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Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery

ISBN: 978-0-470-64603-8
208 pages
June 2010, Jossey-Bass
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Education, Law & Society, Psychology


December 06, 2010
San Francisco, CA

Fires in the Mind

San Francisco, CA – What does it take to get really good at something? Recent research from the field of cognitive psychology on the role of motivation and achieving success has attracted a growing audience among the general public. Bestselling books such as Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and Drive by Daniel Pink contradict the old belief that talent is the chief factor contributing to successful outcomes in business, sports, and other areas. Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery (Jossey-Bass; 978-0-470-64603-8; June 2010) picks up where Malcolm Gladwell and others left off: speaking to what gets kids started and keeps them persisting at difficult activities both in school and out.

In a year-long collaboration called The Practice Project, Cushman recruited 160 high school students from around the U.S. to work with the nonprofit What Kids Can Do, investigating the concept of “deliberate practice” that has caught the public imagination. Cushman debriefed youth about their learning outside of school, asking them to tell what got them started and kept them working at the activities they care about the most, such as athletics, the arts, games and hobbies. The students also interviewed people in their communities who could shed light on the making of an expert. In Fires in the Mind, the teens ask students, teachers, and parents to consider together the many factors affecting motivation and mastery.

Cushman and her teenage collaborators next carried the framework of interest, persistence, and “deliberate practice” into the classroom. Students analyzed and critiqued the instructional approaches most schools use, highlighting the ones that work best to whet their own desire to work hard and excel. They found that opportunity, encouragement, effort and the right kind of practice make a magical combination.

Fires in the Mind is full of inspirational stories of students, particularly from urban areas, who work hard to excel at the things they care most about. In the WKCD video series “Case Studies in Practice,” short YouTube videos narrated by students themselves  offer vivid images of their learning process. The Fires in the Mind blog facilitates a dialogue among teachers, parents, and students about the question “What does it take to get really good at something?”

Fires in the Mind reveals a great deal as to why young people engage in activities that challenge them. It will help parents and teachers build on kids’ strengths and affinities, coaching them in the same habits experts use. Most importantly, it will light a fire in the adolescent’s mind that will fuel a lifelong passion for learning.