Rethinking Passion Projects, Genius Hour

At some grade levels in our school, students are offered time to pursue passion projects in “genius hour” flexible time, often quite generous chunks of time over a number of weeks. Often, this time is presented as preparing kids for self-guided inquiry or the like. Several years ago, at ASB Unplugged, students gave inspiring TED-ish talks about the fruits of genius hour labor in a high school math class, including a smart trash can that separated recyclables from garbage, as I remember. The creativity and service embodied by such projects were awe-inspiring.

By the same token, I once heard a description from a parent of her student’s passion project focused on perfecting the bacon weave. When I delivered the graduation address for my cohort at Western New Mexico University’s Gallup Graduate Studies Center, I spoke eloquently (gorgeously, even?) about my drive to perfect an omelette, so far be it for me to critique this student’s passion. My speech about making an omelette made the point that it doesn’t really matter what we learn to do (within reason), but that we keep learning. In this vein, weave your bacon.

In another vein, school provides a time and place for more focused learning, and decisions are made, ideally by children and adults, about what to learn, when, and for how long. Passion projects implicitly teach that following our passions is a highest purpose, but that feels pretty wrong, fairly narcissistic. Maybe, we should teach something else instead. In fact, one needn’t search long before finding quite strong evidence that perceived success and well-being arises from a sense of being needed and useful to others. Indeed, the folks at 80,000 Hours suggest “you can develop passion by doing work that you find enjoyable and meaningful. The key is to get good at something that helps other people.”

That’s been my impulse for decades, and it’s nice to see it spelled out so succinctly. My confirmation bias is assuaged.

What, then, might a genius hour look like with young kids who, for the most part, have yet to develop professional-level competency in any areas from which others might benefit? How about a “Strengths for Service” hour? Kids could consider what they do well, thinking liberally and creatively about their strengths. Next, a crash course in design thinking like this one from Stanford University’s could equip students with tools they can use to learn something real about people, places, or situations.

If kids used their Strengths for Service time to engage intentionally with their world, they may well find passions beyond football or creative meats that could begin making a difference today. The minor tweak to genius hour here is an outward focus, seeking to do well for others in a way the others need or want. Serving the needs or desires of others is as much altruism as entrepreneurialism, so this seems like a way to develop skills for life.