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.

Classroom Routines – For Whom?

In the early days of a new school year, I’ve found myself reflecting on and talking a lot about classroom routines for all sorts of management and learning needs. Optimism abounds – setting routines at the beginning of the school year is an investment of time that can turbo charge learning experiences later in the year.

But how? Routines for thinking, like the simple (yet profound!) examples shared by Project Zero, can build the toolbox of thinking strategies students employ during different stages of learning. “Connect-Extend-Challenge” is one I recently shared with a colleague during unit planning. He asked how often kids should use this routine, and we spoke about perhaps leaning on this initially as early research happened and as kids inquired into a variety of journalistic articles on a given topic, then offering an alternative or two, and perhaps a “free choice” of routine to use as a way of engaging with and beginning to process a complex text or set of ideas. Repetition with coaching-style formative feedback lets kids gain expertise and confidence in thinking routines, but they shouldn’t become the one hammer we use every time we encounter a nail (or a Jello mold for that matter, but that’s for another post, perhaps).

Structures for discussion, like Text Rendering, for example, can also become routines that keep the action of learning student centered, which are one domain of classroom routines.

Another domain of classroom routines are those that belong to the teacher. These teacher-focused or driven routines can’t really be handed over to kids, but rather serve a need of the teacher. An example from our Upper School right now is that classrooms school-wide have instituted a routine of storing student cell phones in a pocket organizer at the beginning of every class. This routine serves a legitimate classroom management issue, but isn’t likely to become a routine students engage in independently. Bell-ringers or other warm-up routines to begin class might fall into the teacher-driven domain of routines, but with an aim pointed at student learning and classroom management, to ease the transition between classes and to begin focusing students on learning in this classroom context for the given time period.

What I’m realizing is that student-centered routines that serve as transferable learning strategies should take priority in the early days of the middle and high school year because they are an investment in time, intensity, and engagement for students. Such routines also place the teacher’s planning focus on what kids are doing during classroom time, how kids might manage themselves and their learning between the bells. Teacher-centered routines are perfectly appropriate, and planning these thoughtfully gets us out of the realm of habitual practice, which is always good.

So who are your classroom routines for? Is the balance of the scales tipping in the student or teacher-centered direction? Will a second wave, third wave, fourth wave of routines build upon these routines, instilling learning strategies in students as they become ever more independent learners? Or, do routines get locked in during the first weeks, or, alternatively, set, and then progressively ignored as other concerns take priority? Is it time to mix it up? If so, follow a link above, choose one that might fit, and give it a go!