Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery by Kathleen Cushman and the students of What Kids Can Do

Cushman, K, & students, . (2010). Fires in the mind: what kids can tell us about motivation and mastery. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Kathleen Cushman is well regarded for her work with student voice. This book is the result of a project she undertook with 160 high school students from diverse schools across the country. The question they explored together was: What does it take to get really good at something? Cushman's premise was that if students could identify what strategies made people successful in everyday endeavors, those same strategies could be employed by students and teachers in designing successful classroom experiences. Throughout the book, Cushman uses extensive quotes from the students she worked with to let their words illustrate their thoughts and discoveries about “getting really good” at things. The book mirrors the progression of the project itself: identifying what makes people successful outside of school, examining those strategies more closely, then applying them to the classroom setting. Cushman provides easy to understand summaries of key discoveries she and the students made together as well as examples to illustrate what teachers (and students) can do to make their classrooms more successful. The book touches on issues of motivation, the purpose and forms of practice (including homework), and means of assessing student progress. Throughout, Cushman and her students refine the role of practice: What makes it meaningful? What makes students motivated to practice well? What kinds of practice can students choose or be asked to undertake? How can teachers create opportunities for practice that deliver the best learning and success for their students? Fires in the Mind is accessible to read and includes templates for teachers to use in their own exploration of what it takes to get really good at something. The heavy inclusion of student quotes and examples validates Cushman's message about the importance and power of student voice and ensures that the ideas are authentic to real students, rather than just research notes or theory from an adult educator.

“Public honor for hard work … provides a powerful form of encouragement—and it need not come as the climax of their labors. At every point along their paths, the praise of others for hard-earned progress made these adolescent learners feel not just pride but the desire to go even further” (44).

in regards to learning “standardized” material:
“How could a teacher draw students into the topic at the start, sparking their willingness to engage with it? What kind of practice should kids carry out so they would recall important material long after passing the test? What more engaging form of assessment could also ensure they had really mastered the facts and could put them to use?” (111).

“Practicing Towards Mastery” worksheet that asks students and teachers to consider the following prompts in planning a lesson/unit:
  • “You want us to know...
  • You draw us in by...
  • You help us set reachable goals by...
  • You ask us to practice the knowledge and skills by...
  • You check our mastery of important knowledge and skills by...
  • You chart our small successes by...” (114).

“Our Goals for Practice in Class” worksheet that lists sub-questions for each of these main points for a teacher to consider when planning a learning activity:
  • “Do we see the meaning and value in the material you introduce?
  • Do we know what excellent work with this material looks like?
  • Do we know what to practice so we can put our learning to use?
  • Do you know what we understand and don't understand?
  • Do you coach us in what we don't yet understand?
  • Do you ask us to assess our progress and that of our peers?” (115-116)

“...applause for a public presentation was not enough. It seemed mere blanket praise, without distinction among the different elements of a project. After all they had put into their projects, they hoped for a mix of coaching and critique, appreciation and evaluation” (143).

From a student named Tyler: “Like, how can we take what we're learning about class in DNA and apply it? If you're doing something that's tied into the real world, you learn a lot from the experience. It's going to involve a lot more than science, or a lot more than just math. It's not an assignment—it's like you have ownership over the project” (137).

Tomlinson, C. A. (2004). How to differentiate instruction in mixed ability classrooms.. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiggins, G.P, & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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