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Genius Hour: Let Students’ Passions Drive Learning

EducationWorld is pleased to present this article by Kirsten Wilson. An Instructional Technology Specialist for Northwest ISD (in Fort Worth, TX), Wilson has diverse experiences, including gifted education, curriculum writing and campus administration. The article originally appeared in TechEdge, a quarterly magazine published by the Texas Computer Education Association. To join or for more information, visit

Genius Hour, also known in some circles as “20% time,” sprang from several different sources, including author Daniel Pink’s book, Drive. The idea itself has been practiced in corporations such as Google, Apple and FedEx, where employees are given a scheduled time equal to about 20% of designated work hours to work on job or product-related innovations about which they are passionate.

Educators began to wonder, “Would this idea be good to implement in schools?” and even more importantly, “Do we know what our students are passionate about?”

The question regarding students’ passion might seem simple to answer; however, I am amazed at the number of high-school seniors who have told me that they “have no idea what drives them in life that has long-term benefits.”

Somehow we are forgetting or letting go of what should drive us—our passion. I wanted better for my students. I wanted them to have options with their future careers based on their passions. Genius Hour seemed to be the vehicle to help students discover their passions, while teaching them how to set personal learning standards, research, create, connect and impact the world.

Preparing for Genius Hour

My journey to establish Genius Hour on our campus is one that began with my jumping into Twitter PLNs (personal learning networks) with both feet. One of my first discoveries was the book Teach Like a Pirate! by Dave Burgess and the companion online book study/chat (#tlap) that allowed for discussion, questioning and accountability.

“Do you have any lessons you could sell tickets for?” and, “If your students didn’t have to be there, would you be teaching to an empty room?” are two of the profound and thought-provoking questions posed that helped me rethink my own approach.

Joy Kirr, known for her Genius Hour LiveBinder as well as her expertise with Genius Hour, was another resource I found through Twitter. She shared that through eliminating the teacher desk, the idea of the “front of the room,” using passions for catalysts for discussion, and providing student choice on almost every level, she improved her own practice.

“I became much better at letting students know why we do things in class,” she reflects, “and I’m now better at making my lessons relevant to life.”

The initial process of setting up Genius Hour (and the teacher’s role in it) is a very delicate dance. Denise Krebs, Genius Hour guru, shares the importance of having the right balance for a successful launch, stating, “The teacher letting go and letting the children discover anew the joy of learning is the most important element of Genius Hour.”

Understanding what the word “genius” means is essential. Krebs stresses that when doing a Genius Hour, some students may need direct conversations and guidance. Often students who struggle stay in the mode of consumer rather than creator or producer. “I remind them that the word ‘genius’ is derived from the roots for ‘creative’ and ‘productive.’ I then help them develop their lists of interests and explore ways they can express themselves creatively.”

I do encourage the teacher or Instructional Engineer to cover the following things at the outset:

  • There are no limits (within the parameters of safety and legality).
  • The topics you brainstorm to pursue and create cannot be Google-able.
  • The teacher’s role is to guide, coach and facilitate so that students can discover; teachers are not responsible for finding resources or providing a defined result.
  • The process does not have a true final product, but rather a place where you are able to share with others and enhance the world around you. Your passion continues to grow and thrive.
  • You may discover other passions in the process.
  • Connect with the world to deeply understand your passion/genius.

Why Offer Genius Hour?

Genius Hour provides a supportive environment where students take learning into their own hands. When Krebs was asked how Genius Hour has changed her classroom, she replied, “My students are becoming learners again. They are creating, exploring, problem-solving and constructing their own learning. Everything has changed for them, and I see the joy in my students’ lives in the classroom.”

For more information, see Kirsten Wilson’s presentation The Why of Genius Hour. Also, don’t forget to follow this topic on Twitter (#GeniusHour).

Related resources

  • Pink, Daniel H. (2012). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. See Web site.
  • Burgess, Dave (2005). Teach Like a Pirate! See Web site.
  • Kirr, Joy (2013). Genius Hour - LiveBinder. See LiveBinder.
  • Krebs, Denise (2013). Our Expectations of Creative Genius. See blog post.


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