Yesterday, first semester ended at my Australian school (ah!). As I settle in for a break, my reflections keep bringing me back to the idea of immersive, meaningful and transformative learning for all: students, educators, academics. This is learning which privileges the intellectual freedom of the individual and trusts in each person’s capacity for self-directed growth.
Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius. ~ Mozart
In a school sense, I have been using variations of Genius Hour (a version of Google’s now-defunct 20% time) in my senior English classrooms. I found that in a high school context when I have four lessons per week, the idea of 20% time didn’t work as well as less-frequent, longer-lasting ‘genius’ projects. So instead I build ‘choose your own way to explore your understandings and inspirations’ time into units of work.
This time isn’t a total free-for-all but uses as its basis an essential question from a unit of work (like ‘Who is responsible for our actions?’ from a Macbeth unit) or a text we are studying. In this way, students use the course content as a springboard from which they can grow their ideas and design their works of genius. While this vies away from students choosing entirely their own passions, it reflects Google’s move to only focus on projects which align with its core mission and purpose. I have found that some focus helps as a starting point and that parameters can push creativity. And it means I can articulate its purpose in my English courses.This Genius Hour work is much like things I’ve done before, with a new name attached. I like the name because it assumes that students are capable of ‘genius’. It says, “I believe you have the capacity for brilliance.” And in giving learners freedom, Genius Hour says, “I know you are capable of independence of learning, thought and creation.” It is this assumption of the awesomeness inside everyone which I like the most.
It reminds me of when I use BloomGard task options like the example below. This approach allows students to have ownership over their learning while encouraging creativity and creation (especially as I only offer the three highest levels of Blooms).One of my favourite Genius Hour type moments was in 2004 when I was teaching the rigorous and relentless IB Diploma course. My class had spent three weeks smashing through the 800+ pages of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in analytic fury. At the end of it we had a two and a half hour class (which we always had each fortnight). I brought in paper, art materials, plus iconic Australian biscuits: Tim Tams and Mint Slices. I told my class they had that time to create a visual representation of the novel. What they produced was beyond amazing. A class of heavily science-maths-leaning students was abuzz with collaboration and coloured-pencil creativity. They chose key scenes from the novel and illustrated these in a series of train carriages, with Tolstoy driving the train. The artwork, which spanned the entire length of a classroom wall when it was done, started with a lit candle and ended with a snuffed out candle, symbolising Anna’s journey. The mood was electric and the class protected that work and talked about it for a long time afterwards as a defining moment in their year. The other school-based experience propelling my reflections on immersive independent learning is my work in coaching some of the early learning teachers at my school. Watching a class of four or five year olds being given extensive reign to develop and interact with their learning environments, choose their own work (often play-based) and collaborate on self-chosen ideas, had me wondering: What does it say when the students at a school with the most ownership over their learning are the youngest ones? What happens as classrooms and curricula trust in students less and less?
I’ve also been thinking about adult learning. As adult learners, we should be following our own passions and directing our own learning. Some of my most transformative learning has been immersive and driven by me, especially my PhD study and the professional learning trip I took to New York last year.
Researching my PhD has allowed me to totally immerse myself in my educational passions, driving my own learning with the support of my supervisors, my school and others. It has thrown me into and through my discomfort zone in the most brain-bending and delicious ways. My trip to New York last year, in which I organised meetings with school leaders, professors and world-renowned edu-experts, allowed me the time and away-from-home-ness to really immerse myself in my learning. This blog was a way to track my experiences and reflections. Andrea Stringer is currently on her own self-directed professional gauntlet, and has been using her blog, Periscope and the Twitter hashtag #EdVentures to track her learning and share it with others. My recent PhD writing retreat was another example of immersive self-directed passion-driven learning, with a blog post reflection allowing me to think more deeply about my writing processes.
Surely our core business as educators is to nurture our students to be innovative, efficacious ever-learners who trust in their own capacities for growth and follow their own dreams? Surely it is the job of school leaders to provide the same opportunities for their staff? We want for students and educators to balance persistence with creativity. To pursue design thinking and moonshot-bluesky-rainbowunicorn thinking.
How else can we promote and enact immersive, choose-your-own-edventure learning? What might be more ways we can trust our students and ourselves to follow passions and drive own learning?