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 yearlong 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.

Kathleen Cushman
Researcher and writer, WKCD
Author, Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery
Author, The Motivation Equation: Designing Lessons that Set Kids’ Minds on Fire

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