ISTE Teaching Standard 1: Aligning a Genius Hour with Curriculum Standards

This quarter in my graduate studies in Digital Educational Leadership at Seattle Pacific University, I am exploring the ISTE Teaching Standards as a follow up to my study of the ISTE Student Standards last quarter. I am beginning with a look at ISTE Teaching Standard 1, which centers on facilitating and inspiring student learning and creativity.

Caine’s Arcade is often highlighted as an example of what can happen when young minds are given the ability to explore their own passions. Many educators, including myself, wonder how they can foster the same type of creativity and student-driven learning seen in Caine in our own students. One method has been a practice called Genius Hour, which follows the example of companies like Google, who have been known to encourage employees to devote 20% of their work time to passion projects. As such, this method of inquiry-based learning is also sometimes referred to as 20% time. Like Google employees, students are given regular allocations of time to explore topics of their own interest, a deviation from only participating in teacher-driven lessons. Personalized learning like this can intrinsically motivate students and fosters the skills needed to become a lifelong learner. There is research to support that students who are given the opportunity to personalize their learning show achievement growth. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (2014) specifically found that personalized learning had a significant impact on reading and math achievement.

So, what does a genius hour look like in a classroom?  My first round of research led me to the Genius Hour website, which includes a helpful video overview, as well as a wealth of resources implementation including how to introduce the concept and set expectations for students. The implementation of a genius hour facilitates and inspires student creativity and innovation as outlined in ISTE Teaching Standard 1. Initially, it seems exciting to release students like freed butterflies to explore a world of information online. However, one might wonder how to also remain focused on ensuring students learn and master standards and benchmarks.

How can educators implement the idea of a genius hour, to promote and support innovative and individualized learning, while still focusing students on necessary standards-based curriculum?

Donhauser, Hersey, Stutzman and Zane (2014) wrote a series of articles outlining their Inquiry Learning Plan. Their plan provided helpful guidelines for how to shift the role of teachers from the often referred to “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side” and foster autonomous students, who are developing lifelong learning skills. The sea of knowledge available online creates a ripe environment for today’s students to practice honing research skills needed to both find and synthesize information.  And, when students are also given the ability to develop their own questions, they are part of an authentic learning process and are more likely to engage in both the process and content according to Padilla Vigil and Mieliwocki (2015), authors of “Genius Hour: A Learner-Centered Approach to Increasing Rigor in the Classroom.” Although students are leading their own investigation of personal interests, teachers still need to provide structure and determine the end goal as part of good backwards design (Donhauser et al., 2014). The role of the teacher is to provide crucial support and define the goal, but not necessarily the path to get there (Padilla Vigil & Mieliwocki, 2015).

Aligning Standards

I envision standards-based curriculum aligning with a genius hour program in one of two ways. One method would be to assign a curricular theme to the genius hour. For example, my students just finished a unit on feudal Japan. After completing our textbook-driven studies, students had lingering curiosities about topics not covered in class. These lingering curiosities could be harnessed to pose research questions. My students might pose questions about Samurai fighting techniques, Japanese tea ceremony practices, or common entertainment such as Noh theater. No matter the specific topic, educators could choose skills-based standards to assess students, and leave the research and final project open to student choice. For example, the Common Core Writing Standard for seventh grade,  “CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.7 Conduct short research projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions for further research and investigation,” could easily align with a such a project. Similarly, the Common Core Speaking and Listening Standard for seventh grade, “CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.7.4 Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with pertinent descriptions, facts, details, and examples; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation” could also be appropriately aligned assessed with genius hour presentations.

Donhauser et al. (2015) suggested assigning the entire class the same learning standard(s) the first time an inquiry-based project is assigned. When the whole class is working towards the same standard(s), educators can “ask students to consider what a range of work with a standard might look like and then develop a rubric for that standard” (Donhauser et al., 2015, p. 9). From here, students can envision the types of work that fulfill important requirements, but also allow for individualized creativity (Donhauser et. al., 2015, p. 9). As students become more comfortable with the process, educators can shift the project towards the inclusion of student-selected standards instead (Donhauser et al., 2015). Students can decide which standards they need to improve on and align them with their individual research and project. Engaging students in the standards continues to build student autonomy in the process (Donhauser et al., 2015). And as my fellow graduate colleague @ingersoll_ryan pointed out, putting students in the driver seat can also help them to build project management skills necessary in any future career.

An alternate approach I might take would be to address a more specific, content-based standard. Since I teach Washington State history to my seventh grade students, I could focus on a standard such as, “EALR 4: HISTORY 4.4.1 Understands that significant historical events in Washington State have implications for current decisions.” Compared to the previous example, this one is certainly more focused, but the options for student inquiry are still vast and could allow for student interest to drive the inquiry.

Educator’s Role

Once a standard is aligned, what is the educator’s role in facilitating a genius hour? Padilla Vigil and Mieliwocki (2015) outline a three-phase process: Posing a Research Question, The Knowledge Quest, and Sharing Knowledge. The student-created research question is the first place that educators are needed as facilitators to guide the question formation. Guiding students through the process of how to craft essential and guiding questions can set them up for success early on. The research process is expectedly challenging for students, as research skills take years to master. Challenges and frustrations are an expected piece of implementing a genius hour program. Students may want to give up and return to a teacher-directed model of learning because it is more comfortable, but guiding students in their inquiries will help to alleviate some of this stress and will ultimately foster growth (Donhauser et al., 2014).

Promoting Collaboration

Finally, the sharing phases provides an opportunity for collaboration, perhaps even on a global scale. Students can practice collaborative skills by making connections with experts in their research phase, and by sharing their final or emerging projects with others in a wiki or blog for example. Quadblogging is one such tool that could provide a collaborative and global forum for students to share their genius hour work with others, and practice digital citizenship skills in the process. Quadblogging specifically might be an appropriate choice for my students due to its controlled environment, which is monitored by teachers and doesn’t require student email addresses. Students can use this digital tool to practice digital citizenship skills, and most significantly gain a global perspective on some of their findings by students who may or may not have researched similar topics. Students might revise their ideas based upon varying global perspectives previously unexamined (Boss, 2012). The notion of sharing their work with other students may also entice students to produce higher quality material (Boss, 2012). Quadblogging wouldn’t limit students to only writing about their research. Students could also upload or link to varied creative work instead. Again my colleague, @ingersoll_ryan had valid feedback for me by noting that it is important to continue to provide a safe setting for students to both fail and learn from their failure. Given the potential for frustration and failure in any inquiry process, sharing what is learned from failure is an important part of this collaborative process.

Final Thoughts

After continuing to discuss my work this week with my cohort, it seemed that the takeaway with a genius hour is the loosening of educator control. Educators must continue to put the students in the driver seat. My colleague @MrsBTodd was curious of how a genius hour truly differs from a typical inquiry-based research project. The one major difference appears to be the regular devotion of time. It is not a singular event or singular project, but a model is significant. No matter what, it is important to tailor a project like this to the needs of your particular students. Some students might benefit most from a lot of freedom, while others might need more structure and scaffolding in order to be productive.

I used a Coggle to represent my thought process and reflection on ISTE Teaching Standard 1.
I used a Coggle to represent my thought process and reflection on ISTE Teaching Standard 1.


Boss, S. (2012, September 25). Quadblogging connects student writers with global audiences. Retrieved from

Donhauser, M., Hersey, H., Stutzman, C., & Zane, M. (2014). Inquiry learning: the starting point. School LIbrary Monthly, 31(2), 8-10. 

Donhauser, M., Hersey, H., Stutzman, C., & Zane, M. (2015). Inquiry learning plan: the role of standards. School LIbrary Monthly, 31(4), 8-11.

Juliani, A.J. (2013, June 25). Why “20% time” is good for schools.Retrieved from

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards for english language arts: Seventh grade. Retrieved from

Padilla Vigil, V., & Mieliwocki, R. (2015). Genius hour: a learner-centered approach to increasing rigor in the classroom. Instructor, 124(5), 45-47.

Provenzano, N. (2013, October 29). Just ask: harnessing the power of student curiosity. Retrieved from

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (2014). Early progress: interim research on personalized learning. Retrieved from

Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, Teaching and Learning/Social Studies Education. (2013). Washington state k-12 social studies learning standards. Retrieved from


4 thoughts on “ISTE Teaching Standard 1: Aligning a Genius Hour with Curriculum Standards

  1. I wasn’t familiar with the Genius Hour until I read your post. Caine’s Arcade was a great example of this ISTE standard. I impressed how you connected the state learning standards to the genius hour and that students are given a choice to develop their own inquiries based on their needs.
    I do understand the concerns about having a structured classroom but the genius hour seems to provide more of an “organized chaos” type of learning environment. Students are provided time to create and investigate on their own but still under the guidance of a teacher.
    I would be interested in learning more about using Quadblogging as a collaboration tool for students to share their project with other students. Great job, Annie!

  2. I like the connections you’ve made between Genius Hour, personalized learning, and standards-based education. I also think that the ability to blog and reflect will allow students to solidify and further connect to their learning. These types of experiences seem to be part of a larger movement that will redefine the role of teacher in the classroom. If you do a Genius Hour in your classroom, I’m eager to hear how it goes!

  3. Thanks for your post, Annie. I really feel like I understand the idea, purpose and vision of Genius Hour through your explanations and discovery process. I think this would be such a rich opportunity for students, the ability to follow their passions will keep them excited and curious (two things that generally fall away from education as students get older). I like that you were paying attention to your students’ curiosities and want to devote attention to those questions instead of just powering through and ignoring the curiosity that should be driving education. Very good job!

  4. A great post all around, Annie! I found myself most impressed with the final paragraph. You remind educators that not all students are the same and that often we must remember to adapt our best laid plans to see how we can support them–with structure and/or freedom–so they succeed. This is a good reminder for myself!!!

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