the full effect of such an idea until I saw and felt it for myself though. It was while at Google that I realised the strong underlying cultural message such a program delivers- “we value you and your ideas,” “we believe in you,” “we trust you to develop your ideas into something fabulous.”

How does this compare to the underlying message in many of our classrooms today?

I put a question out to my PLN on Twitter asking for resources to help me launch 20% time in my own class and received a number of replies carrying the #geniushour hashtag (another name for 20% time). I sifted through a few of these, further convincing myself that I had to get on board with this and get my students involved.

Introducing it to the students

I started by explaining how 20% time works at Google then asking if it something they would be interested in doing in our own class. I had to make it very clear that 20% time is not free time- it is time to work on a project of your choice. In short, they could study or learn anything and present it in anyway.

I encouraged students to think about topics they had always wanted to learn about, things they have always wanted to know or be able to do. After discussing it in groups and then going home to discuss with families most students came back with an idea for a project by the end of the week.

Project guidelines

In everything I do with my students I have 3 goals for them: be curious, be brilliant and be the change. I therefore provided three ‘guidelines’ for the projects:

1)      Students had to learn something new while doing the project- it wasn’t enough to simply regurgitate information they already knew.

2)      The project had to tell me more about a topic than Google could- I had a collection of boys who wanted to make a video on how to play football (this probably contradicted guideline #1 anyway), I told them I could already go to Google to find out how to play football so they had to give me something more. I then encouraged them to further consider the third guideline:

3)      The project must have a connection to the community- this could mean that students interviewed a member of the community, got a member of the community to assist with part of their project, or maybe their final product educated the community in some way etc.

Once students had come up with an idea they had to map out a basic plan for what they would do each week for the next six weeks. They then had to book an appointment with me to discuss and refine their ideas. One pair of students were so keen to start on Monday they sent me a Google Doc of their 6 week plan over the weekend and asked me to leave comments and ideas on the side for them to think about.

Student Ideas

Interestingly, it was the students who are generally considered to be ‘at level’ who found selecting a topic the easiest. They generally had a good idea of what they were passionate about and were able to come up with an idea they felt comfortable with. The students who would generally be considered ‘above level’ seemed to struggle with settling on an idea and needed more prompting and support. The students generally considered to be ‘below level’ had the most difficulty with developing an idea that could run the length of the 6 weeks allocated. (They were great at coming up with ideas that would last for about 20 minutes!!)

Immediate effects

As soon as I introduced the genius hour to the students an excited buzz took hold of the room. I received several emails after school each night with different students testing out different ideas for projects and presentations. Just one week into the project I had a parent come in to say that his son had been outside digging up the garden every night planting plants to sell as part of his project. He had actually already made $40 selling plants over the weekend!

We have already had 2 one hour blocks of genius hour and they have been 2 of the most productive hours we have had all year!  Students are keen to take responsibility for their own learning, they are much more self-directed and require much less teacher support and nagging. They spread out all over the school and, because they appear to be very conscious of wasting their own time, there are only minimal issues with off task behaviour (a teacher’s dream!).

Some of the project ideas so far

  • A student with diabetes has decided to raise awareness of diabetes in the school and then try and organise a school fun run to raise money for Diabetes Australia.
  • Two students who have always wanted to learn about France are creating an information booth about France’s culture, food and attractions.
  • Two students who are passionate about animals are going to the local RSPCA to see how they can raise awareness of the work they do there.
  • Inspired by our current class novel (‘Trash’ by Andy Mulligan), two students are researching child labour and creating a project to educate others about it.
  • Two students are creating a video on what family means to different people in our community.
  • A student who loves plants is growing plants at home and educating people about them through a video. He has been to the hardware store (next to the school) and asked questions about plants and has sold some plants already.
  • Two students are creating a video on what it means to be a Campbells Creek footballer.
  • Two students are researching different programs used to create games and then creating their own computer game.
  • One student who has an autistic sister is created a website for other kids to raise awareness of autism and other learning disorders.
  • Two ‘hands on’ students are deconstructing an old school laptop- investigating all the different elements- and then hoping to put it all back together again.

Watch this space!!

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4 thoughts on “Putting the G in ‘Genius’”

  1. Narissa,
    Whenever I read a blog post about Genius Hour / 20% Time, my favorite part is the part that lists what the students are doing. I’m so excited for you and your students! I, too, love the “excited buzz” that takes over the room on days my 7th graders and I have Genius Hour. They get excited when they realize it’s Monday – “Oooh! We have Genius Hour today!” Gotta love the engagement. Isn’t it sweet how this all stems from the three guidelines you gave them? Kudos to you! Now it’s time to get your class a page on the Global Genius Hour Wiki (unless it’s there already)!
    Sincerely, Joy

  2. This is wonderful Narissa. I’m inspired by the topics they’ve chosen. Just goes to show, kids can be self directed learners when given opportunities to do so. Thank you for sharing this and providing a roadmap for others to follow.

    Jenny 🙂

  3. This sounds great Narissa. I’m wondering how you move the chn below level without it being directed? The projects are inspiring and your comments about the football video and your 3 guidelines make genius hour more than just a time filler. Congrats on “doing” and not just talking. Love to hear about final outcomes.

  4. Hi Narissa, sounds great to have students taking charge of their learning. Keep us posted on how they go with their projects. Will your students share this with others in your school? It is a shame that they will be off to high school next year, where there is less flexibility and more curriculum and content driven.


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