C is for Kathleen Cushman: Fires In The Mind

Kathleen’s work complements that of many great educationalists who have supported the positive spirit in young people. Here are two reactions to her book Fires In The Mind.

This inspiring book helps us understand that all students have intrinsic motivation and ability.

Cushman’s stories and examples show us how to find and unlock that capacity and help students accomplish more than they – or we – thought possible.

Ben Levin, author, How to Change 5000 Schools

“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 of Education, Harvard University

Kathleen’s book mainly focuses on young people, but it provides lessons for people of any age. It shows the principles that people can follow to do stimulating and satisfying work.

Below are excerpts from the Fires In The Mind website, together with other resources. You can discover more via the following link.



 Some Background From Kathleen

What does it take to get really good at something?

“Getting good” is how kids refer to the journey toward mastery, when we talk. 

Talking about sports, the arts, their hobbies, or any number of out-of-school pursuits, they vividly describe their growing interest, struggles, and satisfactions.

But when it comes to school, the light often goes out of their eyes. How can teachers spark the fire of motivation in academic settings as well, so that our students will really want to learn?

I’ve been exploring those questions for some years now — not just with teachers, but with students, and with researchers in the learning sciences.

Our nonprofit, What Kids Can Do (WKCD), turned that ongoing dialogue into a body of work we call the Practice Project — including our book Fires in the Mind, in which adolescent students talk about what motivates them to work hard at a challenge.

In a year long follow-up to that book, I recently worked with a group of highly accomplished teachers who serve as an advisory group to a National Science Foundation Science of Learning Center at the University of California.

The (free) multimedia book that resulted is The Motivation Equation: Designing Lessons that Set Kids’ Minds on Fire — take a look here.

We looked closely at classroom learning experiences that the teachers considered very successful in terms of their students’ motivation and mastery. We asked the students involved to reflect on why those episodes worked for them. And we asked the scientists to comment on the neuroscience that undergirded those experiences.

That “trialogue” revealed deep commonalities among our three different perspectives — teacher, student, and learning scientist.

Time after time, we discovered that what worked best for students lined right up with research in the learning sciences.

Teachers found that their most successful instruction also reflected that research — and that they could actually plan their lessons with that in mind.

Together, we identified a set of conditions that must be present in a learning environment in order to foster students’ motivation to take up challenging tasks and work hard at mastering them.

Decades of research into the development of expertise have also yielded insight about the habits that lead to high levels of proficiency, deep understanding, and creativity across a range of fields.

When we make those habits explicit — and strengthen them with deliberate practice — teachers and students share a common language that can inform and strengthen everything they do.

On this site, we gather resources, examples, and student voices that focus on these three big questions:

Can we use what we know about the learning process — in combination with our academic domain knowledge — to engage students in learning that lasts?

Does student motivation arise from factors that teachers can investigate and orchestrate?

What contribution can students themselves make to our understanding of teaching and learning?

We hope that you will find many ways to answer those questions here.

Please feel free to contact me to explore how these ideas and resources might contribute to your professional learning community.


As well as offering workshops and presentations, we now offer an online lesson-study approach, in which social-learning cohorts of teachers apply these insights to classroom practice via our new online course on Building Student Motivation.

What Is The Secret Of Motivation?

Kathleen describes one of the principles that stands out. We are motivated to do something when:

We believe in what we are doing. We value it and doing it really matters to us.

We believe that, providing we work hard, we can do it. We expect that we can succeed.

Using this springboard of motivation, we can then work hard to develop mastery.

The Motivation Equation Model

 Student Voices To Spark
Professional Conversations

We learn a lot about teaching when we listen to students describe their learning experiences.

In this section, we offer a variety of brief videos in the voices of students. Singly or together, they make excellent conversation-starters for teachers and students alike.

What most helps young people thrive in a challenging academic environment?

Answers from students bear out what research has found: social and emotional factors constitute a crucial underpinning for learning.

In this 4-minute WKCD video, middle schoolers give their own examples of how everyday interactions between students, peers, and adults affected how they learned in the classroom.

The Motivation Equation

Below are excerpts from the website that look further at motivation and mastery. You can discover more via the following link.


Motivation Equation book

The Motivation Equation: Designing Lessons that Set Kids’ Minds on Fire takes that work another big step.

Using a lively multimedia platform, Cushman brings the actual work of teachers, the feedback of students, and the commentary of learning scientists to describe how—and why—high motivation and academic mastery develop in the classroom.

Guided by an “actual adolescent brain” named Ned Cephalus, readers listen in as six case studies of highly effective curriculum and instruction unfold in diverse middle-and high-school settings.

At a touch readers can access:
Audio and video clips of students, teachers, and scientists
Pop-up summaries of key research
Live links to related information
Downloadable worksheets for diagnosis and planning
Chapter-end discussion prompts for teacher book study
A lesson-study collegial protocol focused on motivation

Reading the book on screen

There are two ways to access the multimedia version of The Motivation Equation.

It is possible to download the free Next Generation Press App from the iTunes App Store, then click on the book’s cover to read it on the iPad or iPhone.

Or it can be read directly using any browser. You can discover more details via the following link.



The Fires In The Mind and WKCD websites are packed with resources for students, teachers and parents.

These practical tools provide much food for thought. Below is a link to a PDF download that offer parents many ideas for supporting students. Here is an excerpt from the introduction for parents.

The Guiding Principles Behind These Materials

Our potential is not fixed at birth.

Learning science shows that all of us can grow strong and meet challenges if we work hard and stick with it. Inborn talent and predispositions (like laziness or shyness) are just the starting point.

Effective practice makes the difference.

Practice is the secret to developing our abilities, no matter what level we start at. How we practice makes all the difference in learning to do something well.

Habits, like abilities, are also developed through practice.

Managing stress. Developing self-control. Keeping at it. Being curious and resourceful. Feeling self-confident.

These social and emotional skills are as important as academic skills in laying the foundation for student success—and can be taught and learned. Parents can help their child develop both strong abilities and lasting habits.

Success builds on success.

The more we achieve, the more we will want to achieve. Parents can help set up a positive learning cycle: when children work hard and get good results, they will want to work harder still.

Here is the link.


Advice to Parents

Finally, here are two videos of Kathleen presenting some of her findings.

These come from the conference on How Kids Learn. You can discover more talks from other speakers at the conference via the following link.


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