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How Genius Hour empowers students to take charge of learning

WATCH: Genius Hour, or 20 per cent time, allows students to pursue passion projects during school hours. Regina junior high teacher Aaron Warner says it helps them develop a love of learning along with the skills they'll need for 21st Century careers. Laurel Gregory reports.

Aaron Warner buzzes around like a child anticipating a big surprise. He may be the teacher of École Wascana Plains’ Grade 7/8 split, but on this morning, he steps away from the front of the classroom and becomes a participant. It’s Friday, which means the time has come for his beloved Genius Hour.

“What do you want to learn this year?” Warner asks the class. “What do you want to learn this week? This month? What’s important to you?”

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Genius Hour is time reserved for students’ passion projects.

Warner was inspired to bring the concept into his classroom several years ago after reading Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom: Using 20% Time, Genius Hour, and PBL to Drive Student Success, for a summer book club. 

“Do you want to learn a skill? Do you want to learn to do something? Do you want to fix a problem? We try to isolate the type of learning they want to do.”

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Past projects have included crash courses in chocolate-cake baking, special effects makeup, video gaming, architecture and drawing anime.

Samaria Franklin, a student of Ecole Wascana Plains, learned how to create Special Effects makeup for her Genius Hour project.
Samaria Franklin, a student of Ecole Wascana Plains, learned how to create Special Effects makeup for her Genius Hour project. Courtesy: Samaria Franklin
Samaria Franklin, a student of Ecole Wascana Plains, learned how to create Special Effects makeup for her Genius Hour project.
Samaria Franklin, a student of Ecole Wascana Plains, learned how to create Special Effects makeup for her Genius Hour project. Courtesy: Samaria Franklin

Warner fondly remembers one dinosaur-obsessed student’s project video-calling a paleontologist.

“At one moment, the person on the other side panned up to this dinosaur and — I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it — and the student just went like this,” Warner said, cupping his cheeks with both hands.

“And that’s what it’s all about. It’s those moments where kids are just so excited to be learning in that moment.”

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READ MORE: 12-year-old Scottish boy completes University of Alberta’s Dino 101 course

Students can pursue a few in-depth projects or a bunch of smaller tasks, depending on what interests them. They share their knowledge with each other at a Genius Hour fair during the school year. While some projects evoke joy or surprise, others attempt to address current problems. 

“This year I would like to work on bigger issues,” Grade 8 student Samaria Franklin said. “I would like to work on issues such as equality and racism and sexism because that’s something that I see a lot day to day.”

Other students like Faiza Khan seek to understand a little more about how things work.

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“Inflation and deflation or the way that companies distribute everything, like how factories work and that kind of stuff.”

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Warner says Genius Hour purposely touches on 21st Century skills: communication, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking. He hopes students walk away with a growth mindset and a new take on what it means to fail (or what he calls “first attempt in learning.”)

“Resiliency, problem solving, thinking outside the box. Things like being able to advocate for yourself — even self-promotion to a certain extent. How do you get yourself recognized in a positive way in a world where ideas are being shared a million times a second?”

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