Make no mistake, innovative learning experiences like Genius Hour are not always unicorns and rainbows. In fact, this type of learning can get really messy and feel uncomfortable for both teachers and students. You see, passion-based learning requires everyone to assume different roles in the classroom and the reality is that that is much easier said than done. Teachers must become facilitators and give learners the opportunity to learn by doing, experience real struggle, and figure things out on their own. Learners must be willing to drive their own learning, ask questions, and push through their struggle in order to figure things out on their own.
When first embarking on an innovative learning experience, everyone will be excited. It's new, it's novel, and it's different. All of those those things make it easy to dive right in. However, after diving in, it quickly becomes evident that this is not just fun and games, it's hard work. It involves a give and take that we aren't comfortable with in education and requires everyone involved to see learning through a new perspective.
I have recently learned of the book, The Messy Middle, by Scott Belsky. Learning that the "messy middle" is a reality that so many people experience had me really thinking about how to survive the messy middle of Genius Hour. What do you do when things get hard? What should happen when both educators and students are uncomfortable? How do you continue to move forward when everything in you is saying to go back to what you've always known and what has always "worked" in your classroom?
There are certain things that you can do to stay the course, stay focused, and continue to the do the work that will ultimately result in your learners being given the opportunity to learn by doing through pursuing their passions during the school day. Below are five easy things to remember when (not if) you find yourself in the messy middle...
1. Endure the lows and optimize the highs. Scott Belsky says, "Every advance reveals a new shortcoming. Your job is to endure the lows and optimize the highs to achieve a positive slope within the jaggedness of the messy middle — so that, on average, every low is less low than the one before it, and every subsequent high is a little higher.”
This makes so much sense to me. Believe me, there will be lows. Passion-based learning is messy. But enduring those lows so that you can optimize the highs is worth every single shortcoming that is revealed. Be willing to learn from those lows and then get excited when a high comes along. Optimize those highs by celebrating, talking about them, and reflecting on what has been learned. In doing so, you will be able to sustain that positive slope and continue to move forward as you create new learning opportunities for your students.
2, Rely on your connections. Connecting to others is a vital part of being innovative in your classroom. Those connections will be your sounding board, have your back and hold you accountable as you try new things and take risks. Not everyone will understand the why behind what you are doing when it comes to passion-based learning. You will be asked hard questions, forced to defend why Genius Hour is a priority, and may even be misunderstood until Genius Hour is seen for what it is (which is a real opportunity for students to learn by doing as they pursue their passions during the school day). Connecting with others who have survived or are currently experiencing the messy middle, understand why you are doing what you are doing, and believe in the opportunity for students to pursue their passions will result in real collaboration. Connect with other educators on Twitter using #geniushour and be willing to share what is working, what isn't working, and where you are in your Genius Hour journey. We are all so much better together and being honest and vulnerable gives us the real opportunity to learn and grow together.
3. Pay attention. Optimizing the highs can only happen if you recognize them. Pay attention during Genius Hour to the conversations that are happening, the connections that are made, and the creativity that is sparked. It might even be a good idea to keep a journal of these things so that when things get hard you can be reminded of why you are making this a priority. Look for opportunities to weave standards and real-life skills into the learning experience. Ask questions about what your students are working on and what they are learning in the process. Pay attention to how everyone feels, how you feel, and what you might be able to do support, encourage, and inspire your learners as they take risks and try new things.
4. Keep moving forward. I always say that the messy middle can feel a bit like quicksand. You feel like your sinking and there are so many things pulling you under. The only way to escape quicksand is to continue moving forward. If you panic and begin to thrash around, you will sink. If you stay put and do nothing, you will sink. However, if you are willing to stay calm and immerse yourself in the water by floating on your back and paddling, you will be able to survive. Be willing to immerse yourself in innovative learning experiences. Don't panic when things don't go exactly as planned and don't give up. Instead, stay calm, learn all that you can, and take risks to continue move toward that positive slope with those jagged edges of both highs and lows.
5. Share your success! It's so important that we share our successes. The reality is that it it's just as important to share our failures. For me, I shared the 6 Ps of Genius Hour because the process was something that worked in my classroom. I was in the messy middle and we were struggling. My students were lost and I was spending so much time managing the process of Genius Hour that I was missing opportunities to help my learners make connections. When I realized that the 6 Ps of Genius Hour made the process both manageable and meaningful, I began to share them with anyone that would listen and eventually wrote about them in Genius Hour: Passion Projects that Ignite Innovation and Student Inquiry. They changed everything for me and sharing them helped others understand how the process might help them as well.
There you have it...5 simple steps to survive the messy middle of Genius Hour. The reality is that if you give you up, no one wins. Realize that you are never alone and it's not supposed to be easy. Be willing to endure the lows and make it a priority to optimize the highs to make Genius Hour all that it can and should be for you and your learners. Before you know it, you will be on the other side of the messy middle and so thankful that you didn't give up.
Want to learn more about the 6 Ps of Genius Hour?
Check out the ONLINE COURSE or the Genius Hour Page on my website!