Harness their Passion: Genius Hour in the Social Studies Classroom

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Over the past two years, educators have had to adapt, change, and adapt again as learning environments have shifted. I began my career as an AP Government and Honors Economics teacher in 2001, but in August 2020, I was tasked with teaching high school U.S. History for the first time. My students and I muddled through the first semester, learning how to navigate the new digital platforms required by remote learning, and by Spring 2021, I had gotten a firm grip on these tools. However, I still struggled as I tried to get my students engaged with the subject beyond a "here" at the beginning of class. I had assigned what I thought were relatively simple research assignments. In my mind, I had modeled the assignments and had given the proper amount of scaffolding and differentiation. Yet my students were simply not as interested in their learning as I hoped.

Something had to change. While my school district would soon begin offering an in-person learning option, about 70% of our families needed to remain in a virtual learning environment. I couldn't have another semester of limited engagement, high failure rates, and low student and teacher morale. I turned to my Social Studies Facebook group and asked, "How can I increase student engagement while more explicitly teaching the research process to my students?"

So began my Genius Hour journey.

Origins and Benefits

Inspired by Google's "20% time," Genius Hour has gained popularity in educational circles for the past ten years. Genius Hour involves teachers giving students designated time to explore a passion project (Padilla Vigil & Mieliwocki). The three basic rules of Genius Hour ask students to 1) develop an open-ended driving question, 2) research that question, and 3) share their findings (Rush). Genius Hour seemed like the perfect way to simultaneously teach the research process and increase student engagement in my classroom by giving students more control of their learning.


Since my students had varying levels of experience conducting academic research, I knew I needed to explicitly teach the research process while guiding them through their projects. The first step was creating a Genius Hour project description, calendar, and rubric. I prioritized student engagement, learning the Genius Hour process, and research instruction over confining my students to topics within United States history. As with most teachers, I like to work smarter and not harder. Thankfully, educators such as Jennifer Zirbel and Katie Osborn Adkins generously shared their work, and I was able to synthesize multiple resources into a template that met my students' needs.

I reserved each Monday for Genius Hour. The first Monday, I introduced the concept of Genius Hour and gave students time to reflect on what this would mean for their learning. Many of my students were incredulous that they could research any topic they wanted. Some students were very uncomfortable with so much choice, while another student noted, "This is how school should be ALL of the time!" I was relieved that most of my students were excited after weeks of minimal participation.

View Example Rubric

View Example Rubric

In the coming weeks, I started each Monday with a mini-lesson on a specific part of the research process, and had students watch the corresponding "Researching" videos and resources in ABC-CLIO's Academic Success Corner. After watching each video, I would model the specific skill highlighted in the video (such as finding a research topic or evaluating sources) and then allow students to practice that skill. Over the six weeks, we examined all five videos in the "Researching" collection (see the first video in the series here: "Introduction to the Research Process"). At the end of each class period, students would complete a work log summarizing their progress and identifying any problem areas.

Our Genius Hour work culminated in student presentations. Each student had only five minutes to summarize their work, identify what they learned, what they would do differently, and how/if they wanted to extend their project going forward. Little did I know when I embarked on this journey that my students would be teaching me about calligraphy, how to sew my own clothes, the psychological impact of a great haircut, how to start a retail business, and the need for improved mental health services in public schools. By being open with my students that this was my first time implementing Genius Hour, I was able to create a more supportive and learner-centered classroom culture. When freed from the notion that there was only one path to learning, my students flourished.

Wisdom Gained

Building on the wisdom of others, I made several effective choices during my Genius Hour experiment. I started the project with a comprehensive plan; I modeled each step of the Genius Hour process by completing my own project (my project was how to implement Genius Hour in my classroom); I had a student-friendly system for teaching the research process with the ABC-CLIO Academic Success Corner; I gave my students regular feedback and the space to let me know what was working and not working for them.

There are several aspects of the implementation that I would change. My biggest misstep was overestimating my students' experiences with academic research. This year, I will be sure to provide specific lessons and more practice opportunities on how to navigate databases, complete academic searches, and differentiate between credible sources. I cannot do all of this alone, and will benefit from partnering with my media specialist earlier in the process. While I want to give my students as much agency as possible, I think giving them complete freedom over their topic selection was at times confusing because it was hard to gather both primary and secondary sources for all topics. I will limit their research to a historical inquiry of their chosen topic. I also want to better structure student risk-taking by outlawing PowerPoint presentations. This will force students out of their comfort zones and allow them to learn new skills such as podcasting, interviewing, or creating infographics. I also plan to move Genius Hour to Fridays, to reward students for their hard work throughout the week.

Through this project, I was able to build stronger relationships with my students because they saw that I was more interested in their personal learning than a score on a quiz or test. Their research not only let them explore current interests, but also learn more about possible career paths—one student worked with his friend on a presentation about forensic science, which he initially chose just to work with his friend, and at the end stated that he wanted to pursue this as a career.

My goal is to provide a more rigorous and rewarding educational experience for my students. One of the greatest benefits of being an educator is that we are given continual opportunities to reflect and improve upon our craft.


Anderson, Jessi. "Genius Hour." n.d. BetterLesson. Accessed April 6, 2021. https://betterlesson.com/strategy/88/genius-hour.

Padilla Vigil, Virginia, and Rebecca Mieliwocki. 2015. "Genius Hour: A Learner-Centered Approach to Increasing Rigor in the Classroom." Instructor 124 (5): 45–47.

Rush, Elizabeth. Bringing Genius Hour to Your Library: Implementing a Schoolwide Passion Project Program. Libraries Unlimited, 2017. http://publisher.abc-clio.com/9781440856532.‌

‌Spencer, John. 2017. "The Genius of Design." Educational Leadership 74 (6): 16-21. https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/the-genius-of-design.

Additional Resources



Courtney Hartsfield

Courtney Hartfield, MEd, is a social studies educator with the Phoenix Union High School District.

MLA Citation

Hartsfield, Courtney. "Harness Their Passion: Genius Hour in the Social Studies Classroom." ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2022, educatorsupport.abc-clio.com/TopicCenter/Display/2268000?productId=0&topicCenterId=2257524&subId=2269763. Accessed 4 Oct. 2022.

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