Archive for November, 2010

“What makes young people catch fire, work hard, and persist despite difficulties?

Review found at: National School Reform Faculty

Book Review
Fires in the Mind: What kids can tell us about motivation and mastery
By Kathleen Cushman and the young people at What Kids Can Do
Published by Jossey-Bass, 2010, $25 list price

“What does it take to get really good at something?” – that’s the question that Kathleen Cushman asked some 160 students from diverse backgrounds, from urban to suburban to rural, from 17 high schools in 9 cities and towns throughout the country. Surprisingly to Cushman, they all had something at which they were really good – including music, dance, drawing, drama, knitting, chess, video games, running, soccer, building robots, braiding hair, writing poems, skate-boarding, cooking – but, perhaps not surprisingly, most of it did not happen in school.

In the brief “Foreword to the book is written by David White, President and CEO of MetLife Foundation, a major sponsor of What Kids Can Do, he states the following, setting the stage for the awesome insights in this little book: “Asking students to talk about their education is so simple that – whether we are teachers, parents, researchers, or policymakers – we inevitably forget to do it. Yet when we do invite them to the table with adults, the youth in our classroom and communities will shed surprising new light on our most intransigent educational dilemmas.”

David White then goes on to pose the essential questions of this book: “What makes young people catch fire, work hard, and persist despite difficulties? What supports and structures do they need in order to thrive and contribute, in both school and society?”

Cushman organizes the book into two sections, the first six chapters describing what these students had to tell her about what lit a spark in them with quotations from 92 of the students throughout each chapter. The last four chapters are about what these students had to suggest to teachers so their teaching would more likely light a spark in their students in their classrooms. For example, in Chapter 6 “Bringing Practice into the Classroom,” the students offered the following nine recommendations:
1. “let us see what we’re aiming for
2. break down what we need to learn
3. give us lots of ways to understand
4. teach us to critique and revise everything we do
5. assess us all the time, not just in high-stakes ways
6. chart our small successes
7. ask us to work as an expert team
8. help us extend our knowledge through using it
9. use performances to assess our academic understanding”

The “Foreword” David White refers to a recently released national survey, done by MetLife, of teachers, principals, parents, and students – “Collaborating for Student Success” – which affirms much of what the students had to say in their interviews. Specifically, the survey showed that 4 out of 5 teachers and principals believe that “connecting classroom instruction to the real world would have a major impact on student achievement.” Additionally, in the same survey, a majority of students reported that – “their teachers very rarely – or never – speak to them personally about things that matter.” Over a quarter of the students said – “their teachers do not connect the school curriculum to its applications in the outside world,” and similarly, only 1 in 4 – “felt strongly that school let them use their abilities and their creativity.” All these were key elements for these students in describing what they are really good at and what it takes to do that.

The last chapter is about “Making School a Community of Practice” with another set of
recommendations for teachers to set high standards and to collaborate with their students to
• “support each other in the journey to mastery:”
• “link school to a purpose that has meaning to us
• keep the community of learners small enough to know each other
• make exploring new fields a bit part of our learning
• don’t try to cover everything
• organize learning around themes and projects
• model collaboration among adults
• connect us with experts in the community
• provide opportunities for us to develop initiative and leadership
• give us choices about how to learn important subjects
• make performance part of learning
• do away with class rankings
• listen to the perspectives of others, including youth.”

And this chapter is following closely by the first Appendix – “The Practice Project:
A five-day curriculum outline for secondary teachers and advisors” –
which begins with that same essential question: “what does it take to get really good at something?”

Throughout the last four chapters there are a number of down-loadable “worksheets” the students have created to help teachers with the changes referred to in some of the above recommendations. Chapter 8, “Is Homework Deliberate Practice?” offers a number of these down-loadables, addressing a number of recommendations for teachers to reflect on their own practices related to homework.

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