One of my goals in life is to embrace the role of the "Positive Deviant".  So when my district's high school media specialist sent out an email on Genius Hour imploring someone to "try this", I immediately responded "heck yeah, I'll do it." And thus began a transformation not only in my students but also in their teacher (who now prefers the title "learning designer").
So as I read Royan Lee's post Questions About 20% Time'/'Genius Hour' this morning, I felt my Spockian eyebrow raise. Was he really questioning something that transformed my students into the self-driven learners required in the 21st century and beyond, and myself into a facilitator of learning as opposed to director of learning? I agree that basing pedagogical decisions on the premise of "Google does it" is not the best justification. There are many more compelling reasons to provide students time to explore their intellectual passions in the context of a school environment.
The choice to incorporate Genius Hour was greatly influenced the ubiquitous access to devices and the internet that exists in my 1:1 classroom. This more than any other factor made Genius Hour possible. Could Genius Hour be implemented without dense wireless and 1:1 devices? I would argue yes. Why not have Genius Hour in the garden? Or outside observing clouds? Or with a quantity of manipulatives? John Spencer @edrethink posted yesterday about making a junk drawer in a box. Why not Genius Hour in a box?
Genius Hour provided real-time practice in the skills many educators - including myself - believe critical for the next generation and beyond. With much of the world's knowledge literally in the palm of our hands, knowing the answers rote is no longer a necessary skill outside of Jeopardy or the month of April. Learning and practicing to collaborate, communicate, problem solve, create and think critically while analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating and applying new learning is the new definition of an intellectual.
As my students engaged in Genius Hour, I watched them group and re-group based not on personality or academic ability, but on a desire to learn and share about a topic of their choice. Their collaboration was authentic and organic and grew from a desire to learn. I observed them engaged in meaningful communication; they negotiated meaning, tasks, roles, and problem solved when in disagreement, not because they were told to, but because they wanted to. I looked on in wonder as they created ways to present what they had learned to peers and adults. I listened in awe to the questions they asked each other and myself. The level of engagement in real, authentic learning amazed all who visited during Genius Hour. See for yourself, this video clip shows my 2nd grade class engaged in Genius Hour.
My role in the process is largely what you see in the video. I spent most of Genius Hour circulating, checking with students, posing questions, engaging in learning with students, and admitting I didn't know the answer. I wish I had counted the times I said: "I don't know, find the answer and share it with me." I admit that one of my first thoughts when starting Genius Hour was how to manage it. I soon realized that less is more and my students could be trusted to take ownership of this time.
The open-ended nature of Genius Hour was most difficult for parents to comprehend. Many wanted to know when their child's project was due, or how they could help, or what they needed to "do" for their child. By keeping the projects (for lack of a better term) open-ended students went deeper into their subject, spent more time communicating with their co-workers (again for lack of a better term) and focused on the process of learning instead of the product. By emphasizing the process, they learned that there may be more that one way to solve a problem, achieve a goal or finish a project; they learned to persevere through the little failures. They practiced having the grit and determination required to innovate, invent, investigate and instigate.
Genius hour was never seen as a reward, nor would I use Genius Hour as a reward. I don't like the message it sends. You didn't do (fill in the blank), so you can't learn with the rest of us. I don't like the negative connotation of withholding something beneficial to life-long learning as a consequence for (fill in the blank). No transgression can be that egregious.
Finally, my classroom to the extent possible was project-based and Genius Hour was just an extension of that structure. The only critical difference being who initiated the project. Outside of Genius Hour, I initiated a project through an entry document, video, read-a-loud, discussion, or, at times, just showing them the standards to be met. Genius Hour is their time to explore their passion, to be creative, to learn unfettered. It is their opportunity to be a positive deviant in a standardized world.
 Dr. Philip Zimbarto http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/seven_paths_to_a_meaningful_life