“I have a student who says that he isn’t passionate about anything. I ask him what he’s interested in, and what he does outside of school, but the answer is always the same: nothing. What do I do with a kid like that?”
The above snippet was part of a much larger conversation about Genius Hour that took place during an edcamp event I attended this spring. Genius Hour, Passion Projects, 20% Time, or whatever label it is given, isn’t a new concept, but it has gained momentum as a way to increase student voice and choice in the classroom. Once teachers begin to believe in the reasons behind Genius Hour, it isn’t uncommon for their good intentions and belief in the basic principles to be tested by a student like the one referred to in the quote above. When a teacher shares their experience with such a student, they are often wrestling with an assumption that lies just beneath the surface of his or her frustration: students in school must do something; nothing is not an option. As I did during the edcamp session, I respectfully disagree. Just as doing something does not guarantee learning; doing nothing does not mean no learning.
After years of experience with an education that relies heavily on compliance and external motivation, is it any wonder that students are wary when a teacher tries to hand over more control (and responsibility)? Student reactions to Genius Hour vary widely, but even the most hopeful, positive student wonders, “What’s the catch?” It is a certainty that some students will not choose a passion because they don’t understand the concept, don’t know how to make the choice, or are nervous about “doing it wrong.” These students can usually be helped with some coaching/teaching aided by resources such as the Genius Hour livebinder. It is the student who seemingly refuses to choose that truly tests the resolve and philosophy of the teacher who advocates for student choice.
I don’t wish to oversimplify, for people and motivations are complex , but in my experience, most students who refuse to choose are influenced by a combination of two factors: disbelief and disavowal. They don’t completely believe that they can choose whatever they want, and they don’t want the responsibility for directing their own learning. The two factors may be mixed in different proportions, but generally they are both present in any student who persistently deflects any attempts to help them. There isn’t a type, but don’t be surprised if the student who rejects Genius Hour and other forms of student-centred learning is a bright underachiever, someone who doesn’t like to play the compliance games in school.
So, it is time to get back to the question of the frustrated teacher, “What do I do with a kid like that?” My answer is, “Honour his choice.” Show him that you really do give him the respect and authority to choose by allowing him to refuse to participate…and then keep trying to encourage him to participate. Make it your Genius Hour project to get to know him without a hint of compliance pressure. I’ll repeat the hard part: without a hint of compliance pressure. Keep the conversation going; keep the invitation open.
As long as we connect the student’s choices to relevant, natural consequences and keep the lines of communication with the student and her home open, then we have created the environment for learning. Perhaps some of the most important learning the student will experience will come from doing nothing. She will learn that you keep your word. She will learn how to build a relationship with an adult. She will learn that you respect her and that she is the one primarily in charge of her education.
If we truly wish to foster independent learners and believe that compliance is not the way to do it, then we must allow students the power to choose nothing.