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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
Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery (0470646039) cover image


Teens talk to adults about how they develop motivation and mastery

Through the voices of students themselves, Fires in the Mind brings a game-changing question to teachers of adolescents: What does it take to get really good at something? Starting with what they already know and do well, teenagers from widely diverse backgrounds join a cutting-edge dialogue with adults about the development of mastery in and out of school. Their insights frame motivation, practice, and academic challenge in a new light that galvanizes more powerful learning for all. To put these students' ideas into practice, the book also includes practical tips for educators.

  • Breaks new ground by bringing youth voices to a timely topic-motivation and mastery
  • Includes worksheets, tips, and discussion guides that help put the book's ideas into practice
  • Author has 18 previous books on adolescent learning and has written for the New York Times Magazine, Educational Leadership, and American Educator

From the acclaimed author of Fires in the Bathroom, this is the next-step book that pushes the conversation to next level, as teenagers tackle the pressing challenges of motivation and mastery.

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Table of Contents

Foreword (Dennis White).

1. What Does It Take to Get Good?

Young people are developing mastery in ways we easily overlook.

2. Catching the Spark.

Kids tell what draws them in and gives them confidence in learning.

3. Keeping at It.

When do young people stick with something and make it their own?

4. Asking the Experts.

Looking at how experts work, students make sense of their own process.

5. Exploring Deliberate Practice.

Young people look closer at what makes practice effective.

6. Practice and Performance.

Demonstrating mastery also helps students improve.

7. Bringing Practice into the Classroom.

Students imagine the classroom as a community of practice.

8. Is Homework Deliberate Practice?

Whether, when, and how to give kids practice after class.

9. School Projects That Build Expert Habits.

Students talk about their most compelling curricula.

10. Making School a Community of Practice.

Kids suggest ways that schools can foster expert habits.

Appendix A: The Practice Project: A Five-Day Curriculum Outline for Secondary Teachers or Advisers.

How to help students investigate the expert process.

Appendix B: Resources That Help Light Fires in the Mind.

Inspiration, tools, organizations, and other resources.

The Student Contributors.


About the Author.

About What Kids Can Do.


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Author Information

Kathleen Cushman writes, speaks, and consults to a national audience of educators. A journalist and documentarian, she cofounded the nonprofit What Kids Can Do, which collaborates with diverse youth in the United States and abroad, bringing their voices to bear on the complex challenges that affect their lives and learning. She is also author of Fires in the Bathroom and coauthor, with Laura Rogers, of Fires in the Middle School Bathroom.
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"Become passionate’ is easy to say, hard to do, impossible to compel. Drawing on the insights of young persons, parents, teachers, and experts, Kathleen Cushman reveals the paths to passionate pursuit of something worthwhile."
—Howard Gardner, professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education, author, Five Minds for the Future, Multiple Intelligences, and The Unschooled Mind

“No matter what stage we’re at as educators, every teacher can mine this book for many helpful nuggets to support student mastery. We can help ignite ‘fires in the minds’ of our kids, and this wonderful book makes an excellent fire starter.” —Kathie Marshall, LAUSD teacher, in Teacher Leaders Network blog of the Center for Teaching Quality

"In this remarkable book, Kathleen Cushman delves into the minds of young learners to provide us with an immensely useful, insightful, and indispensable guide to tapping the potential in every child. Essential reading for teachers, coaches, and parents alike."
—Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code

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Press Release

December 06, 2010
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.

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