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Genius Hour Inspires at McDonald Elementary

The Centennial School District promotes individualized learning opportunities for students where they can explore their own areas of interest and expand upon curricular topics.   Genius Hour is one initiative for the 2016-2017 school year that is gaining momentum through the ingenuity of the teachers and creativity of the students.   Genius Hour is a dedicated block of time where students can work on self-directed projects.   Teachers serve as mentors and facilitators by teaching students how to develop a plan, monitor progress, collaborate with one another, and share their learning.   Using an inquiry model for learning, students refine their questions into actionable plans for research and creation.   Each of the six schools in the Centennial School District is piloting Genius Hour this school year.   

Research around motivation suggests that when individuals have a degree of autonomy with their work, productivity and engagement increases.   In the school setting, providing classroom time for students to peruse self-directed projects allows them to make deeper connections to the content as well as apply skills they have learned.   The teacher functions as a facilitator for learning by coaching students through the process and prompting students to activate prior and background knowledge.

What Genius Hour allows students to do is pick their own project and learning outcomes, while still hitting all the standards and skills for their grade level. In fact, these students often go “above and beyond” their standards by reaching for a greater depth of knowledge than most curriculum tends to allow. The idea for Genius Hour (or 20% time projects) in schools comes from Google’s own 20% policy, where employees are given twenty percent of their time to work and innovate on something else besides their current project. It’s been very successful in business practice, and now we can say that it has been wildly successful in education practice.

With Genius Hour and 20% time, we can solve one society’s biggest problems by giving students a purpose for learning and a conduit for their passions and interests. If you listen to Sir Ken Robinson or Daniel Pink TED talk, you’ll discover this is an issue that starts with schooling. We spend 14,256 hours in school between kindergarten and graduation. If we can’t find a time for students to have some choice in their learning, then what are we doing with all those hours? There are many in education who are questioning “why Genius Hour would be good for schools,” so we’ve made it easy for each stakeholder to see the benefits below.


It starts with the students. They are the reason we teach, and the future of our world. Instead of answering a multiple choice test on The Great Gatsby, why can’t our students have the opportunity to write, collaborate, sing and produce a song that explains in detail the major themes of the story? Through Genius Hour, we give our students a voice in their own learning path, and allow them to go into depth in subjects that we may skim over in our curriculum.


We’ve got a tough but extremely rewarding job. Great teachers inspire and make a difference, but great classrooms have students inspiring each other. Classes come together and learn everyone’s true interests and passions. They get over the fear of failing together. They cheered for each other during presentations, and picked each other up when things didn’t go as planned. They had conversations about standards, skills and learning goals. Using 20% of class time allows us to “teach above the test,” and our students finally understood that learning doesn’t start or end with schooling.


Remember that conversation starter, “What’d you do in school today?” It will lead to an actual conversation during Genius Hour projects! I talked to a parent (who is also an elementary teacher) just last week about her daughter’s experience with Genius Hour.

She said, “I always knew my daughter liked design and fashion magazines, but what girl doesn’t? When she came home making and creating her own clothes, I was shocked. I went to the store with her to pick out patterns, helped her sew, and actually make a few outfits!”

We want our children to be successful. Sometimes we equate that with an “A” on a test. But what Genius Hour does is make success something tangible. It drives their hidden passions to the surface, and reinvigorates conversation about purpose in their lives.


Go watch the project presentations! When you see a tenth grader try to “clone a carnivorous plant,” or a ninth grader learn sign language to communicate with her deaf younger cousin, or a fourth grader produce his own movie, then you’ll know why Genius Hour rocks.

Sometimes as administrators, we can get lost in the numbers (test scores, graduation rates, etc), but Genius Hour and Genius Hour projects bring us back to why we got into education in the first place: to make a difference. Many principals have said those were the best presentations they ever saw — not because of the content, but because of the conviction students had for their work. As an administrator, we lead through support. Let your students and teachers make you proud by supporting these types of inquiry-based experiences.

Finally, the research backs experiential learning and inquiry-based learning, but the projects show what research cannot: the passion and purpose of our students!