Our Expectations of Creative Genius

Ouch…I just re-read Ewan McIntosh’s post, “20% Time and Schools: Not the Best of Bedfellows.” I must say, as much as I respect his work, I disagree with most of this post. Especially this bolded line, jumping out at us in his first paragraph: But in schools, [20% Time] often seems to fall short of our expectations of creative genius.

When I started genius hour with my students in 2011, I did not have expectations of their creative genius. I had expectations that they would learn to learn and become more creative. That’s all! To go in with set expectations of what creative genius looks like in our students is dangerous to the advancement of creativity and innovation. Every one of us who dares to become a teacher better acknowledge the fact that we will have students smarter and more creative than ourselves. (At any age!)

Giving students time for genius hour is tantamount to creating a climate of creativity. It’s not about EXPECTING students to create works of genius, that I would then set against my standard of what hits the mark of genius. My goal is always that they will grow in creativity. Big difference! Ewan said, “…there are moments of genius…but they are by a small proportion of students, with the vast majority of ideas failing to hit the mark.”

From The Passion-Driven Classroom by Amy Sandvold and Angela Maiers
From The Passion-Driven Classroom by Amy Sandvold and Angela Maiers

Of course only a small percentage of students are going to produce amazing “genius” inventions in elementary or high school. Only a precious few 4-year-olds are going to spend hours begging the world, “Don’t kill animals,” like Hayley did as described in The Passion-Driven Classroom. Our students are not ALL going to be the next Albert Einsteins or Marie Curies or Steve Jobses or Grace Murray Hoppers. However, they can all grow more ingenious, inquisitive, original, flexible, adaptable, persistent, willing to take risks and live with ambiguity. If given enough time, they can become an expert in something they love, which leads to even more creativity, and possibly to genius inventions and problem-solving further down the road.

My goal in promoting genius hour is hopefully to help stop the insanity of coloring in the lines and getting candy for doing worksheets and lining up in straight rows and doing only what the teacher says. Remember, that’s dangerous, for many of our students will eventually out-think, out-learn, and out-perform their teachers. We have to encourage that to happen, not stifle it!

This fall I had the opportunity to talk to four new kindergarten students, all with different teachers. My standard question for them was, “Do you learn how to color in the lines in kindergarten?

“Oh, yes,” one said. “Some kids try to color too fast and just scribble to get done so they can do what the teacher said you could do after we finish coloring, like read a book, use the white boards, and stuff like that.” I heard something similar from all of these kindergarten friends.

Yes, kindergarten classrooms are full of amazing supplies and “stuff like that.” How about if we let them use these things, even before they color in the lines with colors that make sense? What would happen if we let them make some learning decisions about coloring or reading or writing on white boards or using Legos or making art or inventions or what have you? I know all the schools aren’t Montessori, but can’t we just let them have some time to have fun learning to learn what they want?

When I first started teaching, I thought second grade was about the age students began to lose some of the joy of school. It got too hard or too demanding or they fell behind in reading. Now it seems to be happening with more kindergarteners. All of a sudden, after two years of lining up to teacher expectations in preschool, they are already finished with the joy and now don’t like school in kindergarten! (Speaking of kindergarten, watch this great video about Lifelong Kindergarten.)

We need genius hour, not because Google or 3M does it. It’s not about taking products to market, as it is for these companies. Ewan suggests that 99% of the products that come from the business world’s 20% time are mediocre, but I disagree that you can transfer that statistic to schools. Student 20% time projects that “miss the mark” or fail to meet “OUR expectations of creative genius” are not chaff, but rather the good seeds of creation.

We are making citizens who can contribute and make a difference in the world. Genius hour gives students and teachers the gift of time to learn to be creative and remember their earlier love for learning.

Give students a class period, an hour, or 20% of their time to learn like this and watch the learning in the other 80%-95% of your week grow and blossom.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

14 thoughts on “Our Expectations of Creative Genius

  1. Denise,
    I worked for a week on what I wanted to say to Ewan – a man I met in person and from whom I learned a ton in one workshop. I love, love, love this blog post, however. You really poured your heart out and said what I think (I’m still working on my writing…). I love the fact that students might actually learn to love learning once again. I love that they can have SOME time afforded them to try to create. To give them precious time in class… doesn’t that show them that we value them? Doesn’t it show them that THEY matter? That’s what I’m going for. Same as you, of course. Thank you for writing your thoughts so eloquently, and for sharing your thoughts with teachers who may have doubts.

  2. Oh, Joy,
    Your comments and engagement with your PLN community are so inspiring. Thanks for reading and commenting. I did feel passionate about that one. Maybe more so about the coloring in the lines and all the candy I hear about little kids getting for doing homework or being “good” rather than Ewan’s post. But then I also don’t want teachers to get scared and take away that little time too.

    You are right, trusting them with their own learning does show them we value them–that is, THEM. They aren’t just valued when they jump through our created hoops.

    It is so refreshing and nurturing to have friends like you who know what I’m talking about and go for it with me! Thanks so much, friend!


  3. Thank you for pointing this article out, Denise. It bothers me that someone would post a negative and overly critical article about something I do not think they really understand at all. I wish I would have taken more time to write a more concise and more well written response, but I was rattled and out of time. My response to his post was:

    Wow! I could not disagree more. I normally like your articles and think you provide good insight, but I believe this article is way off the mark. Is this a practice that you have tried already in your classroom? If so, I wish you would have provided more concrete examples of what you thought went wrong during the process.

    I have been using the 20-time concept in my classroom for several years and have co-founded an interdisciplinary program that revolves around some of the concepts. This has been the most productive learning time and the most relevant and authentic learning time that I have experienced. It has been absolutely wonderful and has opened my eyes to so many things that became possible in the classroom including helping some students who do not like learning to get more enthused, to find that many of our “great” students are not great when given autonomous and self-directed time because they lack these extremely important life skills, and that passion mixed with altruism can lead to absolutely amazing projects that everyone in the class learns from.

    One of my main goals when teaching is to make sure that my students are ready to succeed in the future. I need to look these students in the eyes every day, so I really want to make sure I am preparing them for their future. I have thought about this for hundreds of hours, talked with over 100 businesses and organizations, researched, and discussed it with universities. There was a strong message that they need students who can collaborate, communicate, use inquiry skills, research, think critically and creatively, and most importantly…..”Learn how to Learn”.

    I have never seen a greater opportunity to teach these skills than through using the 20-time philosophy. If I am trying to teach students to do research, collaborate, use inquiry skills, etc…. why would I choose the topic for them? I have found that a LOT more authentic learning takes place when they can pick something that they are passionate about.

    The most common question that I am asked, is “How can you give up 20% of your class time, when most people have trouble covering all of the content within the year using 100% of the time”? My answer, is that I am not “giving up” 20% of my class time. I am using it to teach students how to think, ask, learn, discover and a ton of other amazing 21st century skills that I believe will better equip them for their future. After doing this, I have found that they ultimately know “how to learn” more effectively and are more empowered, engaged, and enthusiastic about learning so that I am able to accomplish way more in the remaining 80% of the time than I ever have in the past using 100% of the time.

    If you have tried this and it was unsuccessful, maybe you were going about it incorrectly. If you have not done it, I am not sure what empowers you to judge and criticize it. One thing that we teach our students during 20-time is to make sure that you have all of the information about your topic before you go in and start trying to explain it to others. I think this would be an example in which that philosophy was not used.

    20-time can offer an opportunity for some absolutely wonderful learning experiences if done correctly. I am positive.

    Oliver Schinkten

  4. Wow, that was quite a comment for being out of time! You were passionate, to be sure. My favorite paragraph answers well the question: “How can you give up 20% of your class time, when most people have trouble covering all of the content within the year using 100% of the time?” I love how you said it. I can’t agree more.

    That reminded me of a graphic I have for the Building Blocks for Success in the 21st Century. It’s part of the Iowa Core, but certainly every state and learner are using similar building blocks. http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrsdkrebs/8749680396/ And ALL these building blocks are a significant part of genius hour.

    In this post, I started to deal with the parts of Ewan’s post that I agreed with, like “robust self- and peer-assessment techniques” and “making sure that student-directed time is nonetheless tied to the vision of the project in hand, the core business of the class in that semester or term,” which I think is important and I have tried to do in history and science classes as I introduced more autonomy into the curriculum with what I called “researchers’ workshop.”

    Anyway, I figured later I might write another blog post about the good I took away from his post. For this one, though, I wanted to encourage any doubting teachers, as you have done here too. Thank you.


  5. That is a perfect response to McIntosh’s post. The bottom line is that school is not a commercial enterprise trying to produce the new, hot-selling commodity. Our goal is to produce learners, problem-solvers, and creative thinkers. More time needs to be dedicated to this in our schools – no matter what we call it.

    1. Thanks so much, Terri, for taking time to stop by and write a comment! So true–school is NOT a commercial enterprise. That’s why I prefer to liken what we do in school with what motivates human beings: autonomy, purpose, and mastery–as Dan Pink writes about, rather than Google’s business model.


  6. Hey Denise,
    I’m currently a student at The University of South Alabama, double majoring in Mathematics and Education. I’m currently taking a course called Edm310, essentially about utilizing technology in the classroom.

    I really enjoyed your post, and I’m glad there are teachers out there who have a focus time on creativity. I don’t recall having times deliberately given to me to be creative, but I do recall finishing my work as fast as possible to have free time. I am certain that I was the kid who would finish coloring something quickly to do something else.

    I like how you implement this process in creativity. In my personal opinion, the older we get the less focused we become on our creativity. We begin following orders and rules that fit the parameter. We remain “colors in the lines.” Even though we are taught to express ourselves, we still follow some sort of guidelines in doing so. Allowing for the imagination to expand is the only way for ingenious ideas to be realized.

    I’m certain that Sir Issac Newton, Galileo, Einstein, and all of the people we consider geniuses had vast amounts of imagination. Can you imagine discovering the laws of gravity or conjecturing that the earth revolved around the sun? The ideas were massively imaginative for the time period.

    I do, however, differ with your ideas in a few aspects. I would state that more than a few students can come up with genius inventions. I suspect all of them can and do. They may not be technological, but I think that providing an imagination allows for many other types of inventions to be created. We shouldn’t set standards simply because that in its self is limiting. I expect that all of your students may be coming up with incredible imaginative inventions. You just can’t see them all.

    Also, I understand the fear that Ewan McIntosh has. Though, I find his ideas about creativity a little under par, I can see why he was upset. Many students given an instant amount of free time when it hadn’t existed before would not use it to be creative. In fact, if this were to be implemented on high school students, I’m certain very little creativity would be gained. Simply because they wouldn’t see it as moment of genius, but rather a moment to do something conventionally found as fun and non productive.

    As I’m beginning to see in my education class, technology is a double edged sword. On one hand, we now have accessibility to infinite amounts of knowledge. While on the other, we are creating a generation that can’t/won’t think for themselves. A “Google it” generation. I’m sure you have seen a facebook meme that was incredibly inaccurate but has several million “likes” and several hundred thousand comments. Technology has made some people lazy enough where they won’t even fact check them, and I’m certain they have the free time to do so.

    I am very glad that you have a “genius hour.” I think expanding the imagination is the most important thing we do as teachers. But, I think that a small guideline in the forefront would prove beneficial. My imagination personally works best when something strikes up my attention. It can simply be watching an anime, reading a book, working a math problem, seeing a piece of art, or having an intellectual conversation. I’m not sure how to directly incorporate this, but I’m certain there is a way. You don’t have to even ask a question necessarily.

    It was a very lovely post, that got my imagination soaring. Thank you for sharing.

    Thomas Leytham

  7. Great post Denise! I think the point that Ewan might have missed is that the end all be all is not students “hitting the mark” or missing it. Regardless of the outcome of the actual project, 20% time teaches our students skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century workplace…critical thinking, adaptability, collaboration, and many more.

    I also wholeheartedly agree with your closing statement. Allowing that 20% creates a more engaged, motivated and independent learner the other 80% of the time.

  8. Denise,

    Thank you for writing this post! I have some notes of my own that I was going to turn into a response, but maybe I don’t have to anymore because this is just spot-on!

    Towards the end, you say:

    “We are making citizens who can contribute and make a difference in the world. Genius hour gives students and teachers the gift of time to learn to be creative and remember their earlier love for learning.”


    It is about taking the time to foster curiosity and a love of learning in our students!

    It is not about the name, “genius hour” or the amount of hours (20% or whatever)…it truly is about celebrating creativity, wonder and our students’ passions!

    Thank you for taking the time to write this. And thank you to all of the thoughtful people who took the time to write long comments above. You all push my thinking and I appreciate you!

  9. Two words for you Mrs. Krebs—-YOU MATTER! I can’t decide which emotion to articulate first—I am moved. I am proud. I am honored to call you a colleague and a friend.

    Every single student needs and deserves a teacher like you and every teacher I know would be honored to teach beside you.

    I have a response coming to Ewan’s post as well as he is not the first to articulate the confusion and purpose of “Genius Hour”. Know you will be quoted!

    To watch you grow as a learner and a leader has been an absolute joy and privilege. So thrilled we are living in a time where the world can celebrate with me!!

    Well done!

  10. Denise,

    Thank you for replying to my Tweet and sharing this well-written and passionate response. I just finished reading “Open” by David Price (which is excellent) and Ewan is mentioned in the book, so I was reading through his blog when I came across the post on 20% time.

    I appreciate your response,

  11. Thanks for posting this, and sorry that I’ve not been able to reply before now – I missed this first time around.

    One of the biggest challenges for me in the feedback I had on my post was that lots of people read the headline and introduction, and didn’t read through to the end. Oliver admitted to being one of them, and has retracted his comments on my blog.

    The key point I was making was this: 20% time is a great START, but it is not the end-game if a whole school is seeking creativity throughout the learning of youngsters, even in those ‘academic’ subjects where creativity, currently in the US, tends to take a back seat.

    My success criteria for creativity is that, while it may start as 10, 15, or 20% of the time as a distinct element of teaching and learning, we find ways to expand these attitudes, tactics and ways of planning more generative thinking into ALL that we teach and learn.

    Far from being a criticism of 20% time, I’m saying it’s a great start on the journey towards a more creative class or more creative school. It’s just not the end-game.

    And does creativity have a success criterion attached to it? In learning it has to. Kids have to know “what a good one looks like”, they have to have some sense of achievement in what they do. “Being creative” but producing poorer quality work that one is capable of is not fun for anyone. How are these success criteria defined? They are SHARED, designed together with students. This process of sharing the defining of learning or creativity objectives and success criteria, coupled with sharing strategies for students to improve on their creative output ties in incredibly strongly to what we know works for learning across the board. These are the foundations of strong formative assessment.

    Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as instating a block of time to ‘be creative’, as some of the best Genius Hour examples show. It’s not just about the creative attitudes of young people, either: I’m convinced that many of the skills teachers learn from introducing the process are skills that they can and do replicate in other parts of the curriculum. THIS has a powerful potential, but I’d love to hear more about those teacher skills and strategies, and how they spread into other areas of the curriculum. That’s what I’m feeling we’re short of in this community.

    1. That’s the real question; does creativity have a success criterion attached to it? How you go about assessing creativity in school is key! In the past, I have used Bloom’s to assess multi-intelligences (knowing, thinking, inquiry, research, application…) and base most (80% of all work) on the process. How kids make decisions, inquiry… To me, this is what puts the Art in Artist!

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