Fires in the Mind: Update on WKCD's Practice Project

by Kathleen Cushman

April 8, 2013

Five years ago, I posed the question "What does it take to get really good at something?" to over 200 young people across the nation, inviting them to become researchers of their own learning. Starting with the things they already knew and could do well, they analyzed the process that all learners go through when they take up new things and work toward mastery.


Our 5-day curriculum has kids analyze the learning process, starting with what they already know and can do well.


Zits and all, a short and funny insider's guide to how youth learn.


Our onging dialogue soon became a body of work we called 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.

“Getting good” was how my young collaborators refered to the journey toward mastery. As they talked about sports, the arts, their hobbies, or any number of out-of-school pursuits, they vividly described their growing interest, struggles, and satisfactions.

But when it came to school, the light often went out of their eyes. What was different and what was the same, we wondered. How could teachers spark the fire of motivation in academic settings as well, so that students will really want to learn?

In a yearlong follow-up to Fires in the Mind and the student investigation that fueld it, I 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. 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.

This month, WKCD's self-paced online “Learning Path on Building Student Motivation" made its debut on the social platform It presents six in-depth mixed-media case studies of highly motivating classroom practice — complete with commentary from learning scientists as well as from the teachers and students involved.

On, we continue to 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?

In late May, WKCD will publish a companion book to Fires in the Mind in the form of an “enhanced e-book” that includes audio and video commentary from students, teachers, and learning scientists as well as links to other resources. Titled “The Motivation Equation: Designing Lessons that Set Kids’ Minds on Fire,” this book uses the actual classroom practice of six veteran teachers to illustrate the eight fundamental conditions that underlie adolescent motivation and mastery.



Six 5-minute video case studies in which middle and high school students describe how they gained proficiency in a field.

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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator