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Igniting the Minds of our Youth – A Driving Force to Do Better!

“Fires in the Mind” by Kathleen Cushman - CHAPTER ONE
“Fires in the Mind” by Kathleen Cushman - CHAPTER ONE

In Chapter ONE of the book “Fires in the Mind” by Kathleen Cushman asks us to think about “What does it take to Get Good?” As promised, I’m reading this book and sharing it here with you – chapter by chapter. This chapter was such a great reminder of the ideas students have for things they want to do – and how they know they need to practice to do it very well.

There is the opening story of a 9th grade student who answers Kathleen’s question about what he is very good at, who explains he is actually very good at architecture. He has watched his uncle draw plans for buildings and went on to learn himself on-line with software that took him forever to learn. He tells proudly how he finally mastered the program and was hired last summer by a local strip mall to draw up the plans for their store! She asks in this chapter of others students – “What does it take to be really good at something?” She learns of the many things the students are very good at: music, dance, knitting, chess, video games, writing poems, cooking, snowboarding and more. (All outside of school). The students all worked through this question, and decided these various ideas were important to making someone good at something: 

  • Start with what you love to do – or will have fun learning about 
  • Don’t give up – stick with it! 
  • We all need someone to cheer us on – help us persevere. 
  • Reflect on success – it is a motivator! 

Here Kathleen interjects a great reminder – that these students were talking about what cognitive researcher Ericsson talked about as “deliberate practice.” She says “Their learning tasks were set at a challenge level just right for them. They repeated a task in a focused, attentive way, at intervals that helped them recall its key elements.” This carried on to the idea that “when their practice went just right, kids told me, they felt caught up in a state of ‘flow”: the energized, full involvement of going after a challenge within their reach. As student Aaorn, a basketball player, described it “Running down the court, it’s like a lion hunting for its prey: there’s nothing else on its mind but that prey. And that’s what makes it so beautiful, just the strive of it.” 

How about in school? All the students agreed that nothing beat “the strive of it.” The idea shared that when you could do something that totally absorbed you – it was very motivating. One student said “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.” (Alvelina) 

As Kathleen began to conclude the chapter, she asks us to reflect on the process these students went throough – to think about what it took for them to be good at something – even if it was outside of class. Then to think about what goes on inside of schools – and how might we help teachers apply the same practices? She offers that they have learned that students CAN “offer concrete suggestions of helping schools function more like expert learning situations outside of the classroom.” She concludes, “When adults openly explore genuine questions about getting to mastery – and include young people’s knowledge and experiences in that exploration – we model the expert’s habit of taking intellectual and creative risks.” When reflecting then back to the number of hours we have students in classrooms with us, she asks us to ponder: “What are we asking our youth to practice in that precious time? What fires are we lighting in their minds?” 

I wonder, if asked what your students would say they are “driving hard to be better at?” ENJOY THE ADVENTURE!