Genius Hour: A New Kind of PBL

By Kim Moldofsky, The Maker Mom

You may know PBL as Project-Based Learning—learning framed around answering questions, solving problems or addressing challenges. Genius Hour introduces a new kind of PBL to your classroom: Passion-Based Learning. Genius Hour (sometimes referred to as 20% or 20 Time) not only allows, but requires, students to choose their own area of learning and dive deep into it.

“If we want motivated students, why not let students become motivated by giving them autonomy to master what they wish for their purpose?” writes educator Denise Krebs.

Genius Hour has its roots in a practice popularized by Google in which workers are allowed to spend 20% of their time working on an innovative side project. Guess what? 3M encouraged employees to take 15% of their time to follow passion projects long before Google came on the scene.  

Genius hour scales down the 15-20% time to one hour, or a single class period a week. It takes a bit more structure to translate it to the classroom, but it can lead to personal, classroom and possibly even community-wide improvements. Some educators swear that Genius Hour is the most exciting, energizing thing to ever happen in their classrooms.

Discovery Education Network member Tracie Belt, of Shorecrest Preparatory School, shares what makes Genius Hour so special. “Students have total buy in to the projects because of the freedom of choice that they are given. [They seem] willing to work longer, dig deeper to research their idea, tap into their creativity, produce better quality work, and happily do the research needed to complete their project.”

Structure is key to the success of Genius Hour. Ultimately, teachers adapt it to meet their needs and constraints. Typically, though, it looks something like this:

Intrinsic Motivation

Students select a goal or choose a project (maybe even one that becomes a winning entry into the Young Scientist Challenge). Projects may answer a question, help students build skills, or solve problems. Some teachers require that the project be based on a question that cannot be readily answered by a quick Google search. Students own this problem or challenge. That is, it is up to them to figure out how to tackle it. Students may be paired with an adult mentor—perhaps you or a colleague or possibly a community member with expertise in the area of study.


Students must create a plan for themselves. You can get them started by sharing a planning template – Pinterest can help you with those. The plan should include a timeline, but much of the plan depends on the student’s project. Do they need supplies? Do they need to arrange interviews?  What do they need to learn or research before they can work their way to the finished product?


Establish communication expectations up front.  You may hold a weekly status meeting with students, or hold informal check-ins. Weekly blog posts or journals help students stay on track while also allowing you to peek in on their progress as well.

Begin with the End in Mind

Introduce Genius Hour with a plan for the end date. Whether the project goal is to find answer or create a product, students must prepare a final presentation. You can host this in-class or make a special evening of it, inviting parents and even local dignitaries.

All That and a Bag of Chips?

Tracie Belt says she noticed that, “Genius Hour easily helps students understand concepts better, and develop confidence, grit and stick-to-itiveness.” Though Genius Hour has a solid base of fans like Tracie, it’s not for everyone.

The first year, especially, requires a lot of planning and a willingness to change established classroom culture. This applies to students as well as teachers! You might have to buckle in for a bumpy ride that first year. Or, as Genius Hour practitioner Joy Kirr writes, even that third year can be tough.

Learn and Grow

But don’t worry, everyone has a chance to learn and grow with Genius Hour. If you’d like to make it part of your classroom start building a virtual PLN by joining #GeniusHour conversations on Twitter. There’s even a dedicated #GeniusHour Twiter chat the first Thursday of each month at 9 pm Eastern Time. And be sure to check out the Genius Hour Wiki for even more information.