Sunday, July 24, 2016

Genius Hour: An Update

"We've managed to screw up the world, but the minds that will fix this are sitting in our classrooms"
- James Sanders

This past year was my second year exploring genius hour. Because I was able to start it from the beginning of the year, I was able to fit two rounds of genius hour into our year. The first round ran much like the set up from year one; students independently researched something they were passionate about and presented their projects to the class.

Mark French visiting and learning about their problems
I learned something new from each of their presentations and began getting ready to implement another round of the same thing. I then had a thought - why do more of the same? Genius hour is about helping students grow into passionate and voracious learners and I wanted to try something different. 

The students were paired up and presented with a challenge: investigate a problem in the world and develop a solution. I asked them to think big - I didn't want problems like "they don't serve ice cream in the cafeteria" or "I don't have a PS4." The rose to the occasion, choosing topics including bullying, littering, world hunger, homelessness, truancy, endangered species, epidemic diseases, and smoking. Not a short order to research and solve, especially for fourth graders. 

To be honest, I was a little apprehensive. Some of these topics could become very controversial, but there wasn't a single time this became an issue. The students honed in on their chosen problems and I saw many shocked faces when they learned something new. To help them provide some structure, I suggested a basic framework: research facts about the problem to consolidate into an easily understood summary, propose a meaningful solution, and provide a step-by-step framework to implement this solution.

Many of them found a number of good and interesting facts, and some found some conflicting facts. Occasionally, we found it was a simple mistake on the students' parts (typing billion instead of million,) but sometimes different websites gave different information. We would discuss how to choose the best information, including providing a range of data.

A presentation on endangered species
One thing I noticed was that their slide design skills sometimes need work. Some students were spot on: good amount of slides, limited words, compelling pictures (some students found the magic of gifs,) and even some text animation. Other presentations were too long or overcrowded with text. This is a skill that adults struggle with (myself included,) but it's such a valuable skill for life. In the future, we'll take more time to discuss what makes good slide design and develop general guidelines to follow, in addition to continued work on public speaking and presenting.

Many of their solutions revolved around raising awareness or money for their problems. The littering group wanted to put up more signs and recycling bins, the smoking group wanted to teach others how to stand up against smoking, the disease groups suggested more research and funding for vaccines, and many groups wanted to raise money to donate to help endangered species, the homeless, or other groups. While none of these ideas could be designated as moonshot solutions, they were mostly realistic and could be brought to fruition by the students (with help from adults.) You can check out their projects in these videos: Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.

Brookhouser sharing about problem solving
Going forward, I want to build upon this idea. I do not want to begin with a round of studying something they are passionate about; I want to jump right into problem solving. After getting a second chance to learn from one of my Google Certified Innovator coaches Kevin Brookhouser at the North Carolina GAFE Summit, I want to shift genius hour into 20time. As he describes it, his students investigate a "wicked problem" for an entire year to understand and overcome it. I want my students' 20time projects to last an entire year (rather than a few weeks) and to solve their "wicked problems." I love the idea of a bad idea factory, which sometimes good ideas can stem from. I also want a concrete item or event to come out of this project, rather than just ideas for change. I want students to feel empowered and to be change agents, even in fourth grade. Kevin's got a great book called The 20Time Project, which I am extremely excited to dive into, and you can check it out here.

Is this too much to expect from fourth graders? Some may say so, but I don't agree. I believe if students are held to high standards, they will rise to meet them. They will obviously need support from parents and me, but I know they can do it. You can expect updates on this project throughout the year and I am extremely excited for what the students create to solve their "wicked problems!"

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