It’s a process that goes by many names from Project-Based Learning to Personal Interest Projects, Inquiry-Based Projects to Active Exploration Projects — or as it’s better known these days to elementary school teachers, Genius Hour. Considering implementing Genius Hour projects in your classroom and looking for genius hour ideas that will work for older elementary students? We’ve got them!
What Is Genius Hour for Elementary Students?
The genius hour concept came out of the tech industry, most notably Google, where at one time, employees were famously given an 80/20 work set-up with 80 percent of their time dedicated to their day-to-day work and 20 percent to innovation. Whether it really happened or not is in contention — some engineers reportedly say it was more of a 120-percent time set-up with employees expected to work well over time to complete both daily work and do all that innovating.
Fortunately, the trend that caught on in education several years ago is far kinder to elementary students, with teachers setting time aside during the school week for their students to work on projects of their own choosing or allowing them to pursue “passion projects” as fast finisher activities.
So let’s talk about how to implement genius hour in your classroom, shall we?
What Are the Three Rules for Genius Hour?
Most teachers abide by three basic rules for Genius Hour projects in elementary school — although they all word them a bit differently. Dan Wettrick, a teacher and author of Pure Genius: Creating a Culture of Innovation & Taking 20% to the Next Level, for example, outlines these as the three genius rules in his classroom:
- Do you have passion for this topic? Are you driven to do “it” even when school is not in session?
- What skills acquisition are you getting out of this project?
- Who does it benefit (other than you?)
Essentially, you’ll want your students to:
- Identify a topic or problem they are passionate about and form a deep, open-ended inquiry question to research, answer, or solve.
- Take a systematic approach to the formulation of their inquiry question and research.
- Toward the end of their project, present or create a final product that communicates their findings and/or solution. Genius Hour presentations can take a variety of written, spoken or visual forms, such as a multi-modal presentation, a book, a script, a movie or a speech; through cooking, building, or performing a community service (among other ideas).
- To conclude their Genius Hour project, reflect on their experience of the inquiry-based learning process. They may even form new questions that could be answered in subsequent Genius Hour projects.
Genius Hour Project Ideas
To help ensure your students truly take advantage of Genius Hour, you may want to present some basic Genius Hour Project Ideas, but keep them high level, providing a framework rather than making decisions for your students.
Some examples of Genius Hour Projects elementary schoolers can do includes:
- Learn a new skill or teach a skill to someone else such as a younger sibling
- Make your own comic with an app like Comic Life
- Write a story or play
- Write a song and record it with an app like Garage Band
- Design a project to help in your community
- Create a publication such as a school newspaper or zine
- Make a cartoon with an app like Toontastic
- Build a website using a free site such as Squarespace
- Learn a new language with Duolingo
- Raise funds for a charity
- Learn to code with Hour of Code
- Draw something amazing with an app like Coosi Box
What Are the Six Phases of Genius Hours?
The Genius Hour process is typically broken out into six steps or phases, facilitated in a way that is easy for students to understand what they need to do. Each step has a ridiculously awesome character that goes with it, as well as a host of resources to support both teachers and students throughout each step.
We have thought really carefully about the sequence of student actions and the resources that are used at each step. One of the biggest sequencing “issues” to be aware of is ensuring students don’t begin Genius Hour by deciding on how they are going to present their project! Students must develop an inquiry question and complete research before deciding upon the best mode for presenting their findings.
Step 1: Get Into It!
Sometimes referred to as the brainstorming step of project-based learning, this is the stage of the process where students learn what Genius Hour is and begin thinking about topics or areas they are curious or passionate about. In this step, students brainstorm a list of topics they are interested in and passionate about. They can use various tools such as mind maps, graphic organizers or sticky notes to jot down their ideas.
Set Up a Genius Hour Station
It’s a great idea to set up a Genius Hour Station at the beginning of the process. This is where you can display relevant posters, and provide students with access to all of the different handouts and notes they may need. Making these things available to students from the outset, ensures they can grab what they need without asking you, even if they are at a different step than their peers. This encourages autonomy and increases student accountability!
Set Up Genius Hour Student Notebooks
Students also set up their project books during this step. Students can use a lined notebook or blank artist’s notebook to keep track of all of their thoughts, ideas, handouts, research notes, and progress through the Genius Hour process.
Here are a few helpful resources for the brainstorming stage!
Resources to help you create a Wonder Wall Brainstorming Bulletin Board
An editable Genius Hour Parent Information Letter
An Introduction to Genius Hour PowerPoint Presentation to use in this step
Step 2: Engage
In step two, students engage more deeply with their selected topic and are supported in moving from a broad topic to a more refined area of study that is suitable for a Genius Hour project. Sometimes called the “research” stage, this is a chance for students to conduct research to gain a deeper understanding of their project subject. They can use a variety of media, including books, articles, videos or websites to gather information.
Identifying a Problem That Needs Solving
Helping students to understand that they can’t just do a Genius Hour project on dogs, without identifying a more complex problem to research or solve can be tricky. You may need to help students move from a broad topic (like “dogs”) to an identifiable problem (like “why are there so many stray dogs in our community?”).
Step 3: New Thinking
This step is one of the most challenging and important steps in the Genius Hour process. In order to progress with a research topic that provides suitable scope and depth, students need to formulate a deep, open-ended inquiry question.
The most simple way to explain this is by telling students they need to come up with a question that cannot be answered easily by an internet search. You may have heard the term “un-Googleable question” — that’s exactly what each student needs to create!
Formulating an Inquiry Question
To help your students formulate a suitably un-Googlable inquiry question, we’ve created a framework that clearly illustrates the five parts that make a great inquiry question. You can display this How to Write an Inquiry Question poster at your Genius Hour Station, as well as providing students with a black and white copy they can glue into their notebooks to refer to.
After developing their question, students complete the Genius Hour Proposal Template and conference with you to ensure they are on the right track. The Genius Hour Class Progress Tracker will help you to monitor where each student is at.
Step 4: Investigate
Here is where students will complete the research they need to answer or solve their Genius Hour inquiry question. We have provided a host of different resources to support this step of the process. If research is new to your students, or your class needs a refresher, you may opt to use the step four resources to explicitly teach the research process and research skills.
- Genius Hour Research Flowchart Poster
- Internet Research Skills PowerPoint
- Primary Sources Poster, Secondary Sources Poster and Tertiary Sources Poster
- What Makes a Credible Website Poster
- Research Notes Template
- Research Summary Template
The research notes and research summary templates are also available as editable files for students who are working digitally.
Step 5: Unite
Preparing and Sharing a Presentation
When students have completed their research and have a clearer idea of the answers or solutions they need to communicate to their audience, they can select a presentation mode. This is a wonderfully exciting step as the findings of a Genius Hour project can be presented in so many ways.
- A student who has researched the number of carbon emissions generated by trucking interstate produce to their local grocery store may plan and plant a vegetable garden with signage or posters explaining permaculture techniques, seasonal planting, and the projected carbon emission savings that household or community vegetable gardens contribute to.
- A student who has examined the challenges faced by newly settled refugee children might write a script that shows what students can do to help make new students from refugee backgrounds feel like they belong at school.
- A student who has looked into the way natural disasters have impacted the global community might prepare a digital presentation that outlines their findings and urges government leaders to take specific actions to curb future negative impacts.
- The way in which students present their Genius Hour findings and solutions can be many and varied. If you and your school community have the means to support it, encourage your students to think out of the box when it comes to how they can “unite” their message with the audience who needs to hear it.
Step 6: So What Now?
After presenting, students take some time to reflect upon their Genius Hour process.
They articulate their key learning, consider how they could improve their own work, and reflect upon new ideas inspired by the experience of their Genius Hour process. This reflection may generate new questions that students may want to explore in subsequent Genius Hour projects!
Assessing Genius Hour
Some teachers assess Genius Hour, while others do not. It is really up to you and your school to decide whether Genius Hour forms a part of your students’ formal assessment activities.
Genius Hour can align seamlessly with the current curriculum, meeting learning objectives across a variety of key learning areas. While specific objectives may change for each student, depending on their topic or area of research, there are a number of skills most students will demonstrate including:
- linking their ideas and research to express feelings and opinions
- creating texts, presentations and/or products for familiar and unfamiliar audiences
- contributing ideas and opinions to class discussions
- engaging in processes of collaborative learning, including brainstorming, negotiating, problem-solving and evaluating
- examining successful solutions to problems and explore how these solutions can be adapted to their personal, school or community context
- taking responsibility by initiating interactions with others
We have created two generic marking rubrics that you can use to guide your assessment of Genius Hour. These templates are available in PDF form and as editable documents, giving you the flexibility you need to adapt the rubric to your needs. Take a look at the Genius Hour Project Assessment Rubric for Middle Elementary and the Genius Hour Project Assessment Rubric for Upper Elementary.
How Do You Ensure Kids Don’t Just Equate Genius Hour With Free Time?
It’s crucial that you take the time to introduce Genius Hour to your students as an open-ended but systematic process. Parents, colleagues, and administrators will sometimes also benefit from your being able to explain that Genius Hour isn’t just a free-for-all but a structured inquiry-based learning process in which students will practice a multitude of important academic and social skills!