Right now, the private school I work at in Hong Kong is running Genius Hour (which we call Self-Motivated Learning, aka SML) for 400+ students at the same time. How cool is that?! In this first post I want to share a bit of backstory and some of the features of our success.
Our school’s SML journey began in January 2014. It started with a colleague hearing me talk about it and said, “Why not start it now?” And that was that! So I started the next month with four classes of Grade 7 & 8 Social Studies, and it expanded from one to two Social Studies classes the next quarter. The following year, all of the Social Studies teachers were trying it out, and two of our academic teams found a way to divide up the class time for the project among Social Studies, Language Arts, Science, & Math. So that meant two academic teams consisting of 8 teachers and 160 students were all working together on the same lessons and goals.
This year, our administration took that model and expanded it to ALL of Grade 7 & 8. Wow! Over 400 students all working on SML at the same time, what a fabulous commitment to creativity and resilience!
Features of Success
Here are four key features that got us here, presented in no particular order.
1) Teachers taking risks.
2) Students having big successes in all sorts of projects.
3) Students failing.
4) Admin getting on board, backing us, and then leading out.
1) Teachers taking risks:
The initial time investment, to give up one hour out of five, was hard to pull off, but all of the Social Studies teachers who tried it out had to find a way to make it happen without sacrificing the rest of the curriculum. Then, when we expanded beyond our department, we needed our colleagues to take a risk and trust us to guide the project meaningfully. We are leaning heavily on that trust again this year. Preparing activities and organizing materials for 20 groups of 20+ students (and also organising those groups of students!) is a whole new level of planning for all of us. The challenge is high but the rewards are higher.
2) Students having big successes in all sorts of projects:
We’ve had all sorts of projects that worked out amazingly well. There was a working prototype of a motion activated dog feeder made out of cardboard, which was demonstrated with a guest, the student’s pet dog! Another student broke six different prototypes of an electric violin before finding a way to attach the strings to the neck that didn’t snap it off. Another student cannibalized everything he could find at home (including a bike that a friend had outgrown) to build a homemade drift trike. I could go on and on, we’ve had songs recorded at a professional level, basic levels of foreign languages learned, and more.
3) Students failing:
It’s a bit of an educliche these days to talk about the importance of failing. I should know, I wrote a paper on it for my Master’s. But it’s truly just as important as the successes.
There was a girl who tried tried tried SO HARD to learn how to overhand serve a volleyball. She wasn’t able to get there in the end, but she was able to talk eloquently and point out in the videos she took of herself where she was going wrong. Or the boy who was never really able to narrow down his topic from “What is the soul”. He had the guts to stand up and say to the audience of students & parents, “I have to be honest, I don’t know what I really learned on this project. I still feel confused.”
4) Admin getting on board, backing us, and leading out:
Our administration is so wonderful at supporting teacher initiatives. Their side of discussions often sounds like this: “So you are sure that’s where your team needs to focus time and resources? What do you need from us to make that happen?” They’re great!
Our admin agreed to let the Social Studies teachers devote class time to it. When we wanted to try it out with two teams at the same time, which involved a bit of tweaking to the schedule, they were right behind us. And now this year, when we took that model to two whole year groups of over 400 students, they have been with us every step of the way. They’ve made the hard decisions when a consensus couldn’t be reached and have put in the hours right alongside the rest of the planning team to make each session happen.