Genius Hour Inspires Students to Explore Their Passions


“We did it! We failed a couple of times but that’s OK.” That reflective comment, written by a pair of Grade 3 students, is tacked to the wall in Ms. Alison Galloway’s classroom because it perfectly sums up what Genius Hour is all about: critical thinking, pride, struggles and learning.

The Grade 3 classes at the Junior School are undertaking a pilot project at SMUS called Genius Hour. One hour a week, Alison and Mr. Brandon Hawes give up control of their classrooms to the students, allowing them to have voice and choice in what they want to learn and how they want to learn.

“It is a time where we’re valuing the competencies of communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration – the four Cs – and we’re giving them the space to try something new and learn something they’re interested in or passionate about,” Alison says. “What we’re saying to them is we want them to come up with something new. The object is to learn something, so don’t do something you’ve already done, but what would you like to learn more about? How is this going to help you learn?”

Genius Hour is an incredibly flexible time for the students and teachers (in addition to Alison and Brandon, Mr. Gordon Chan, Ms. Tanya de Hoog, Ms. Diana Nason and Ms. Beth Middleton are also involved) because projects are touching on a wide range of interests – building with LEGO, coding a robot, science experiments, knitting and more!

“We’re leaving it as open-ended as we can. What we’re noticing is the groups are fluid, they’ll start something, notice it’s not what they want to do, and we talk about the value in that. It’s okay, through questioning, experimenting and reflecting, because they’re learning important life lessons, they’re learning from each other and developing independence and creativity,” Alison says.

Why do this? Alison (who just moved from teaching Grade 1 to Grade 3) is currently working on her master’s degree, focusing on the idea of giving young children the time and space to learn through play; coming up with ideas themselves without it being teacher-driven.

“Studies show the value of play and tinkering, and we see that when we watch children play, how much they learn. But as you go up the grades the value of play seems to disappear or there’s so much curriculum there’s less time for that. It was important for me, moving to Grade 3, because I really believe in play and tinkering, and I wanted to find a model of doing that that was constructive and innovative and valuable for the kids,” she says. “This has been fun for us teachers, too, because we have done what we’re asking the children to do. We’ve taken a risk, we’re exploring new things that we’ve never done before and we’re reflecting on how it’s going as it moves forward.”

That reflective piece is important, as part of learning those 21st-century skills (the Four Cs). It’s also important because students are experiencing firsthand that sometimes self-directed learning doesn’t go as they planned.

“One of the big takeaways is having them reflect on what was tricky, what went well, and then also understanding that sometimes you have ideas that don’t work, and that’s what all geniuses go through and all inventors. Learning is all about thinking, questioning, imagining, creating. And struggle is a part of learning, too,” Alison says. “It’s a whole new concept for kids to be asked, ‘What do you want to learn about?’ And there’s a bit of a struggle for them trying to figure that out. But we’re finding that through that struggle they’re developing those skills and competencies that can only be taught in a free-form environment like this, and in the end they’re so proud of themselves for having gone through that journey, and that’s where the real learning takes place.”

Read more about the SMUS Genius Hour on Alison Galloway’s blog.

(photos by Alison Galloway and Gordon Chan)


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