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This is my latest article in a series on owning your professional learning.

Genius Hour (or 20% Time) projects begin with a simple idea: give students a dedicated period of time to pursue their passions, interests, and questions in a creative way. Made famous by Google, this process actually began at 3M, where they allowed employees to spend 20% of their time working on their own passion projects.

With Genius Hour, students own the entire journey. They choose the topics based upon their own geeky interests. It doesn’t have to be a traditionally academic area. They might like fashion or food or sports or Legos or Minecraft or deep sea creatures.

Students ask the questions and engage in their own research to find the answers. Along the way, they design their own plan of instruction. They decide on the resources and activities. Each student sets goals and engages in self-assessment. They work at their own pace and set their own deadlines. Students decide on the grouping. Some work alone. Others work in pairs or small groups.

In the end, students figure out what they will make and how they will share their learning with the world.

A word of caution: It’s not a free-for-all. The best Genius Hour projects have systems and structures that empower students to reach their full potential. Even so, there will be mistakes. You’ll have to experiment. But in the end, students are empowered to be be self-directed learners, engaging in creativity and critical thinking. In other words, they own the learning.

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Often, Genius Hour includes and overlap between curiosity and creativity. It’s a chance to explore and geek out on new ideas. Here, you get to be a researcher and a curator. But it’s also a chance to create something entirely new.

Although we tend to think of Genius Hour as a process for students, I want to explore how we might use Genius Hour in our own lives as educators as a form of professional development. Here, you might spend hour Genius Hour acquiring a new skill. You might learn a new language or learn how to play a new instrument. Or you might question you have and engage in your own personal Wonder Day project. For example, I just spent my Genius Hour time looking at South Korean ballparks. I find it fascinating that the U.S. ballparks have been largely quirky and vintage for the last 30 years but the South Korean stadiums are modern (often with a nod to mid-century modern) and contemporary, with clean lines and a minimalist touch. Is there any purpose to this knowledge? I doubt it. But this was my chance to geek out on a question. However, Genius Hour can also involve a personal passion project that builds upon your own creative skills. My Genius Hour project last December involved creating this silhouette artwork for my office:

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Genius Hour as a Form of Professional Learning

I am more likely to think about inquiry, choice and creativity in my lessons because I know the value of this in my own life. I am more patient when students get scared of failure. I see what happens when I make mistakes. I understand the frustration.

This summer, I’m working on a Genius Hour project where I turn Super Pizza into a full-fledged graphic novel. I’m also creating a comic strip about a rescue dog who believes it’s his job to train his humans. I need this creative outlet for a few reasons:

  • It forces me to struggle with a new craft or concept
  • I get to do creative work outside my normal domain of education
  • I get to bring my kids into the process
  • I become a little more empathetic toward my own students who are learning the craft of teaching.

So, even though my schedule is busy, I want to carve out time to make something new this summer.

I realize that teachers are busy. I know that some people don’t have the luxury of being married to someone else who thinks personal Genius Hour is a great idea. But if it’s possible, I’ve found that all the benefits of Genius Hour for students are true of this time for teachers as well.

Setting Up a Genius Hour Plan

Years ago, my wife and I decided to give each other one night a week to pursue our own interest. It was sort of like having a date night alone. Odd, I know, but it’s something we needed. Our kids were young and our home sometimes felt chaotic.

Each Thursday night, I would go somewhere to do creative work. Sometimes it was Starbucks (I know, I know, it’s a chain place) and sometimes it was a place with great craft beer. But wherever it was, I sit down alone and pursue my own creative work. This was my Genius Hour. This was my Twenty Percent time. My wife learned how to work on databases (something she now does with her current job) and she joined a choir. As our kids grew older, our approach to Genius Hour changed. But the idea remained — carve out time for passion projects and new learning. 

If you’re thinking about having your own Genius Hour, it can help to create an initial plan. The following are some things to consider:

How do you want to spend this time?

There are a few approaches you can take to Genius Hour. You can lean toward curiosity and explore a new topic. You might also choose to learn a new skill. If you want to go toward the creative route, you can create something new and even build on your current skills by taking bigger creative risks. Regardless of your approach, there should be some level of intellectual risk-taking. You should also be learning something new.

What topics do you want to explore? What things do you want to create?

It might help to create a brainstorm of questions you have or topics you want to explore. If you are taking a more creative route, you might want to make a brainstorm of project ideas. The key here is to avoid judgment. If something interests you, write it down. It honestly doesn’t need to be earth-shattering. It can be pretty goofy. In the past, I crafted a story about a superhero taco. I later retooled the story and made it about a superhero pizza. I ended up writing the story down and recording the audiobook, which I then released to an audience free of charge. My next Genius Hour project will be turning it into a full book with illustrations.

Do you want to do a long-term project or shorter learning expeditions?

Some people love to try something new each week. They might have a new canvas and paint something each week. Or they might have a smaller skill they want to master (Rubik’s cubes one week and knot-tying the next). They might have a list of random questions they want to do through weekly Wonder Day activities. Other people prefer to do a long-term project. Here, they might work on a Genius Hour project over the whole summer and perhaps continue it through the entire school year. It might involve restoring a car or learning how to brew mead or making a pinball machine from scratch.

What rules will you set up for yourself?

This might sound odd to create rules. After all, Genius Hour is about personal freedom. And yet, having a few rules for yourself actually frees you up for better creative work. Here are my rules.

  1. I can’t work on anything related to school. I can’t grade papers. I can’t plan lessons. But I also can’t work on a presentation for a keynote or write a blog post or write an article. This time can’t be connected to teaching.
  2. There are no deadlines. I live by deadlines. I love project management. But here, I just need a loose, flexible time period where I can do something on my own terms. This also means I can interrupt a project and go geek out on something new. I might be working on a painting but then decide I’m going to look stuff up on Wikipedia. That’s okay. There is no such thing as procrastination here.
  3. I have to be learning something new. A few years ago, this was coding and programming. Last year, this has included story craft (where I have studied up on what makes a story) as I write a novel. Lately, it has been illustrating and animation. So, while I might be working within my strengths, I am also pushing myself to try something new.
  4. The audience is optional. I may someday create a short animated film for students. I will most likely partner with my wife again and publish another novel (my last one was Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard.) However, the goal in my own Genius Hour is to work without worrying about audience.
  5. Nothing is stupid. There are no dumb creative works here because the process itself is the goal. There are no stupid questions. Nothing is too shallow or too nerdy or too “off-topic” to pursue.

What structure will you use?

Some people choose to make their personal Genius Hour projects loosely structured, where they don’t know what they will do until they sit down at that time and start working. Others choose a more formal structure. For example, you might use the LAUNCH process to structure a long-term Genius Hour project:

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Where will you work?

Think about your physical environment and what would make it ideal for a Genius Hour.

Will you work alone or with a community?

You might choose to work alone but you might choose to partner with someone or even work on a team. A different option might be to meet up with people (be cognizant of social distance if necessary) and each person works on their Genius Hour projects in the same space. This becomes an informal way to share ideas and feedback in a space that’s low-risk.

When will you schedule it?

You might carve out a week of your summer for Genius Hour. Or you might carve out one day each week. It can really help to put this on your calendar and treat it like an appointment. Do your best to avoid letting life crowd out this time. Obviously, emergencies take precedence. But I’ve had to learn to turn down having dinner with a friend or binge-watching a show.

Recovering Your Creativity and Curiosity

You were born creative. You learned to dance with reckless abandon. You made up songs without ever thinking about pitch. You drew wild pictures in bold colors in sidewalk chalk and crayons and sometimes you even used the living room walls as a canvas. You invented worlds that didn’t exist, friends that adults couldn’t see, and stories that went nowhere. You built cities out of Legos and robots out of cardboard. You set up experiment without asking yourself if you’re a science person or an art person.

Early on, the world celebrated with your creativity. Chances are your parents plastered each masterpiece to the fridge. They cheered at your songs. They loved your Lego cities – that is, until they stepped on the bricks in utter agony at two in the morning. In some cases, you might have had unsupportive parents; which would have been painful. They might have been busy or neglectful or maybe even discouraging of your creativity. But hopefully, you had someone in your life who encouraged your creativity.

But somewhere along the line, you lost something. You learned to be embarrassed of your dance moves and ashamed of your voice. You grew scared of speaking in public. You set down the chalk and the crayons and the pencils and relegated this to those with “real talent.” You bought into the lie that real scientists don’t do art and real artists don’t do science.

A little nuance here: it’s okay to grow out of things. It’s okay to reach a place where you’re just not that into mathematical theory or classical literature or crocheting unicorns. But this is about losing something deeper. Lost. Maybe that’s the distinction. It’s one thing to toss away something that doesn’t interest you anymore. But too often you lost some creative part of you because it was taken away and the culprit was shame.

If your experience is anything like mine, there’s a good chance you ran into shame. Maybe it was an offhanded comment of a teacher or the overprotective advice of a parent trying desperately to shield you from failure. Maybe it was another student who you mocked your work. Or maybe it happened when you compared your work to others and never pulled out of that despair you feel when you see the chasm between your work and the work of others.

Brené Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection (this is one of my all-time favorite books): 

“We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”

I wonder if shame does the same thing to creativity as well. It seems that shame makes you hide. It makes you quit. It makes you hedge your bets so that nothing goes wrong. Shame kills your dreams and dulls your imagination. It turns you cynical, making you the perennial critic that has lost the creative spark.

Similarly, we often grow less curious as we get older. As young children, we learn through exploration and play:

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Too often, though, we get older and less curious. We learn how to value getting the right answer and getting it quickly. We fill in the bubbles with the “most correct answer.” But knowledge should make us more curious. It should fuel our sense of wonder. A personal Genius Hour project can be an opportunity to chase that curiosity and recover that sense of wonder and imagination.

The Summer Genius Hour Challenge

So, if you’re entering into the summer break, I have a challenge.

Do a Genius Hour.

Ask questions and chase your curiosity. Learn a new skill and stumble along the way. Bruise your knees and get back up. Make something new. Throw yourself into a creative project.

Here’s the caveat: it can’t be something for your classroom. If you’re creating something new, this can’t involve making a unit plan or a project resource. If you’re chasing your curiosity, it can’t be about teaching. There’s a time and a place to read teaching books. But this is about being curious and creative away from your profession. By not focusing on teaching, you’ll learn things that become transferable to teaching.

Find something creative that pushes you to the point of frustration. Learn a new craft. Learn to draw. Learn to dance. Learn to code. Learn to crochet. Learn to speak in front of a group. Learn how to build a deck or install shiplap (don’t ask me how I know that term). Visit a makerspace and make something ridiculous and weird.

This is your invitation to be wildly and unabashedly different:

This is your own extended summer-long Genius Hour. Call it your defiant, “screw you” to shame.

As you learn and explore and make, consider showing your work. Check out the video below to see what I mean:

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You can show your work by posting videos and pictures of your journey on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with the hash tag #teachermakers. If you’re curious what this might look like, check out Nick Provenzano’s blog (including posts like this one) and Instagram. Check out Kevin Hodgson’s blog, where he’s constantly showing quirky, creative, digital work. Check out Krissy Venosdale’s blog as she continues to explore the visual arts and design thinking.

I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, it’s easy to spend a summer learning. I’ll read books and plan out units. I’ll attend conferences, feeling inspiring keynotes and attending sessions where I jot down new ideas. But there’s something humbling about entering the creative struggle for a summer. It helps me gain empathy for my students who will be using design thinking in our class. It pushes me to take creative risks. It’s uncomfortable. Unnerving. But it’s also what makes me feel the most alive.

If you’re curious about a structure for your creative Genius Hour, consider checking out Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student. You can go through the LAUNCH Cycle on your own as you explore the ideas in the book and maybe even do a collaborative creative project with a friend or colleague.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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