Published Online: December 10, 2010

Book Backgrounder

How to Get Kids Fired Up About Learning

Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery
By Kathleen Cushman
Jossey-Bass, 2010, 187 pp.
Teacher Book Club Date: Jan. 31-Feb. 4, 2011


In her latest book, author and documentarian Kathleen Cushman takes an inventive approach to exploring the question of how educators can better engage and inspire students: She asks kids.

In writing Fires in the Mind, Cushman worked with 160 “ordinary teenagers” assembled by the nonprofit What Kids Can Do to examine how and why young people become interested and often acquire impressive skills in particular projects and activities, whether in school or out. Together, Cushman and her teenaged collaborators—the book is written in the students’ voices as much the author’s—delve into such issues as motivation, perseverance, “deliberate practice,” and expertise.

Cushman’s student co-authors—comprising musicians, artists, skateboarders, athletes, gamers, mechanics, and knitters (among others)—provide a range of telling responses to the question of how they “caught the spark” to learn and work to excel in a particular skill or craft. Often the careful guidance of an older mentor was involved. The personal satisfaction of trying to overcome a meaningful (though not impossible) challenge also frequently played a role. Some students point to the importance of understanding and valuing the connection the activity had to their own lives, communities, or personal goals.

And as they gained mastery in their chosen endeavors, Cushman documents, the teens discovered new factors that only increased their motivation and engagement. These included increased confidence in their skills, the challenge of learning advanced techniques, the development of purposeful practice habits, and the excitement of performance. There was also, perhaps most importantly, the experience of “flow,” which Cushman defines as “the utter absorption in a challenging task that was just within their powers.”

But now for the tough part: After analyzing their personal experiences, Cushman and her collaborators turn to the question of how the motivational forces they’ve identified could be transferred to the realm of schoolwork. “What would it take,” as Cushman writes, “to bring that same excitement and flow into the classroom experience?”

The students’ answers to that question may surprise more cynical readers. They are not simply veiled prescriptions for making school easier or more fun (though fun is certainly involved). Instead, the teens speak of lessons that “build emotional connections,” teachers who act as coaches rather than lecturers, long-term interdisciplinary projects that focus on real-world issues and require the development of applicable skills, and performance-based assessments that help them “build more authentic understanding and mastery” of the material. Along the way, Cushman and her cohorts offer a compelling critique of typical homework protocols.

In the students’ advice on improving engagement in school, Cushman observes, “we can see their eagerness to enter into a shared community of practice in which young people and adults aim for the same high standards and support each other in the journey toward mastery.” In conveying that advice, Cushman’s book is likely to challenge, inspire, and raise many questions for teachers and school leaders.

—Anthony Rebora

Author Kathleen Cushman will be joining us for an online discussion of her book during the week of Jan. 31-Feb 4, 2011.

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