Sunday, October 13, 2013

Genius? Day

reflections on 8 weeks of student-directed learning

Organic. That's what I wanted. An organic learning experience that, given enough time, would grow into a connected tree of knowledge. If I plant the seed and give students time to explore their passions and to learn what and how they want, will a great learning experience will take root and grow? 

This year, I decided to fully embrace the concept of 20% time and give my 3rd grade class one day of the week to explore anything they wanted. Anything. I didn't give them a rubric to follow, an organizer to use, a planner to guide them, or set deadlines or checkpoints. They are not unfamiliar with self-directed learning. The previous year they were given Friday afternoons for Genius Hour. This time was a huge success and something each student looked forward to every week. Expanding it to a full day seemed like a natural progression. 

More is better, right?

Before they begin Genius Day, we have a class meeting to discuss a topic relevant to self-directed learning. We've covered driving questions, deciding that a good driving question can't be answered by Google in less than a second. We've discovered a variety of search tools and how to use them by searching with key words instead of questions. We've learned to ask why, how, and what if, more than who, what, when and where. We've created a shared blog with a classroom in another country to share our genius with the world. We've established a "wonder wall" where throughout the week anyone can post something they're wondering about. We've learned and practiced "critical friending" our ideas and projects. We've even done a project based learning project to create a rubric so students can self-assess their projects. 

What I haven't done is direct the learning. 

For the last couple of Fridays, here is what has been going on in my room. Two students dismantled a solar powered calculator trying to design a method of charging cell phones while riding a bike. A student is researching making concrete houses in Africa to power ovens for baking after discovering that the Hoover Dam radiates enough heat to bake bread. A group is working on designing a remote controlled bomb squad hovercraft. My statistically least proficient students are working on researching endangered animals, and in the process, reading and comprehending resources standardized tests say they shouldn't be able to read. Last week, a group started working on a rubber airplane, wondering if that wouldn't be more safe in the event of a crash. 

Here are some other things I'm noticing. A group glued 20 sheets of construction paper together to build a tree house. The project was abandoned. Another group, wondering if you could build a floating house, spent their day cutting notebook paper into pieces and arranging them into furniture, lights, etc. for the house. Some students spend the day "searching," ending up with a huge number of saved photos on their iPads and little else. I also saw the rubber airplane group construct airplanes from pencils and paper, which soon took various test flights around the room. Their group suddenly became very popular. 

We're eight weeks into the school year, and eight weeks into Genius Day.

Reflecting on this experiment led me to write this post. As I contemplate scaling back Genius Day to Genius Hour, I'm struggling with so many questions. Why am I feeling like this experiment is not successful? Why have the past few weeks been more frustrating for me? Why do I feel that Genius Day has regressed into "Fun Time Arts and Crafts" Friday? Am I expecting too much? Or worse, too little? Do students have too much time for self-directed learning? Am I too concerned about what other teachers think? Are the kids really learning? Do I need to prove it? Am I managing enough? Is it time for more structure? Have I lost the joy in the process, at the expense of a product? 

Has the plant grown too big and is in need of pruning? Or does it need fertilizer, water, and nurturing to continue to grow and mature? 


  1. Paul, I put off your post until I could read it in its entirety, and now I notice not one person has commented! You have excellent questions. I've felt what you're feeling. When I first read this post, I thought of how wonderful it would be to have an entire DAY devoted to this time for students. Oh, the mini-lessons you could have at the beginning of the day, and the sharing you could have at the end... It made me think of Angela Maiers' book - The Passion-Based Classroom. I could not do that with my 7th graders, but if I had the students all day...

    I read through your students' successes, and then I read about your doubt. At the end of last year, when I was a little bit down and out about how my Genius Hour time had gone, I got out the class list, and did some of my own "research." I put checks next to who was engaged in a "typical" lesson, who was engaged in GH time (I even had "all of the time," "most of the time," "some of the time," and "hardly ever"), who was prepared for class (typical and then GH time), etc. It made me feel better, even though I had two students who really showed me nothing new that they learned at the end of the year.

    One thing I thought that could help you - exit slips? Ms. Shiring's reflection rubric & Erin Quinn's creativity rubric are on this page of the binder: I also have an exit slip just for those students that I can't put my finger on... are they working or not??

    As for cutting it back to an hour, I think you should give "production" talks first, so they know what you're looking for. Let them know that this time is a gift, not a right. (Although it probably should be a right, no?) Maybe you could have a meeting at the wrap-up, and students could self-assess how productive they were...? These are questions I ask quite often. I will retweet your post until you get more ideas from those more experienced than I!! Take care, and keep reflecting!

    1. Joy, thanks for the comments. I always appreciate what you have to say. As usual, your suggestions are great.
      My kids do a reflective journal entry and the end of each day, including Genius Day, and we meet at the end of the day to critical friend and discuss what worked and what didn't. While I really didn't want to put in place "forms" for accountability, it looks like that may be an option. I like your idea of research, I may create a Google doc to allow them to self-assess. I can then show the data to the class. I know I'm going to have to put in place more regular check-ins. I do spend as much of the day circulating as possible, although I have to admit that I also try and do all my one-on-one assessments on Genius Day as well. The more I think about it, the more I think I simply might be expecting to much "change the world" thinking from eight-and nine-year olds.
      I certainly do not want to squander the opportunity to give over a day each week to student-centered learning. I have administrative support on a number of levels; although, I would sure like to see some more colleagues interested in what's going on. I know you have experienced that.
      Thanks for your comments and re-tweet, I am genuinely interested in what the tribe has to say.

    2. P.S. I only asked some students to do the exit slips or reflection pieces on their time... I made those individual, as well.
      Hubby says to give them a book (a three-ring binder?) of ideas... pages filled with ideas for them to explore, with things they may never think of. Ideas such as - How does a plane go up in the air? How do they make guitars / flags / houses? Why is the grass green? How does a motor work? What's the oldest tree in the world & how has it survived? But if you're going to go that route, good luck! I like the wonder wall idea you've already got going. :-)

  2. I was feeling very much like this today after we tried to work on our research for our genius hour. Students struggled to find what they wanted and felt frustration ... Many of their questions are not answerable by the texts they have. Considered creating some highlighted materials that would guide them to relevant spots ... but then decided that just the sheer fact that they tried they learned. The best learning may not have an answer in the Teacher's edition, or ever be "finished". I remember to this day the summer I spent trying to build a go cart in my garage from an old bed frame, and a broken lawn mower. It was never finished but I learned more than if I did finish it. Keep teaching!