By Sam Piha
In Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery, author Kathleen Cushman captures the voices of young people who explain what it takes to get really good at something. After reviewing our Learning in Afterschool position statement and seeing the alignment with her work, Ms. Cushman agreed to be interviewed on this blog. (A more complete bio can be found below.)
Q: In conducting research on learning, what did you learn about what motivates young people?
A: Just as with us adults, their first sparks of interest come from lots of different sources. They might admire something that they see someone else doing, for example. It could be the activity itself—or it could be the desire to be with (or be like) the person they admire—that makes them want to do that thing, too.
Still, our wishes don’t turn into the motivation to try something unless another key factor is present. To turn that spark of interest into a fire, young people have to expect that they can do that thing, if they try. They need someone to encourage them to mess around with it a bit, explore its possibilities, take those first shaky steps without fear of humiliation.
Opportunity and encouragement are the key supports that adults can provide to help young people develop the skills and strengths that will help them thrive at home, in school, and in later life. Just giving kids the chance to watch accomplished people do things opens doors of opportunity. And if we follow up by providing a supportive situation where they can try such things themselves, we create a magical combination.
Q: Why is it important for young people to have the experience of being really good at something? Is this what you mean by mastery?
A: It’s not so much “being good at something” that I’m interested in—it’s the process that we go through when we’re “getting good at something.” That’s why the Practice Project I conducted for What Kids Can Do began with asking almost 200 ordinary young people from all kinds of backgrounds, “What does it take to get really good at something?”
We looked at the many things that they could already do well—making music, making robots, even making it safely home through a rough neighborhood. And we discovered that “getting good” has certain common elements that always show up, no matter what knowledge and skills you’re working on.
Q: What did you learn about the process for kids to actually master something?
A: Whether kids are learning how to skateboard or how to speak a foreign language, they’ll have to try it again and again before getting it right. They’ll have a lot of frustrating moments along the way. And if they have someone coaching them step by step . . . if each step is not too easy, but not unrealistically hard . . . and if they stick it out and keep practicing—they will feel the satisfaction of mastering a challenge.
The wonderful thing about that? Learning is never finished. They can use the process again and again, in everything they try. Mastery is a lifelong journey, not a goal—and its habits start young.
Kathleen Cushman is the author of Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery and many other books about the lives and learning of youth. A co-founder of the nonprofit What Kids Can Do (WKCD), she collaborates with young people around the nation to bring forward their voices and visions. She lives in New York City.