Expert Educator Columns, Featured
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Tammy Dunbar: A Genius Idea!


by Tammy Dunbar
Expert Educator Columnist, USA

teachergeek“Have you heard of Nancy Wake?” Isabella had just run up to my desk and her eyes were wide with excitement. “I read a story about her when I was younger, and I thought she wasn’t real. But I just found out that she IS real and she was a spy and they called her the White Mouse! May I please study Spies in World War II for my Genius Hour project?”

Genius Hour, or 20% time as some call it, is a movement that started more than 60 years ago. The 3M Company (originally known as the Minnestoa Mining and Manufacturing Company) started their “15 Percent Program” in 1948, which allowed all employees to pursue ideas that came up in the course of their work day but which they did not have time to follow up on. nancy-1Art Fry, a 3M scientist, wanted a bookmark for his church hymnal which would stay in place without runing the book, and his inspiration became the Post It Note. Then Google came along about 50 years later and expanded the idea to “20 Percent Time” which produced Gmail and Google Earth. Now, Genius Hour has come to the classroom, where students are invited to explore what they are passionate about and then share their new knowledge with the class.

As Albert Einstein observed, “It’s not that I’m so smart; it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

That’s part of the reason I love Geniur Hour in my classroom. We want students to learn good research habits, and Genius Hour is a marvelous way to get them to hunt down information. When students get to pick their own area of study, they want to find out as much as possible which prompts them to search harder and longer and (hopefully) smarter.

There are three simple rules to Genius Hour:

  1. All Genius Hour projects must be approved by the teacher.
  2. All Genius Hour projects must be researched (with time given in the classroom for it)
  3. All Genius Hour projects must be presented to the class in any appropriate format.

students-are-givenStudents are given an hour several days a week (and as much time as they want at home) to dig into the internet and become “the expert” on their topic. I conference with students at least twice: once to discuss their topic and another time to discuss the proper format in which to present it. Some students needed more guidance, some got it from home, others found it within themselves. In our first year of Genius Hour, we had students who:

  1. Followed their passion for soccer and learned how diet affects performance as well as average salaries for professional soccer players.
  2. Embraced their fascination with rubber band bracelets and created cell phone covers (with charms) and small purses out of those same rubber bands.
  3. Focused their desire to film friends into a video that features tips and tricks for doing well on standardized tests as well as giving encouragement and support.
  4. Pursued their hope to be like Albert Einstein by recreating (albeit simply) an experiment of his.

When students become the teachers of their own topic, they want to do a good job on their presentation and work hard to make it right. When everyone has that shared experience, they appreciate the work that goes into such presenations. and the whole class is more engaged and excited.

Best of all, students learn research and study skills that they will have for the rest of their lives.

(Note: Genius Hour was Tammy Brecht Dunbar’s #MIEExpert15 Learning Activity.)


techinjectionalways-smartIt’s always smart to have a good introduction to a topic, so I like to introduce Genius Hour to my students at the very beginning of the year with a video that gives them the basic guidelines and then models some of the previous year’s projects. By giving them a heads up that a project like this is coming, students have ample time to ponder and explore what most excites them. They need to know that this is a research project, that it will take time, and that it will be both fun and totally worth it.


tammy2Tammy Brecht Dunbar, M.Ed., S.T.E.M. teaches 5th grade in Manteca Unified School District and Pre-Service Technology at Teachers College of San Joaquin (Stockton, CA). She will be presenting at ISTE 2015, CUE 2015 and CTA Good Teaching North 2015.                   Tammy has presented for CTA Good Teaching North (2014), Cap CUE (2014), all three California Subject Matters Project Conferences, Capitol Area Science Education Leaders, and several San Joaquin County Office of Education events as well as others. She won the 2010 eInstruction $75,000 Classroom Makeover Video Contest, wrote a successful Enhancing Education Through Technology grant for Manteca Unified School District in 2008, and was Teacher of the Year in MUSD in 2006. She is on the MUSD Superintendent’s Technology Committee as the district embarks on their “Going Digital 2015” project. She is a 2015 Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert and Master Trainer.

1 Comment

  1. Sandi Adams says

    Tammy, I love this concept and have shared it with my teachers. It so hard for them to imagine carving out 20% of the time when our crazy testing prep is eating into instruction! I found this site to a great resource and even if we only have Genius half hour!! I think it is a move in the right direction!! As always great post. Check out cybraryman. Such a wonderful resource for education.

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