Every month we publish two articles on “Shady Oak Best Practices,” our favorite approaches to education and why they work. If friends ask why you send your kids to Shady Oak instead of a “regular” school, refer them to this series—and the science backing us up—for starters.
“Genius Hour” is a common term for school periods where each student chooses a topic he or she wishes to learn more about—from bullying to X-rays—and is set free to research that topic and design a related project. (The concept exists in the corporate world as well, the best-known example being Google’s policy of allowing employees to spend up to 20 percent of their work hours developing original ideas.) Genius Hour is more structured than the traditional “free period,” requiring focus on specific topics, parameters, and ends. A student whose preferred topic is “pets,” for instance, might create a campaign to spread awareness of affordable vet care.
Often, Shady Oak expands Genius Hours into Genius Afternoons. You could also plan a Genius Morning, Genius Wednesday, or Genius Week. Whatever time slot you prefer, the benefits include:
- Everyone gets practice in taking initiative and thinking outside the box.
- Kids learn more about themselves and what they can do as unique individuals.
- Students’ self-esteem benefits from having their interests—no matter how atypical—treated as worthy of time and attention.
- Someone, and probably several someones, is bound to come up with a project that will grow to benefit the larger school and community.
If Genius Hour is new to your school, here are a few hints for helping it run smoothly:
- Start small, with a literal hour or half hour. If you try a full day on the first go, the kids may freeze up at the perceived gigantism of the whole thing.
- Before starting, have everyone create a two-to-three-sentence outline describing what they’re interested in and what they want to learn or accomplish. Review these personally if you like, but don’t veto any ideas. (If anything looks potentially dangerous or against school rules, state so briefly and then let the student take responsibility for the necessary tweaks.)
- If some kids are stuck for ideas, suggest they start by “free-writing” about something they like to do during leisure time.
- Allow time for cleaning up and putting away.
- When Genius Hours are regular and focused on ongoing projects, schedule periodic “share days” where students can discuss their projects and progress. Emphasize encouraging each other and avoiding free advice (questions are fine).
- If at all possible, avoid grading (read: judging) any project. Enthusiasm and developing knowledge should be the only criteria for “success.”
At Shady Oak, we emphasize Genius Hour/Afternoon because it builds self-esteem, encourages kids to become their best selves, and generates ideas that benefit the larger community.
Science Backs Us Up! Further Resources on the Topic