Book Review

Fires in the Mind

What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery

by Kathleen Cushman, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, Calif., 2010, 183 pp. with index, $24.95 hardcover


All classroom teachers struggle at some point with student motivation and answering the question “Why do we have to learn this?” By the time a student reaches middle school and high school the question of subject relevancy is at its peak, and students want concrete examples.



Fires in the Mind presents the experiences of select high school students who have achieved success and their quest to understand how they and others were inspired to persevere.

Author Kathleen Cushman, co-founder of the nonprofit What Kids Can Do, shares the results of the Practice Project Study, supported by the MetLife Foundation. In the study, Cushman captured personal experiences of educators and students. The guiding question is “what does it take ... to get really good at something?”

Much of this work comes from the student perspective, their personal experiences and stories.

The reader is included in the thought process of the students as they explore the process necessary to achieve mastery. The students discovered the importance of deliberate practice and ways to improve individual performance. They reference classroom and school applications such as the use of a small learning community and real-world examples in instruction.

The premise of this book is intriguing and timely as educators struggle to impress upon their students the importance of becoming lifelong learners. Although Fires in the Mind has limited direct value for superintendents, all educators can learn from the students’ viewpoints and enthusiasm for their learning.

Reviewed by Edythe B. Austermuhl, superintendent, Deerfield Township School, Rosenhayn, N.J.