A New Movement Ignites the Genius in Every Child

During Genius Hour, kids explore their passions without constraints, tests, or grades


Arlington Heights, Illinois

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Before kids graduate from high school, they will spend more than 14,000 hours in the classroom. During this time, they’ll gain an understanding of reading, writing, science and several other essential subjects. But one has to wonder, how much time are kids actually spending on developing their imaginations, pursuing their passions, and creating the things they dream up?

In most schools, creativity is confined to art class, and even those few hours are stripped from many districts in the United States. Forty percent of U.S. secondary schools don’t require any coursework in the arts for graduation.

Sir Ken Robinson has had a lot to say about this matter. He explains in an Adobe study on the creativity gap that “our educational systems don’t enable students to develop their natural creative powers.” Instead, schools “promote uniformity and standardization.” As a result, we are “squandering” a child’s creative possibilities.

With much of the world, including the United States, arguing that creativity and innovation are the most critical competencies for the future, it’s particularly ironic that our common approach to education is perhaps creativity’s biggest threat.

Luckily, teachers are responding. Some are taking back a few of those 14,000 classroom hours and handing them over to students. One hour a week devoted to fostering a child’s natural creative powers. It’s a movement called Genius Hour and it’s growing in strength around the country.

The idea is simple. For a set period of time each week, students are given the keys to their own learning. It’s time for them to explore their own interests, and for teachers to more or less get out of the way.

What caught our attention about this movement was how it values a child’s natural creative talents. Genius Hour encourages curiosity, invention, taking chances, and free thought. It’s a chance for imagination to run wild, and for children to explore the realm of possibility.

It may be interesting to note that Genius Hour didn’t start in schools. It actually has roots in a model for corporate innovation pioneered at Google called the 20 percent program. For many years, employees at Google had been encouraged to spend 20 percent of their work time on projects of their own choosing—anything they are passionate about—so long as it’s company-related.

Gmail and Google News were both invented during  20 percent time.

The idea found its way to other companies, and now it’s been adapted for schools and classrooms. Joy Kirr, a 19-year veteran teacher in Arlington Heights, Illinois, is one of the educators helping grow this movement.

She was drawn to Genius Hour, she says, because for too long, adults have been telling students what they should know.

“I would say things, have my students take notes, and then they would regurgitate it,” she says. “Creativity gets squashed when people learn this way.”

One of the ways she uses Genius Hour in her seventh-grade English class is by letting her students choose what they want to read, allowing them to argue with the author’s point of view, and present what they’ve learned in whatever way they see fit.

The transition into Genius Hour wasn’t exactly easy for all of her students. Having been accustomed to “deliverables, book reports and grades” some of her students “kind of freaked out,” she says.

With Kirr’s help, all students soon adapted to this type of independent learning and loved choosing their own texts—not only those approved on an English department reading list.

Kirr says it’s important for her kids to know, “it’s okay to read nonfiction, it’s okay to read articles, it’s okay to read something totally different from what your friends are reading.”

Gallit Zvi, a teacher in British Columbia is the co-moderator of the #geniushour Twitter chat. She keeps Genius Hour as a permanent block on her class schedule.

In the “Genius Hour Manifesto,” she explains that no matter what her students are working on—whether it’s a website, a film, or a slideshow—the common thread is that it’s something they’re curious and passionate about.

Joy Kirr combined Genius Hour with the Global Cardboard Challenge in October 2013. The goal of the Cardboard Challenge is for children to build whatever they can dream up using simple materials and imagination. Many teachers recommend it as a helpful Genius Hour activity to get kids accustomed to more self-directed learning.

“It was one more way of showing [my students] that I trust them to make decisions. I told them to have fun with it and to spend a day creating.”

During the Challenge, she said the kids “were always moving, always trying new things… It was lively and loud and they were collaborating like crazy.”

When Kirr’s class reflected on their experience, they talked about the six Classroom Habitudes coined by Angela Maiers, an author and Genius Hour advocate.

Imagination, curiosity, perseverance, self-awareness, courage, and adaptability. These are behaviors, habits, and attitudes that help ensure student success in and out of the classroom.

Imagination is important, Maiers explains in her book, Classroom Habitudes: Teaching Habits and Attitudes for 21st Century Learning, because it “gives us the capacity to jump from present facts to future possibilities. Our capacity to dream, hope, and plan for the future is influenced and impacted by the control and understanding of imagination’s remarkable power.”

One of Joy Kirr’s students shows off a game she built during the Global Cardboard Challenge. (Photo c/o Joy Kirr)

One of Joy Kirr’s students shows off a game she built during the Global Cardboard Challenge. (Photo c/o Joy Kirr)

During the Cardboard Challenge, kids practiced many of these “habitudes.” For example, Kirr says, “We talked about adaptability, if things weren’t going right; perseverance, how they kept trying and didn’t give up; curiosity about what other people were doing; and being aware of what they could and couldn’t do.”

Students learned the value of persistence, and weren’t afraid of failure. One child reflected on her experience and wrote, according to Kirr’s blog, that she learned to never give up. “If something doesn’t work, try again. If it still doesn’t work, try something new to accomplish the same meaning.”

Another student wrote, “If we put our heads together and use our imagination then we can create things we never thought of doing before.”

And isn’t this the hope? Genius Hour is helping raise a new generation of innovators and problem solvers by giving kids the match to ignite the fire of their natural creative talent.

Kirr says if anyone is interested in introducing Genius Hour to the classroom, start with the Cardboard Challenge. Be ready for a big mess, she says, and lots of noise. We also recommend using helpful tools along with cardboard, like Makedo and littleBits. For more help on using the Cardboard Challenge in your classroom, visit our cardboard challenge resource page.

(Top photo: Bombeta de Llum Autor: 1997 via Wikimedia Commons)

This story was written by Jenny Inglee, the Imagination Foundation’s Imagination Curator and The Storybook Editor. The first collection of stories in The Storybook focus on the work of inspiring individuals, schools, and organizations that participated in the 2013 Global Cardboard Challenge.

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If you're interested in exploring ideas on how to start a Genius Hour in your classroom or if you'd like to learn more about the movement and the teachers involved, check out [1] the Imagination Foundation's Pinterest board of Genius Hour resources. We've also included links to [2] Joy Kirr's Global Cardboard Challenge video and [3] a link to the 'Genius Hour Manifesto' which dives deep into what Genius Hour is, where it originated, why it matters, and how to facilitate it in your classroom.

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