Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Tweaking Genius Hour: The Benefits of Limiting Choice

Genius Hour is about finished this semester and I realize I've completely neglected my blog.  So I'll try to post three or four times the rest of this semester on some of the big impressions I've observed.

Last semester (Spring 2014), I implemented Genius Hour in my Civics, World History, and Geography classes.   One of the components of Genius Hour is to provide student choice over the subject matter.  Last year, I learned, however, that there could be too much choice.

I'd already known that too much choice can be bad, however.  Though I'd never read it, I was aware of a book called The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz (he also has a Ted Talk) in which he argues that too much choice paralyzes someone.  He argues, instead, that it would better off that instead of dozens of options of shampoo at Wal-mart or 5000 pairs of shoes on Amazon that we only had four or five.  Also, because a person is aware that there is so much choice, he or she often regrets the choice they do make because there seems to be so many other appealing alternatives.  Any limiting of choice, however, creates a tricky paradox in the realm of the political economy because the choices are available because there is a market for them.  People want choice and even though that choice can lead to some negative consequences, the alternative of too much control can be much worse (ask anyone who has lived under communism).

Fortunately, I'm not dealing with a national political economy, I'm dealing with my classroom.  And in my smaller world, things are much clearer and Schwartz's paradox doesn't have the same type of deleterious consequences.  Last year, when I introduced Genius Hour, some students were overwhelmed because they could choose any topic that interested them.  In fact, it took some students two or three Genius Hour periods to settle upon a topic and other students changed their topics several times.  Last year, I quickly noticed this was a problem, but since some students had had no problem with the wide range of choice, had selected their topic (many of which were very interesting and creative), and were eagerly researching it, I decided not to construct parameters mid-stream.  Instead, I simply helped those students who were struggling, narrow their choice.

This year, in order to prevent students from being overwhelmed, while still providing them a wide range of choice, I limited them to the subject we were studying.  For example, in World History students were limited to topics about World History before the year 1600 or in Geography they were limited to studying a particular place in the world.  Besides providing some boundaries, I had students do a couple activities that would help them identify a topic.  First, I had students examine the table of contents and write down five historical eras or topics that interested them.  From that list, I had students look through those particular chapters or sections.  As they examined their topics, they gradually narrowed it down.  As they were doing this, I circulated the room helping students that needed it.  At this stage in the process, students didn't need a tremendous amount of help.  In fact, they were very eager in pursuing this part of the task.

Once they selected the topic, I wanted to help them narrow their topic.  For example, instead of a student doing a project on Ancient Rome or Australia, I wanted to narrow it down to a particular person or event.  For the most part, this was not an issue and most students quickly arrived at a topic, some completely on their own and some with a little guidance from me.

I will continue doing Genius Hour in my classroom next semester and I will most definitely provide some very broad guidelines for students in the selection of their topics because of how successful it has been this semester.