When I first started teaching 9 years ago, there was a palpable buzz in the air around a pedagogical approach called “Genius Hour,” also known as “20 Percent Time.” This is where students choose a project that excites them, such as crocheting or building a rocket, and work on that project, unguided, every week during special lesson blocks reserved for this purpose. It was apparently based on Google’s business model of granting employees large blocks of time during the work week to pursue their own projects, although it’s not clear whether it was an actual corporate policy (D’Onfro, 2015) or nothing more than an illusion conjured up by Google executives to differentiate itself from its competitors. Regardless of Genius Hour’s origins, in just about every school I’ve worked at there has been some attempt to adopt the Genius Hour approach, either as a school-wide program or by individual teachers. Some of the proposed reasons for implementing Genius Hour in schools are that it, supposedly, “offers students opportunities for deeper learning” and “grants students the freedom to explore, create, and possibly change the world” (Ginsberg & Coke 2019, p.17).
While I have no official data to support this, I sense that Genius Hour has been slowly becoming unfashionable in schools. I first became aware of this last year, when I found myself asking teachers about their schools’ Genius Hour schemes during a workshop I led in Beijing. To my surprise, several teachers commented that they used to have Genius Hour as a school-wide initiative, but that it had either been scaled down significantly, or was eliminated altogether.
In another case in point, a former colleague told me about an interesting exchange he had at a job fair with a principal of a prestigious school. During an interview, the principal asked him what he thought about the Genius Hour “fad.” My friend responded with something along the lines of, “Making Genius Hour work is technically possible for a strong teacher, I feel, but I worry about the classes who don’t have one, especially classrooms with a high number of challenging students; Are the students just messing around, learning nothing, the whole Genius Hour time?”
The principal responded, “Thank you for answering honestly. Yeah, we actually ditched the Genius Hour gimmick last year for the very same reasons. My daughter, who goes to this school, would come home with popsicle stick projects that she’d spent months completing during Genius Hour, but which were the quality of projects she routinely makes at home in under 15 minutes when she’s with a parent.”
I think there are a number of reasons, in addition to those that these examples illustrate, for why the Genius Hour fad “died,” or at least has begun to show signs of its impending death. The first comes from some of my own research into learner-controlled instruction. While there are some examples of instances when offering learner control leads to more learning than when instruction is under the control of a teacher or a computer (e.g. allowing learners to pause and rewind a video allows them to review information that would otherwise be transient), by and large offering learners the ability to choose and determine their own learning path leads to disappointing results (For reviews, see Carolan et al., 2014; Karich et al., 2014). Schools may be dropping Genius Hour because they’re finding that passing the locus of instructional control onto the learner is ineffective.
The inability of researchers to find evidence that offering learner control improves learning begins to make sense when you reference the literature on student perceptions about their own abilities, and beliefs about what constitutes effective learning, study, and teaching. Students are often unaware of gaps that exist in their knowledge and skills (Kruger & Dunning, 1999) and tend to be overconfident to the point of undermining their own achievement (Dunlosky & Rawson, 2012). Students also tend to be very poor judges of what will help them learn, opting for reviewing material in massed fashion, rather than self-quizzing in spaced and interleaved schedules (Bjork et al., 2013), and preferring learning objects with flashy, decorative graphics that actually detract from learning (Mayer et al., 2020). While listening to an expert, watching an instructional video, or studying an example are all sensible ways to efficiently learn something new, research shows that students often opt to solve problems without guidance when given the choice (Foster et al., 2018). In a Genius Hour environment, we leave students at the mercy of their own overconfidence, unawareness, and immaturity to determine what path feels right to them, and what feels right is often a deficient form of instruction.
It can be argued, as I will here, that the Genius Hour fad will continue to fall out of favor because, at its heart, it is based on faulty assumptions about how learning and cognition work. Cognitive science tells us that all learners are endowed with a working memory that is extremely limited in capacity and duration, and a long term memory with unlimited storage space. When information from the environment enters through a student’s eyes and ears, it is processed in working memory, but if there is too much information, the burden on working memory becomes too great and learning is impeded. This phenomenon, sometimes referred to as cognitive overload, is especially likely to happen when novices, i.e. students who lack a significant knowledge base about the topic at hand, are meant to process unfamiliar information. In fact, studies on cognitive load during problem solving have shown that it’s possible for students to arrive at the correct solution when overloaded, mostly through random processes akin to trial and error, but not end up learning the procedures they used to solve the problem (Sweller, 1988). If we are to take cognitive science research seriously, we should follow the consensus that students need ample guidance during initial instruction, and for guidance to be slowly faded to allow for students, now armed with foundational knowledge, to produce products of their own at the end of the unit. This is what most teachers have been doing for all the years prior to the Genius Hour movement, and it runs in stark contrast to the pedagogy of Genius Hour, which requires teachers to match complete novices to passions that they haven’t studied before and to leave them on their own to discover new information through trial and error.
There are other reasons why I’m happy the Genius Hour fad seems to be dying, such as the undue burden it places on teachers, who, sensing students aren’t learning anything on their own, are forced to create 28 individualized lesson plans after school and over their weekends. And then there are the negative student behaviors that Genius Hour’s loose, unsupervised format generates; a time when bullies are granted opportunities to harass and abuse our most susceptible learners behind teachers’ backs. And lastly there is the equity lens that I will always carry with me as a political progressive, which tells me that inequality in this world will only be further exacerbated unless we erect strong supports for our most vulnerable populations, supports that are missing entirely, by design, from Genius Hour. Instead of going into these and more reasons here, I thought I would end with a letter that I sent to my principal a few years back expressing my concerns about the Genius Hour scheme that my school chose to adopt (Note: I’ve highly edited the content, masking all identities and fabricating elements of the stories while keeping the substance. Any similarities to real people is entirely coincidental). If the arguments in this blog post do not serve to put the final nail in the coffin for Genius Hour, maybe a letter from a teacher, who tried his hardest to make Genius Hour work, will?
Dear Mrs. Burns,
Thank you for asking to hear my thoughts about Genius Hour a few weeks back. As you know, Genius Hour occupies the vast majority of 5th graders’ school day for two days of our bi-weekly schedule. This is an incredibly generous investment of time dedicated to independent work on projects, but I have my concerns about it.
Above is a picture of a student’s entire body of work after a semester of engaging in Genius Hour time (to be fair, he also created an incomplete PowerPoint to accompany it). Two of these bead projects were made on the last day of Genius Hour after the student’s mentor teacher reprimanded him for a semester of wasted time, and the third one on the right someone found behind a bookshelf while sweeping up. The student still denies that this third bead project is his. Besides students like this getting lost in the shuffle in a model like Genius Hour, I have found that students are very unproductive. What is particularly disturbing to me is that this student has consistently demonstrated the capacity to produce quality work during regular lessons when given the appropriate level of guidance.
While I feel embarrassed about how this one student spent his time during Genius Hour, it is not an isolated incident. Let’s take the case of another 5th grade student who chose for his Genius Hour project to make a city out of LEGO. Before he began the project his knowledge about city systems was very rudimentary; he had a basic understanding of roads and houses. What’s interesting is that, at about the same time, Grade 2 teachers at this school happened to be teaching a newly designed unit about city systems during their regular whole-class social studies lessons. Over the course of an expertly crafted unit, Grade 2 students received carefully sequenced and scaffolded lessons about sustainable development goals, sanitation, industrial and business zones, electrical grids and sewage systems. The Grade 2 students did not know about these things before the unit started, but afterwards I can assure you they did. At the end of the unit, the students collaboratively designed and built a city system where they skillfully applied the knowledge they had acquired over the preceding five weeks. The comparison of what a student can learn when teachers design a well-structured unit, and what our Grade 5 student ended up experiencing during Genius Hour, reveals which of the two instructional approaches is preferable; Our Grade 5 student spent hours and hours making extremely basic houses and roads out of LEGO, adding little knowledge to his pre-existing schema, while the 2nd grade students actually learned about city systems and can now think about them and talk about them in more sophisticated ways than most 5th graders can.
But what about the students who ended up making really cool products? Surely this is reason enough to declare Genius Hour a success? Well, not so fast. Let’s take the case of one of my students this semester who was widely praised for making a pretty slick looking cardboard robot, complete with electrical circuits. The thing is, the final product that you saw was the result of teacher instruction on how to use circuits; Unguided, this student would have drawn a face on a cardboard rectangular prism and hot glued spare electronic parts inside it. Unfortunately, in a model like Genius Hour, there is little time and room for teachers to provide opportunities for students to receive this kind of one-on-one instruction, what with all of the other 27 students who need help finding materials, remaining on task, managing their behavior, and staying safe. This is why whole class units work; When everyone is inquiring into electricity, then everyone can actually learn about electricity and then apply that shared knowledge to achieving something of significance. In the case of this Genius Hour student and his cardboard robot, whenever instruction was withheld from him, his knowledge of electrical circuits did not increase, and his product did not improve. The resulting cardboard robot that you saw is essentially the same thing that he made together with his teacher on the first day of Genius Hour, and he certainly learned less during Genius Hour about electrical circuits or robotics than he would have had he been exposed to powerful knowledge and conceptual understandings in a rich and appropriately guided unit on electrical circuits or robotics.
But what about motivation? Aren’t students more motivated than they would be during a typical unit as a result of having chosen their topics? Don’t students love Genius Hour? While I’m quite sure many of our students would report that Genius Hour is super fun, it seems obvious that there is not always a 1:1 correlation between how powerful an experience is and how fun students would rate it. Actually, I would argue that many students are less motivated during Genius Hour because they can only work with what they already know rather than using new knowledge that they’ve gained from well-designed instruction to see significant improvement in their skills, understandings, and attitudes as learners. As Austin’s Butterfly neatly demonstrates, students experience true motivation after weeks of feedback, critique, revision, and focused learning activities culminate in the achievement of something of consequence; when hard-earned foundational knowledge of a domain meets persistence and effort to create something beyond what could have been achieved if students had been left to determine the boundaries of their comfort zones. After three years of observing students create shallow, childish products of little consequence during Genius Hour, I can only conclude that it is wrong to assume that the surest path to motivation is to let a student choose a topic and then to withdraw the supports necessary for growth and achievement.
I could go on, perhaps mentioning the children who I routinely find lost on their way to their destinations during Genius Hour transitions, or how our version of Genius Hour necessitates that a large percentage of students are only supervised by teaching assistants, but I see that this email is getting long. Thank you for giving me the chance to share my thoughts. I look forward to discussions around how we can replace Genius Hour time with opportunities for deep and powerful learning.
– Zach Groshell
Bjork, R. A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 417–444. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143823
Carolan, T. F., Hutchins, S. D., Wickens, C. D., & Cumming, J. M. (2014). Costs and benefits of more learner freedom: Meta-analyses of exploratory and learner control training methods. Human Factors, 56(5), 999–1004. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018720813517710
D’Onfro, J. (2015, April 17). The truth about Google’s famous ‘20% time’ policy. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/google-20-percent-time-policy-2015-4
Dunlosky, J., & Rawson, K. A. (2012). Overconfidence produces underachievement: Inaccurate self evaluations undermine students’ learning and retention. Learning and Instruction, 22(4), 271–280. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2011.08.003
Foster, N. L., Rawson, K. A., & Dunlosky, J. (2018). Self-regulated learning of principle-based concepts: Do students prefer worked examples, faded examples, or problem solving? Learning and Instruction, 55, 124–138. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2017.10.002
Karich, A. C., Burns, M. K., & Maki, K. E. (2014). Updated meta-analysis of learner control within educational technology. Review of Educational Research, 84(3), 392–410. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654314526064
Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121. https://doi.org/10.1109/MMM.2011.2173980
Ginsberg, R., & Coke, P. K. (2019). Inspired Inquiry: Three Classroom-Based Approaches to Genius Hour. Voices from the Middle, 26(3), 17–21. http://simsrad.net.ocs.mq.edu.au/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=135141747&site=ehost-live
Mayer, R. E., Fiorella, L., & Stull, A. (2020). Five ways to increase the effectiveness of instructional video. Educational Technology Research and Development, 68(3), 837–852. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-020-09749-6
Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science., 12, 257.