INNOpod #3: Genius Hour with Nicholas Provenzano


The subject of Personalized Learning is central to the work of The Center on Innovations in Learning (CIL). CIL has provided a wide variety of resources on this topic, and its staff have for some time now been thinking about, writing about, and practicing Personalized Learning. The emergence of educational technology–from apps to devices to assessments to digital portfolios–is rapidly expanding the possibilities for children and their learning. These are exciting times but they can also be overwhelming times. The intersection of technology and interpersonal relationships–student to teacher, student to student, student to parent–is a fine mingling, not an exchange. We consider it our job to help you figure it out.

This INNOpod, Genius Hour, introduces just a slice of the work that is occurring in partnership between the Center on Innovations in Learning, the Michigan Department of Education, and the Great Lakes Comprehensive Center. Michigan has made the provision of greater personalization for student learning a priority in its state and has established state-level expectations, structures, and services to support its districts and schools in making it a reality for every Michigan student. We are excited to build upon this important work and share it with educators throughout the country who are also in pursuit of greater personalization for their students’ learning. We would like to thank Nicholas Provenzano, a high school English teacher at Grosse Pointe South High School in Grosse Point, Michigan, for lending his time and expertise to this project.

1. Introduction

If you haven’t already, be sure to review INNOpod #1: Personalized Learning. There, you will begin to connect so much of what you already do as an educator to the emerging and expanding practice of making learning personal for every child.

You will also want to download these three documents to process the information included in this INNOpod and plan for your next steps:

  1. These Reflection + Idea Pages correspond to the segments included in this INNOpodThe purpose of these pages is to help you to process your thinking and learning so that the planning and action is a natural next step.
  2. This Personalized Learning Indicators of Effective Practice Checklist will make it easy for you to identify those Indicators you observe in action throughout this INNOpod. We will provide it in both Word and PDF so that you can adapt and adjust it to meet the needs of your state, school, classroom, teachers, and students.
  3. This  Next Steps and Planning Guide will help you to move from processing to planning and action.

Please take a moment to complete the first activity on the Reflection + Idea Pages before moving on.


We’ve provided trusted, reliable, and informative content that will:

  1. Help you understand the research behind personalized learning with straightforward, plain language.
  2. Give you specific practices (and the supporting research) that will get you on your way to making learning more personal for your students.
  3. Show you what you’re already doing that is pretty personalized but also point out where there is opportunity to get even better.
  4. Provide you with video examples of teachers and their SPECIFIC practices for personalizing learning.
  5. Stockpile your resource library with high-quality, Center on Innovations in Learning-approved articles, research, and action steps related to the practice.
  6. Connect the practices with specific how-I-did-it insights directly FROM YOUR COLLEAGUES who are doing it.
  7. Finally, show you where people are sharing about it on social media {if you’re curious} and show you how to join in the conversation {if you’re interested}.

3. The Framework for Understanding Personalized Learning + the Vocabulary to Talk About It, Plan For It, Implement It, and Assess It

We first introduced these indicators of effective practice in INNOpod #1: Personalized Learning and INNOpod #2: Flipped Classroom. But they are worth reintroducing. These Personalized Learning Effective Practices and Indicators, developed and published by the Center on Innovations in Learning, provide you with an important framework for organizing your understanding of personalized learning and also your practice of it. We’ve converted them into a checklist for ease of documenting what you observe throughout this INNOpod and in your own schools and classrooms.

Spend a few minutes reviewing them and then pay attention to their application throughout this in-depth focus on one teacher’s use of the Genius Hour to make learning more personal for her students.

4. What Is A Genius Hour (Or 20% Time, or Passion Project)?

Genius Hour is categorized under the umbrella of blended learning.

From Wikipedia:

Blended learning is an educational program (formal or informal)  that combines online digital media with traditional classroom methods. It requires the physical presence of both teacher and student, with some element of student control over time, place, path, or pace.

GENIUS HOUR is also sometimes referred to as 20-Time or Passion Project. It originated from innovative companies, like Google, where employees are given 20 percent of their time at work to conduct research and pursue projects of their own interest. You may have heard of Gmail or Google News…well, they are all products of Genius Hour. Seeing the potential for making learning personal for children, this system is now used in many classrooms to allow students to explore their interests and investigate their burning questions.

Every educator who successfully uses Genius Hour will tell you that it is not enough to just allot the time. In conducting my own research on this topic, here are some of the elements that successful Genius Hour systems have in common:

  • Inquiry: students formulate a question that drives their work
  • Research: students organize and plan for how to go about answering their question and gathering information about their topic from multiple angles from trusted and varied sources
  • Prototyping: students develop an outline, plan, or blueprint for the product they will create or the process they will demonstrate related to their question and the information they gathered
  • Creating: students build, write, or develop a product that demonstrates their learning
  • Presenting: students present their findings and/or their product to others

Watch this brief video that describes Genius Hour.

We’ve curated more research and additional resources that you will find further down in the INNOpod but we don’t want to wait another minute to introduce you to Nicholas Provenzano, a high school English teacher at Grosse Pointe South High School in Grosse Point, Michigan. You do not need to be a teacher to be informed and inspired by what Nicholas shares with us here. If you are a human being with an interest or a question or a passion, get ready–because Nicholas is going to inspire you to get after it and give you some practical tips on how to make time for it.


About Nicholas: In 2014, Nicholas was interviewed by CNN about his use of Genius Hour and what it meant for the kind of teaching he had always done. You can access that article here: Genius Hour: What Kids Can Learn From Failure.  

Nicholas has created a very complete webinar that will show you exactly how he plans for, implements, and assesses the Genius Hour system in his classroom. We’ve also conducted an in-depth interview with Nicholas, which you can listen to or read further down in the INNOpod. You can also check out his latest book: Your Starter Guide to Makerspaces.

Once again, this Personalized Learning Indicators Checklist will help you to keep track of the indicators as you observe them throughout Nicholas’s presentation—both as it relates to his instruction and especially to his students’ learning.

There is also plenty of blank space in your Reflection + Idea Tool for more general note-taking as well.

5. How Nicholas Provenzano Began to Solve Every Teacher’s Challenge, One Day At A Time 

Nicholas Provenzano was contemplating student engagement on a summer break, specifically how to get his students more involved and invested in their learning. So he started by looking at the numbers: implementing Genius Hour would require 20 percent of his weekly allotted instructional time. Find out what he did next.

Warning: After listening to this INNOpodcast, you will be both inspired and equipped with concrete steps to get started with Genius Hour in your classroom. Congratulations, it will be AMAZING!

To listen to our conversation, click on the SoundCloud recording below. More of a visual learner?  Read the conversation here: INNOpodcast: Nicholas Provenzano on Using Genius Hour In the Classroom

In this Episode:

  • Xxx: Nicholas describes Genius Hour in his own words and gives a quick overview of its early beginnings in the business world and how it can be adapted to students and schools at all levels.
  • xxx. Listen to Nicholas describe the simple and methodical approach he used to figure out how to make room for Genius Hour in his curriculum. “It’s been magic ever since…”
  • Xxx: Nicholas gets very specific about the needs he was looking to address with Genius Hour and what his classroom looks, sounds, and feels like now (teaser: he can’t imagine it any other way).
  • 10:20: a review of the before and after of high school English with Mr. Provenzano
  • xxx: Nicholas dishes on the feedback he received from parents, teachers, and students, the changes he has observed in student learning, and how he handles his own failures.
  • Xxx: Nicholas shares his mindset for persisting through skepticism.
  • Xxx: I asked Nicholas what he is learning through this experience, about how kids learn, why it is important, and why it matters to him and why it should matter to everyone.
  • Xxx: We get practical. The early steps to get Genius Hour up and running in Nicholas’s classroom.
  • Xxx: Nicholas describes how explains Genius Hour to students and gives specific examples of what a week looks likes in his classroom.
  • Xxx: The challenges of implementing Genius Hour. Along with two powerful examples of what students learn, even when they don’t.
  • Xxx: His advice to teachers.
  • Xxx: At the core of personalized learning: the teacher-student relationship. Hear Nicholas’s reflection on just how his relationships have changed with Genius Hour (hint: he uses the words billion).
  • Xxx: What Nicholas is up to these days and how he continues to improve his practice.

6. Nicholas Demonstrates His Understanding and Implementation of Genius Hour on Camera

The Michigan Department of Education developed a series of live, Personalized Learning Webinars led by school-level educators to demonstrate and share their personalized learning practices. This webinar is led by Nicholas Provenzano. His presentation begins at approximately 3:10. The original viewing was live; what appears below is the recorded version.

As you watch this webinar, take notice of what you observe, what questions you have, and what ideas Nicholas’s demonstration sparks for you. Keep the Personalized Learning Indicators Checklist close by. You will observe many of them in action.


We’ve provided you with a lot of information–and there is still more to come. If you haven’t already, now is the time to download the Next Steps and Planning Guide, which will help you organize the knowledge, ideas, and burning questions you’ve captured and turn them into your next steps for moving forward.


From the Center on Innovations in Learning Database

The Center on Innovations in Learning has done some good, hard thinking around personalized learning. Here are just a small, small sampling of the research-based resources you can find in the database. For this particular search, I entered the phrases Genius Hour and 20Time.

  • Redesign Schools with Learner-Centered STEM: Tarim, S. In this article, a co-founder and CEO of Harmony Public Schools shares the need to transform our education system so that all children everywhere have access to a great education that allows them to find their passion and fulfill their human potential. The article emphasizes integrated and personalized STEM education.
  • 20-Time in Education: Based on a concept borrowed from business where it has been used to encourage creativity in product development. In education, 20-Time allots 20 percent of school time for students to pursue topics of their own choosing. It seeks to promote students’ motivation, autonomy, and communication and interpersonal skills in collaborative endeavors—all characteristics deemed essential for their working careers. The website offers guides for implementation.
  • 5 Top Trends in Education Technology 2015: Why the Industry is Primed for Big Things This YearSkonnard, A. This article describes five top trends in ed tech to keep on one’s radar screen in 2015 and beyond: online corporate learning, skills measurement, alternative learning styles, online competency-based training, and flipped-learning tech.

Our searchable research database is an incredible resource for any educator looking to find information on Change Leadership, Change Processes, and Personalized Learning. The database is carefully curated to provide you with the most credible, highest-quality research articles that exist on these topics and many related others.

More Genius Hour Resources on the World Wide Web

We’ve included a few of our favorite articles and resources you’ll find on the World Wide Web about Genius Hour below: (student choice video)

Social Media Hot Spots

  1. Follow Nicholas Provenzano on:
    1. Twitter: @thenerdyteacher
    2. Instagram: @thenerdyteacher
    3. His Blog:
  2. You can find out about Michigan’s efforts to make learning more personal for its students by searching #miched on Twitter.
  3. For Genius Hour happenings on Twitter and Instagram and Pinterest, search the following hashtags:
    • #geniushour
    • #20time
    • #edtech

Here’s a glimpse of what you can expect to see in your Pinterest search of Genius Hour:


Here’s a glimpse of what you can expect to see in your Twitter search for #20time and #geniushour:

Thank you so much for spending your time here. We hope these resources were informative and useful. Please keep us updated on your progress toward implementing blended learning in your state, district, or school—and how you are bringing the Personalized Learning Indicators of Effective Practice to life where you are.

Please contact xxx, Communications Director at the Center on Innovations in Learning, with any questions, comments, and updates on how you are using this INNOpod. Use #INNOpod to let us know as well.






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