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Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery Paperback – February 21, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 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.

Amazon Exclusive: Q&A with Author Kathleen Cushman

Why ask teenagers about what it takes to get really good at something?
Adolescents already know far more than we give them credit for! They’re learning all the time — from each other, from the media, from the activities that most absorb them, and from their different roles in the family and close-in social networks. We adults tend to think of ourselves as the teachers, but then we look for a kid to help set up our smart-phone! So thinking together about “how to get good” made sense to me — especially in schools. It changes that feeling of “us and them” that can polarize students and teachers. Instead, our Practice Project put us all on the same journey of learning from each other.

What did kids gain from thinking about their own learning in this way?
It turned a light on in their minds about what they were doing in school. Suddenly they had new and effective ways to give feedback to teachers about what helped them learn. Instead of taking a passive or resentful stance, like “this is boring” or “this is too hard,” they could critique actual practices that didn’t work — such as giving the same homework to all students regardless of what individual kids needed to work on. At the same time, kids also saw how certain classroom strategies (such as researching different perspectives, or collaborative learning) matched the process that real experts used. Kids told me they felt a growing sense of mutual respect for their teachers, especially if the teacher joined their inquiry into “getting good.”

What tips can you give parents and teachers to help motivate students?
It’s important to help kids stick with practice even when they get frustrated. Three key tips for adults to remember:

  1. Kids want to try things that give them an emotional boost. Maybe a challenge looks like fun because they can do it with other people they care about – their friends, or an older person that they admire. Or maybe the boost comes from the task itself: a puzzle to solve, a learning game. Either way, something in their mind lights up at the pleasure and satisfaction they anticipate ahead.
  2. Kids won’t do something if they expect to be humiliated. That means we need to set tasks at just the right challenge level—not too easy, not too hard. And it also means warm encouragement — honoring mistakes as a key part of learning, and recognizing every small step done well.
  3. Kids rise to excellence when they see it. It’s really important for young people to witness people doing things well in the real world. Take them to watch and ask questions of community experts in all kinds of fields, and arrange meaningful ways (like internships or job shadowing) that they can learn in the company of adults.
How do you find the students you work with?
I have access to a far-reaching network of students and teachers through What Kids Can Do, Inc., the nonprofit that sponsored the Practice Project with support from MetLife Foundation. I looked for very diverse groups of young people with a supportive adult who was willing to bring them together for our sustained conversations. All in all, I interviewed more than 160 kids, in 17 schools in nine cities or towns around the United States:

  • Chicago, Illinois, where I worked with eleventh graders at the Academy of Communications and Technology Charter School, students at Westside Alternative High School, and a ninth grade reading and writing class at Prosser Career Academy High School.
  • Long Beach, California, where I worked at Woodrow Wilson High School with 40 members of a leadership club for young male students of color.
  • Rural Maine, where students integrated our inquiry into their senior projects at Poland Regional High School.
  • New York City (my home town), where I worked with students at Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem, the Queens High School of Teaching, the Isaac Newton Middle School for Math and Science, the Clinton School for Artists and Writers, East Side Community School, and Citizen Schools.
  • Providence, Rhode Island, where I interviewed youth who played in a string quartet at Community MusicWorks, a neighborhood organization.
  • San Antonio, Texas, where students from the internship program at the International School of the Americas joined our project.
  • San Diego, Oakland, and Mill Valley, California, where I interviewed students from (respectively) High Tech High, Youth Radio, and the Conservatory Theatre Ensemble at Tamalpais High School.
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


"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

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Jossey-Bass; 1 edition (February 21, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1118160215
  • ISBN-13: 978-1118160213
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #275,941 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Kathleen Cushman: Writer and speaker, raising youth voices

As a journalist and documentarian, I collaborate with diverse youth around the U.S. and abroad, bringing their voices directly to bear on the complex challenges that affect their lives and learning. As a speaker and presenter, I work with educational institutions to connect the direct input of youth with promising practices in secondary schools and colleges.

I bring forty years of experience and new learning to this work. Most of my work since 2001 is for What Kids Can Do (WKCD.org), the nonprofit I co-founded with Barbara Cervone, but I also regularly speak, consult, and write for organizations around the country.

Starting as a printer's devil in my high school years, over four decades I've worn every hat in publishing: writer, editor, and publisher for newspapers, magazines, and books in many fields. Reporting on national high school change from 1988 to 2001 gave me a solid grasp of educational issues and an active network of people in the forefront of that field. Teaching first-year writing at Harvard trained me to coach young people to think deeply and to free up and discipline their voices. Helping to start a progressive public secondary school in Massachusetts in 1995 gave me hands-on experience in setting the bar high for all students.

In the past decade, for WKCD, I have traveled the U.S. and abroad collecting the voices of youth, then bringing their words into print and mixed-media forms. Grounded in the rough and subtle realities of adolescence, these voices cut close to the bone -- illuminating "best practices" in education, and revealing the fault lines that divide students along lines of class, color, and money. I aim to bring young people's vivid experiences and insights to an even wider audience, by speaking, writing, and collaborating with you who share a commitment to equity, opportunity, and powerful learning for all.

I live and work in New York City.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
After teaching social studies courses for 25 years, my husband still looks for new sparks to energize his classes. I was delighted to give him Kathleen Cushman's latest book, which provides that kind of spark -- and more. The core idea is a simple one: In every classroom, we do what we do in order to develop mastery or expertise, in some area, in some way. With powerful and persuasive logic, the students who co-authored this book say "Then let's really do that."

One of the aspects John found most helpful was the list of "Habits of Experts." He has already used this with a high school class for a self-evaluation process. We both were struck by how matter-of-factly they accepted the premise that they were in the class to engage in the deliberate practice required to master specific skills--in their case, reading, writing, speaking, and thinking critically, in the context of history.

The book is well written and engaging, presenting student insights in a journey of discovery that celebrates learning. Kathleen Cushman has also has done her homework; her conclusions are well supported by research in the cognitive sciences. Of all the books about education and teaching we have encountered, John and I think this is one of the most valuable. We give teachers who learn from this book (and the accompanying web site of the same name) a "check plus"!
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Format: Hardcover
As a high school teacher, I have grown to treasure those moments when students are "in the zone" - working hard to master new skills, enjoying the process of challenge and success. Reading Fires in the Mind, I saw kids' own explanations of those moments. The clarity and directness with which they explained how they achieve that state of flow - and what classroom conditions enable it - were enlightening and useful. The student collaborators gave lots of great ideas about how to replicate these sometimes-elusive moments!

This book got me excited to have some of these same conversations with my own students, and to re-work my curriculum with the concept of "deliberate practice" foremost in my mind!
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Format: Hardcover
In Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery, Kathleen Cushman reveals that kids have lots to tell us about motivation and mastery. She skillfully draws on the collective wisdom of 160 young people, weaving together their words and insights into a vivid exploration of "what it takes to get really good at something." It's impossible to choose just a few highlights from this book because it's filled with over 200 quotes from the students who participated in the Practice Project, each one contributing a valuable perspective on the journey towards expertise.

As one of the teachers who participated in the Practice Project, I was captivated by Kathleen's approach to this collaborative meaning-making process. She spent two intensive days and two follow-up days with 20 twelfth-graders and me at The International School of the Americas in San Antonio, Texas. She interviewed the students, had them interview each other, coached them in interviewing the adult experts they knew, and facilitated rich, thought-provoking discussions about the essential questions that inspired Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery.

Listening intently and gently prompting students to "tell me more," Kathleen drew them deeper and deeper into the examination of their own experiences, as well as their observations of adult experts and teachers.
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Format: Hardcover
As a teacher educator, I often struggle to find just the right books for my courses--aspirational but realistic, narrative and down-to-earth but organized and rigorous, practical without seeming like a cookbook. Fires in the Mind, even more than its predecessors, is exactly this kind of book, and I can't wait to use it in my course on methods in secondary education.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
In the midst of smouldering educational wars, Kathleen Cushman ingeniously frames her book around a core, catalytic question that cuts through ideology: "What does it take to get good at something, and what are the implications for students, teachers, schools, and school systems?" Cushman's methodology gives glorious voice to a wide range of young people who eloquently articulate what motivates them to engage and excel, and she contextualizes their perspectives within a larger framework of research on practice and performance, thereby providing incredible insights and ideas for teachers and school leaders (as well as for parents who want to help their children achieve expertise!) I work with a group of teachers who have been using pre-publication materials from this book in a teacher study group this year, and I've seen the way it has changed how teachers think about their classroom craft and the degree to which they are now creating opportunities for their students to engage in deliberate practice in order to pursue their passions and parlay them into mastery. I'm thrilled that there's an accompanying resource to this book at [...] so that readers of this book can continue to benefit from Cushman's work on this topic and can engage in ongoing exchange with her. This is a must-read for every educator (and parent) committed to helping their students (and children) engage and excel!
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