by Kathleen Cushman and the students of What Kids Can Do
Reviewed by Kathie Marshall
Middle Grades Literacy (CA)
Teacher Leaders Network
When I first picked up my copy of Fires in the Mind, the latest of several books written by Kathleen Cushman to bring more transparency to adolescent thinking, I looked first at the appendix where the author lists books by other authors as resources for the reader.
I was delighted to find the names of many authors I’ve learned from, including Howard Gardner, Alfie Kohn, Mel Levine, Robert J. Marzano, Carol Ann Tomlinson, and Rick Wormeli. I was especially excited that she mentioned Carol S. Dweck’s work on mindset and Brainology. I had the privilege of hearing Dweck speak three years ago, and ever since I have incorporated into my first-week activities Brainology and other exercises about a growth mindset that values effort.As I dug into Cushman’s new work, I had in the back of my mind the fact that over the summer I wanted to reflect on some of my lessons and revise/improve them — especially my yearlong magazine publishing project. I was hoping that Cushman’s book would support that intention, and I was not disappointed. It’s all about discovering what motivates students to seek mastery of something.
Cushman worked closely with students through the “Practice Project,” a program of the What Kids Can Do organization funded by MetLife Foundation. It began with an investigation of whatever skills students felt they possessed, as the first step in finding out “how you get good at something.” Cushman writes:
A simple question, it reverberates at many levels. It matters equally to youth and adults, rich and poor, professional, artist, and tradesperson. Its answers have the potential to transform our schools and communities. And exciting research on the question of developing expertise has emerged in recent decades from the field of cognitive psychology. Powerful new evidence shows that opportunity and practice have far more impact on high performance than does innate talent.
Cushman’s student co-authors helped her identify several key pieces of the puzzle by examining:
• how they got started (it looked fun, others they liked were doing it, they were encouraged by someone to try it),
• why they kept going when the effort was challenging,Along the way, students also interviewed other experts to help them more fully understand the process of deliberate practice in order to get good at something. Eventually they were able to compile a list of experts’ habits that are worthwhile in any learning situation, including but not limited to, asking good questions, considering other perspectives, revising repeatedly, persisting, and knowing your own best work styles. These are important concepts for students to understand and apply to new learning situations both inside and outside of the classroom, and we teachers can certainly use them to make our classrooms better communities of practice.
• and what setbacks and satisfactions they experienced.
One key statement I made note of was the following: The most compelling school experiences involved hands-on projects in which they could work in teams toward an outcome that mattered to them. (p. 9) I couldn’t help but think about how, at least in my school system, the total focus on accountability mechanisms is driving teachers away from critical but time-intensive learning experiences for students and toward constant drill and preparation for high-stakes testing.
However, I soldiered on, looking for express ways in which I might improve the magazine project I reinstated last year with my sixth grade English students. In this inquiry learning activity, students choose an area of study and can work alone or with a partner and the contents of the magazine must be tied to sixth grade English standards. It was very helpful to think about our magazine project in the light of Fires in the Mind. I saw clearly what I had done right as well as ways I might revise the project to help students better reach mastery by drawing on the wisdom of Cushman’s kids.
Throughout the book, the author provides a number of questionnaires and checklists, which are also downloadable at this Resources page. These include questionnaires for students to think about as well as for teachers to use in their planning. Later chapters in the book use the lens of deliberate practice to explore homework, interdisciplinary projects, and performance as evidence of mastery.
No matter what stage we’re at as educators, I believe every teacher can mine this book for many helpful nuggets to support student mastery. As a student named Avelina told Kathleen Cushman: “If teachers knew what gave us that driving force to do better, they could apply that, so that everyone can do things to the best of their ability.”
We can help ignite “fires in the minds” of our kids, and this wonderful book makes excellent fire starter.
Kathie Marshall teaches middle grades language arts in the Los Angeles Unified School District. A former school-based literacy coach, she writes frequently about instructional practice and the teaching life. To engage more deeply in the work of the Practice Project, visit the Fires in the Mind website.