Facilitating Passion Projects and Genius Hour

September 3rd, 2017 Uncategorized

Some of the uneasiness I have with Passion Projects and Genius Hour (aka 20% Time)  is how unevenly it seems to be applied to student populations. It’s easy to understand why. Coaching students through an independent learning project of their design takes time, a resource that many teachers do not have to adequately devote to every student. As a result, a few lucky learners are the recipients of this extraordinary learning opportunity that has no rival. It seems that self-directed learning isn’t on the menu for a vast majority of our students, and I sometimes wonder if the students that need it the most might be the last to get it.

What would we need to change to make self-directed learning more common? If we want our students to be lifelong learners, then we should recognize that taking ownership of your learning experience is a life skill. The first step is to believe in your students; They are yours for a reason. Second, be prepared to hold them accountable. If every young person has a gift, it’s going to be a joint effort to find it. Once we have this mindset in place, consider these actionable steps you can take with Spark, Set.. Go! to promote self-directed learning initiatives in your school.

Learners Need Structure

Think about this: In a classroom where every student is working on the same assignment, it is very easy to spot an off-task learner. It’s not nearly as easy in a classroom where everyone is doing something different, working on topics largely of their choosing with little to keep them focused on the task at hand. How might we keep students focused when the measurable result of progress is largely out of our control?

Let’s start a “Spark Deck” by choosing a topic. Framing it into a question that begins with “How might we” and includes a verb from the synthesis or evaluation portions of Bloom’s Taxonomy. A question in this formula makes the learner entirely responsible for the outcomes. It also directs them to do a very specific thing: construct, criticize, explain, improve, etc.. This focuses the student while allowing them to retain control of the learning process. Whether it be a Passion Project or a whole class PBL, the golden rule of the Go card is to make the question authentic. This card belongs to the learner.

If the Go card belongs to the learner, the Set card, which represents knowledge and skills, belongs to the teacher. With the goal of the project in place, brainstorm all of the things the learner needs to know to be able reach their goal. Boil this list into 5-7 items and place them in a logical sequence. The guiding question begins with “Can we”, includes the verb from the lower part of Bloom’s Taxonomy, and ends with the sub topic. These become the steps on the path for the student. As they progress through their inquiry, the Set cards provide guidance and ensure readiness to move forward through the project.

Spark Cards can be described as experiments or hands-on activities that give the learner a chance to apply their knowledge and skills. I disagree with the term “Guided Inquiry” because it implies that synthesis and evaluation comes with or without teacher support, or that the teacher plays a role in the learning, thereby taking ownership away from the student. I prefer what my friend Jim calls “Little i Inquiry”. The Spark Card is a chance to experiment with their ideas on how to tackle the Go Guiding Question. It’s a stop on the path, but a stop with a great view of where they have been, and where they are going.

The formula for a Spark Card guiding statement is simple. Begin with “Let’s”, follow with a verb from the middle of Bloom’s Taxonomy, and end with an activity, idea, or puzzle to solve or iterate on. Of the three, the Spark Cards will consume the most of your attention.

Feedback is King

Wouldn’t we love it if we could sit back and students bring us their questions and ideas? We could spend all of our time mentoring young minds and growing their curiosity with academic feedback. As easy as this might sound, I think this would be one of the hardest jobs in the world! We educators have become very accustomed to classroom routines and instructional design. The truth is students should work harder than the adults, but we adults should not take our roles for granted and assign work that discounts the importance of feedback. The strength of student work should be reflected by the strength of the teacher’s feedback.

Spark, Set.. Go! was built with feedback in mind. If we can organize the project in a way so the student can focus on their product, and the teacher can focus on the feedback, outcomes will increase. But what if we wanted to connect the learner with a mentor outside of the classroom for feedback? Can we do this and still respect the Walled Garden that exists to protect our student privacy? I think you will love what you find with Spark Suite.

Visualize the Process with Spark Suite

Spark Suite is a handful of Add-ons that plug into Google Sheets. These Add-ons will take the instructional content created with Spark, Set.. Go! and automate it, leaving the student and teacher the space to focus on what matters most: student products and teacher feedback. A single install of Spark Suite can handle tens of projects for hundreds (if not thousands) of students. Spark Suite can automatically keep track of badges and assign points and display these rewards to a group or individual. Teachers and mentors can stay on top of student progress with easy to understand tables that update themselves automatically. All that is needed is student product and teacher feedback.

Installing Spark Suite is easy. After installing the Add-ons to your account, open a fresh sheet and run “Spark Hub”. This “Hub” will connect with other sheets to keep your projects organized. Create a new sheet and name it after a Spark Deck activity you wish to use with your learners. Open the Spark Deck Add-on and enter in the details, including a link to your Spark Hub. The on-screen instructions make adding a Spark Deck easy. You can have as many different Spark Decks as you would like. Just create a new sheet for each, and don’t forget to include each sheet’s URL in the Spark Hub – the instructions will tell you how. This is literally all you have to do to automate the project’s feedback cycle.

Other Spark Suite Add-ons include Leaderboard, Badges, Community Builder and Project Tracker. Each is very easy to install! All you need to do is paste in the URL of your Hub sheet. Leaderboard and Badges do exactly what their name implies. Community Builder collects the best student responses in a document. Project Tracker displays a separate sheet for each project in your Hub, and lists each student and their progress. These Add-ons are entirely optional in the Spark Suite, but they help to make it easy for teachers and learners to stay on top of things and feel good about their work.

A note on student privacy: We chose to create Add-ons for GSuite because of the privacy protections that schools already have in place. We do not collect any data from users then Spark Suite is being used, and your student privacy is not compromised in any way by using Spark Suite.

Student Empowerment

Our end goal is student empowerment. If your students already feel ownership of their learning, and regularly engage in inquiry, then Spark, Set. Go! may not be something that you need in your toolkit. But if your students are underchallenged or needing motivation to learn, I invite you to explore your lessons through the cards and see if there are any actionable steps you can make today to enhance your curriculum. When you are ready to give your students a touch of freedom to explore inquiry, use the Spark Suite to organize your workflow. This will allow your students to focus on the great questions you ask, and allow you to focus on feedback. Your students will feel motivated and empowered, and you might too.


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