Genius Hour Meets Design Thinking

Thursday, November 24, 2016

I have been doing Genius Hour for about 3 years or so now and truly believe in the power of giving students complete control in what and how they learn. Genius Hour is all about students developing a driving question based on their passions and interests and then designing a project around it, self-directing their own learning to meet their goals.
While this has been amazing for my students for the past couple of years, I noticed that the driving questions and projects that my elementary students were coming up with didn't quite have enough depth to them. Yes they were coming up with driving questions based on their passions, but it just seemed to lack that purposeful connection.

So long story short, this past summer I did a lot of research on design thinking. I read a couple of books, tons of articles, and became filled with excitement and ideas of how I can incorporate it into my elementary classroom. One of the books that I read was The Launch Book by John Spencer and AJ Juliani (which was phenomenal and I highly recommend it). The LAUNCH cycle that they have created is perfect for younger students being immersed into design thinking and the authors did an amazing job of breaking each step down into tangible ways to teach it to your students. I have taken many things from this book and brought it into my instruction in many ways. However, as I was reading the book, the one phase of the LAUNCH cycle, 'Ask Tons of Questions' seemed to be the missing link in my Genius Hour instruction.

I decided that one of the reasons why my students driving questions were just skimming the surface level is because I wasn't giving them enough time to actually think or the opportunity to ask lots and lots of questions. So this year, with my third graders, I decided to do things a little bit differently. Everyday, for at least a month or so before the official launch of Genius Hour in my classroom, I decided to do what I called "Wonder Time". This time was 10 minutes everyday to do just that.... to wonder.

I started off by explaining to them the importance of always asking questions and we signed a promise as learners to never stop wondering. From there, each student created a 'Wonder Journal', which was essentially a running Google Doc of questions.

Using what I learned from The LAUNCH Book, I decided to first give students time to wonder naturally with no prompting. This was the type of questions I was used to my students generating. Questions like Why is the grass green? or  How fast do clouds move? For the most part, these questions were Google-able questions. So after giving them time for natural wonder, each week I began giving them questions and prompts to help tailor their questioning and raise their awareness. I broke down each week into the following focuses. These were questions and stems that I learned from the LAUNCH book. However, what I really loved about them is that it refined the students questions and the last one (starting with a passion/interest) lead perfectly into my launch of Genius Hour. 

Natural Wonder

Everyday of the week students worked towards developing lots of questions based on whatever the focus was for the week. Below are some examples screen shotted from my students Wonder Journals.

In addition to the questioning that was going on during Wonder Time, I also wanted students to get into the habit of expanding on some of these questions. One of my favorite quotes from George Couros from his book The Innovator's Mindset (my favorite education book of all time), is "What you learn is not as important as what you create from what you learn." So once a week I would also have the students choose one of their wonder questions for that week, and expand on it. Students expanded on it by doing research, imagining solutions, and thinking deeper into the question and then creating something to share that knowledge. (Examples: Wonder Podcast or Wonder Blogpost)

After weeks of using this design thinking process to refine our questions, not only were students ready to start Genius Hour, but they already had a bank of well developed, purposeful questions to choose from. I was so impressed by the level of thought and awareness that my students were able to tap into by using this design thinking method.

So if you have done Genius Hour for years, or are just starting it for the first time, my advice to you is this... don't rush the brainstorming process just to get to the point where they are starting their projects. Take the time and give your students the opportunity to develop lots and lots of questions. It will not only help them learn to love questioning and problem solving, but it will make it much easier for them to create their driving question for their Passion Project.
Remember that in a world where information is now common, questions are more valuable than the answers themselves. We want to provide our students with the instruction and opportunities to be flexible learners who not only think critically to solve problems.... but seek to find them. 

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