Deeper Learning: Genius Hour, Makerspaces, and PBL

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Recently Harlan County Schools invited the Morehead Writing Project and Bath County Middle School to lead a professional development session for teachers interested in the transformation of Bath County Middle School into a makerschool (sponsored by an Innovators Challenge Grant). This session inspired me to write a post about the concept of Deeper Learning and why I like to use it as an umbrella term for the more commonly used makerspace, genius hour, and PBL.

What is Deeper Learning?

On Edutopia, Jennifer Kabaker describes deeper learning as helping students master academic content, communicate and collaborate effectively, think critically, and become life-long learners. On InformED, Saga Briggs describes deeper learning as combining in-depth academic knowledge and skills with the belief that students must also master communication skills, learn to collaborate effectively, and manage their own learning.

Deeper learning is grounded by an in-depth mastery of academic content embedded in learning experiences that support communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and lifelong learning.

My question is why doesn’t every educator know about this and practice this? Of course, many educators do (both), but the reality is that too few administrators are as willing as those in Bath County (and Harlan County) to step away from traditional education (especially in today’s fraught political landscape where education is devalued and attacked at every turn). I wish more educators and administrators would understand that deeper learning is an enhancement of traditional education, but that is a battle for another day.

Of course, once we understand deeper learning then we are left with how we make it happen — and this is where ideas such as makerspace, genius hour, and PBL come into play.

What is a Makerspace?

Makerspaces.com describes a makerspace simply as a collaborative work space for making, learning, exploring, and sharing. However, Makerspace For Education describes a makerspace as a mindset. On Cult of Pedagogy, John Spencer describes a makerspace as “a space designed and dedicated to hands-on creativity” where things are made.

A makerspace is both a collaborative work space and a state of mind that leads to the creation of some product.

A makerspace can live in the corner of a classroom or its own space. Many makerspaces occupy dedicated spaces in a library or tutoring and learning center while others are mobile and can be easily wheeled into place to transform any space into a makerspace. Makerspaces can include lots of technology, hand tools, or simple craft supplies. There are no definite rules as the makerspace equipment is driven by the people who use it and the questions they choose to explore.

Two important guidelines for educators to keep in mind are that this space should be collaborative so students can share ideas and ask questions about individual projects as well as work together on join projects. Makerspaces are not quiet spaces. However, makerspaces are also not meant to be free play. Exploration and experimentation should be driven by curiosity and inquiry. While that inquiry might be as simple as learning how to work with a green screen or seeing how tall you can build a toothpick structure, there should be some guiding question and some result (even if it is a spectacular failure that requires you to fetch a broom to sweep up all your toothpicks).

Some teachers and students thrive in a makerspace, but this concept can be challenging because it requires space in your classroom and your schedule as well as your brain (for both teacher and students). It can require a lot of time and attention to make an effective transition to the makerspace mindset.

What is Genius Hour?

The genius hour concept shares much with makerspace, but also offers more structure and can be an easier transition for teachers and students.

On Cult of Pedagogy, A.J. Juliani describes genius hour as a certain amount of time that teachers set aside for students to learn about whatever they want. On Edutopia, Nicole Carter points out that genius hour is personalized instruction. On Teach Thought, Terry Heick explains that genius hour is self-directed learning built around student curiosity.

Genius hour is dedicated time that teachers give to their students to choose what they will study.

Just like makerspace, student curiosity and choice are key, but in genius hour there is usually more structure with the expectation that students will eventually choose a driving question that will lead to a showcase of their study. Many teachers give their students complete control over their topic, focus, and final product, but provide a structured process, including a timeline or deadlines and reflection expectations, to support students during their inquiry.

What is PBL?

The “P” in PBL can actually stand for different things although more commonly it is known as project-based learning. I like to think of it as passion-based learning while others prefer problem-based learning. Feel free to use the “P” that works best for you and your students as well as your specific class context. For example, you may go with a more genius hour approach that leads to passion projects or perhaps you prefer a makerspace offering opportunities to explore problems in your discipline or community or you want to challenge students to create projects of their choice while meeting certain parameters.

Cult of Pedagogy describes PBL as a long-term project solving a real-world problem in a creative and authentic way. Edutopia describes PBL as a dynamic classroom approach in which students actively explore real-world problems and challenges while acquiring deeper knowledge. The Buck Institute for Education defines PBL as extended student projects engaged in solving a real-world problem or answering a complex question.

PBL is a project exploring a complex real-world problem in search of creative and innovative solutions that culminates by sharing the findings with an authentic audience.

As with genius hour, students are expected to demonstrate their knowledge and skills by developing a public product or presentation for a real audience. However, PBL can be easily customized to fit within existing classes, often as a culminating event for a semester or year, or within a specific unit of study. Typically there are a series of checkpoints or milestones where students will report on the status of their project and/or reflect about their learning as well as the final product or presentation.

The wonderful and frightening thing about deeper learning is that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Each teacher is free to adopt and adapt the approaches of others and/or forging a new path. As long as you honor student choice, real-world problems, and authentic audience then you are heading in the right direction. Just be aware that incorporating deeper learning into your classroom is a messy journey where you will make mistakes just as your students will make mistakes.

What is your definition for deeper learning? What differences do you see among makerspace, genius hour, and PBL? How do you want to use makerspace, genius hour, and PBL in your classroom?

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