Every young person has activities that get him or her excited. Not just excited, but motivated to achieve real mastery and excellence. Kids excel at all sorts of things, especially outside of school. But what does it take for kids to get really good at something? What motivates them to want to excel? Listening to kids and understanding what matters to them, what motivates them and what gets them excited, should matter to all educators. Kathleen Cushman is an educator and a journalist who, for over two decades, has specialized in the lives and learning of youth. She has worked with adolescents all over the world with the goal to bring student voices and perspectives to educators. To gain insight into these very questions about motivation and mastery, Cushman spoke with hundreds of kids all over the country for her book, Fires in the Mind.
Q: Thanks for taking time to speak with us today, Kathleen. Why ask kids about what it takes to get really good at something?
Kathleen Cushman: Talking seriously with young people about that fundamental question, “What does it take to get really good at something?” can actually transform how we all – school leaders, teachers, and students themselves – think about school. Because the question is really about youth taking ownership of their own learning.
And especially if schools are struggling with issues of motivation, the dialogue that results unlocks the door to student engagement. The conversation assumes – rightly! – that kids have things they are already very good at. And I asked kids to analyze how they developed those strengths – whether they’re playing guitar or basketball or chess or making videos or writing poetry. But in the process, we can build a common language – about habits like persistence and collaboration and critique and revision – and that language is based on what the science of learning tells us, and that serves us well in school. So when you develop that mutual understanding and respect for real accomplishment, it can change the balance between adults and young people. Of course, once we open the question with kids, we also have to take seriously what we find out about the development of expertise – and we have to act on it. That can be a challenge for school leaders.