How do we expect our kids to make great decisions if we never allow them to make any decisions at all?
The Genius Hour hit mainstream education around the summer of 2014. It was an invitation for educators to escape, for at least a short time, the bounds of conventional education practice and amplify the unique interests and passions of their learners. The origins of the Genius Hour date back to 1948 when 3M’s 15% Project became an integral part of the company’s culture. If you’ve ever used a Post-It, you can thank the 15% Project.
Some 50 years later, Google saw an opportunity to integrate the Pareto Principle—20% of our work produces 80% of the results we desire—into their creative strategy. As a result, Google employees are encouraged (this actually isn’t a hard and fast rule) to exercise their creativity however they see fit during 20% of their work week—uncreatively, they named it the 20% Project. The time, although open-ended, is commonly used to prototype new tools for the company. Gmail, AdSense, Google News, and the Google Teacher Academy all exist thanks to these sessions of unbounded creative thinking.
3M and Google are massively successful, so you might wonder: Why doesn’t every company integrate a similar philosophy with their employees? Many have, but the idea quickly sputters out due to a lack of support for new ideas to fully bloom. If an idea can’t be turned into a profitable product overnight, it’s often shelved, and everyone is shuffles back to the products that are defensible to investors in the short-term. This short-term anxiety stifles risk taking and limits the potential for long-term revenue growth.
Similar short-term anxiety is found all across the education sector. Although Genius Hours are frequently cited as “inspiring,” “revealing,” and “groundbreaking,” the system contains them inside a single hour during the day. For one educator, this containment of creativity and innovation in education is too difficult to swallow.
An Educator Who Wants to Break the One-Hour Barrier
Jason Vest, educator and host of the AfterEd podcast, began implementing a Genius Hour-like idea with his 13- and 14-year-old learners in 2017. He utilized a 90-minute block that was traditionally split into 30-minute increments: 30 minutes of reading, 30 minutes of innovative thinking, and 30 minutes of remediation. Instead, Vest chose to use that time to explore just how far his learners could take their ideas. He requested permission to nix the 30/30/30 structure and replace it with an entrepreneurially-focused design that had learners creating business ideas and pitching them to community leaders.
During the first year of the program, Vest got a taste for what his learners were truly capable of. Groups ran with ideas like hair clippers with an adjustable “hair liner,” tree stands for the disabled to be able to hunt, a video game controller that prevents your hands from sweating, and more. It seems so simple: You see a problem in real life, so you try to fix it.
It’s worth noting, however, the idea took some time to catch on with Vest’s learners. Vest reflected, “This learner-centered approach works great for some kids, but it doesn’t work for others because it’s so new. It’s an abnormal experience for kids to basically be told, ‘I’m giving you the keys; you need to drive this thing.’”
In the two years he has been implementing his idea, he has often been met with “blank stares” after letting the class know he isn’t going to tell them exactly what to do. He wants them to create without barriers because, as Vest asks, “How do we expect our kids to make great decisions if we never allow them to make any decisions at all?”
When we were told what we would be doing in the class, and then we were actually doing it, I was frightened by the whole idea because I was so used to the regular, boring classes.
Like many learner-centered leaders, Vest has come to the realization that the conventional system is letting young people go through their educational experience without ever learning what they are truly capable of. He wants learners to develop “self-confidence, self-awareness, and the ability to solve problems that matter to them,” so when they enter the working world, they don’t feel like fish out of water. Vest believes “we have to do that at the core of ‘school,’ rather than focusing on and sustaining a culture of compliance.”
Of course, it’s one thing to see the potential of an idea and an entirely different situation to put it into practice and have young learners express their opinions about how it is going.
How Young Learners Experience the Time to Create Freely
Abby and Bella were in Vest’s first cohort in 2017. Bella reflected on her initial impression of the learning structure, “When we were told what we would be doing in the class, and then we were actually doing it, I was frightened by the whole idea because I was so used to the regular, boring classes.” Bella’s gut reaction was to remain in her comfort zone and request a more conventional approach. Boring might not sound like a great attribute, but it was at least familiar.
As the year hummed along, however, Bella and Abby’s attitudes quickly changed. As the first cohort of learners to go through the experience, they were not only gaining new skills and perspectives on their capacities and the world but they also saw an opportunity to impact future learners. Abby reflected, “A lot of the things that exist in [Mr. Vest’s] class [in future years] are a result of what our class came up with as the first class to go through Mr. Vest’s program.”
This was the first time Abby and Bella ever connected a learning experience to how it could impact learners outside their single age cohort. It brought them a sense of pride and accountability. And still, Abby and Bella were quick to point out not everyone in their class was as enthusiastic. They didn’t know how to manage this newfound freedom, so they put in minimal effort.
Without a learner-centered culture established throughout the learning environment, young learners who don’t immediately connect with the possibilities in front of them are much more willing to let the 90 minutes pass by and return to normalcy in the rest of their classes.
Human beings are innately curious, and when that curiosity is given space to fully blossom, the myth of kids not being capable of taking responsibility for their learning goes away.
This is an issue Vest is dealing with in his second year as well. Unfortunately, he is also operating in a more restrictive context this year. He no longer has the “study hall” block to implement his learner-centered ideas. Instead, he must attempt to apply these elements within the structure of a regular class period—Technical Education (e.g. woodworking not computers). Vest spoke about this frustration, “With the system we’re in, if everything isn’t totally revamped with buy-in at the state, district, and school level, then you’re going to have this issue where you can’t keep tabs and ensure everyone is pursuing something they’re interested in and passionate about. You just don’t have the bandwidth to make that happen.”
One of Vest’s current learners, Matthew, talked about what he wishes was true throughout his learning experience and what he believes would increase engagement for everyone in Vest’s course and beyond. “I wish we got to choose what we want to learn, rather than being put into a course we don’t even want to pay attention in.”
In a way, it is ironic. In Vest’s course, learners are exposed to an abundance of possibility, but due to the time constraints (only 90 minutes), they either don’t have time to build their skill sets to take advantage of them or, even those ready to jump right in, have to leave many possibilities unexplored. It’s almost more painful to know what you can’t have than to never know it existed at all.
From Vest’s perspective, there are three ways to move forward from here:
- Continue as you are with bits of exposure here and there.
- Shut it down completely and return to normal.
Exploring Transformation at the Leading Edge
As Vest noted, when learners are given freedom to choose their path of exploration, they sometimes sit on their hands. They can count down the time until the class is over and go on about their day. What if a similar structure was in place, but that freedom was at the foundation of an entire day?
If we look at the edge of what learner agency can be, North Star is a perfect example. They let learners quite literally do whatever they want as long as they meet with an advisor each week. Some learners see it as an opportunity to play video games all day. But, what North Star has seen, as these young people witness their peers developing business ideas, meeting with influential members of the community, and accelerating their personal growth, they want in on the action.
At North Star, unproductive and unmeaningful choices, although freely available, gain a soured reputation because of the environment-wide culture of accountability and agency. Human beings are innately curious, and when that curiosity is given space to fully blossom, the myth of kids not being capable of taking responsibility for their learning goes away.
Vest’s class was the only time Matthew had to work on his idea. Now that that time is gone, he has to shelf it.
Vest inherently knows this truth. When he sees someone like Matthew create a business idea and receive incredible feedback from the community to keep pursuing it, he knows “the work has to go on.” Since Matthew is experiencing Vest’s class within the confines of a traditional class and not the study hall, he can’t keep pursuing his idea because at the beginning of the second semester, the class had to move onto other competencies. “We had to drop everything and start working with wood,” Matthew said. “We got really good feedback and we were told to continue our work, and I really wanted to, but we had to go back into regular curricular stuff.”
Vest jumped in, “Whereas Bella and Abby were able to continue pursuing their work throughout the year, we remain confined to move through certain competencies, so I had to tell Matthew we have standards we have to teach, so you’re unfortunately going to have to do that on your own time.” Matthew is a member of an intense soccer team that practices five times a week, “I get home at 9:30 or 10 every night during the week and I wake up at 5am to complete my homework before heading to school.” Vest’s class was the only time Matthew had to work on his idea. Now that that time is gone, he has to shelf it.
Just like many large-scale companies have to shutdown new opportunities due to the standards they must follow in appealing to investors, Matthew has to acquiesce to the standards of a system he doesn’t have much say in. Bella and Abby’s high school mentor, Ms. Miller, expressed, “I think teachers feel the same way that these students do, but we have a curriculum we are told to follow and it must be covered in a certain number of days. We don’t have control of our classroom. I personally struggle knowing what [the standards say learners] need to do, while also trying to meet their needs. Students aren’t necessarily told they can’t do something, but they will be pushed in a direction the school feels is more appropriate and follows the curriculum.”
This is the current reality the young learners, Vest, Ms. Miller, and scores of other educators who have seen a small window of opportunity to transform learning for their kids have to face. Jason Vest won’t give up advocating for the learner-centered transformation of his entire district. After seeing what it produces for a handful of young people, he is motivated by what it could make possible for his entire community. He’s all in on option three—transform.
The proof is there. Now, it’s time to enroll others in breaking free from tradition and coming up with creative ways to adhere to the state standards while building a case for learner-centered implementation. After all, how could one give up when the invention of the next Post-It could be one learner-centered opportunity away?