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It all began the year I taught sixth grade ELL. I had the same group of students all day in a class that, by law, had to be hyper-structured (we had a four-hour block of reading, writing, oral language, and grammar). On Tuesday, we didn’t have an elective class, so I had forty-five bonus minutes to plan something entirely different.

Initially, I planned a Genius Hour project. However, after two weeks, it wasn’t working. I realized that Genius Hour actually required more structure and time than I had considered (which is why I ultimately restructured my oral language hour to be Genius Hour). So, I had this short block of forty-five minutes in my schedule. I considered making it a silent reading block or adding to math.

Instead, I landed on a sort-of UnGenius Hour. It was built around the premise that sometimes limitations actually boost creativity. Here, students had limited time, limited resources, and limited options. And they loved it. I know, I know. It sounds counterintuitive, but these limitations actually created a certain level of freedom that pushed kids to think divergently.

The Forty-Five Minute Design Challenge

Students would arrive to their groups after lunch and see a box. I would then give them a short design challenge. It might be, “Design a board game that isn’t boring” or “build a bridge.” Other times, it was simpler. I would simply say, “Make something.”

For the next forty-five minutes, students would build a prototype. It took a few weeks before the first group realized that they could use the box itself. It took another week or two for students to realize they could do quick research on the Internet and plow through the design cycle we had been using with our design projects.

Sometimes it bombed. Sometimes kids got frustrated when things didn’t work. But that was okay. Mistakes were allowed. Nothing was graded. It was simply 45 minutes of planning, making, testing, and revising.

What’s interesting is that students never once complained about the limitations. Nobody ever said, “I can’t be creative unless I have the right resources.” Nobody ever said, “I can’t get this done with those oppressive time deadlines you are putting on me.” Instead, the limitations became a source of their creative thinking.

I used to think creativity was all about thinking outside the box and sometimes it is. Sometimes, though, it’s more about repurposing the box. Sometimes it isn’t a blank canvas or a crisp white page. Sometimes it starts with a limited timeframe and a limited set of resources. In these moments, the lack of options actually pushes people into thinking more creatively.

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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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