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. See an earlier posting for Part 1 of this interview. (A more complete bio can be found below.)
Q: What do you see as a role for afterschool programs in supporting motivation and mastery?
A: Many kids tell me that their afterschool programs give them more opportunities and supports than they get from any other source. A good afterschool program can open doors to the world of arts and culture, athletics, and the kind of projects that really catch the imagination and draw kids into curiosity and learning. Just as important, it can bring youth together with institutions and accomplished people in their community, enlarging the network of support they can call on as they approach the challenges of becoming adults.
Q: Does the experience of motivated learning and mastery outside of the classroom transfer in any way to young people’s engagement in school or planning for their future?
A: Absolutely! So much of what kids work to master on their own time gives them practice in the key habits they need in school or planning for their future. Some of these are “habits of mind,” like asking good questions, breaking down problems, or considering other views. Others are work habits, such as collaboration or persistence.
These are the very same habits that experts use in every field. They are absolutely critical to success in college and beyond. It’s important for all of us adults—not just school teachers—to notice and point them out as we see these habits developing in kids, anytime and anywhere. As we do, we are sending young people the message that they, too, can successfully navigate the path to mastery.
Q: There are those that say that young people who are behind in school and who score low on standardized tests, particularly those children that are low-income and of color, cannot afford the time it takes to experience mastery outside of the academic disciplines. What is your view of this?
A: I believe exactly the opposite. A test score can only take a narrow snapshot of a young person’s experience, earned knowledge, and strengths. In fact, those who have struggled against the obstacles of poverty and discrimination bring enormous assets to the work of learning. It is the adult’s job to talk with young people respectfully about what they know and can do and to identify those assets in their stories. From there, we can coach them in applying those strengths in other areas. We can help them acquire a mindset that respects the power of practice to build mastery in any field they choose.
Q: Can you speak about the Learning in Afterschool learning principles and the degree to which you believe we should live by these principles in afterschool programs? And why?
A: Your core learning principles set forth a picture of active, collaborative, meaningful learning that supports young people in practicing habits of mind and work that will last them a lifetime. Solidly based in research, these principles are the same ones that we see in the best schools in the nation. They underscore the “anytime, anywhere” nature of learning. And they remind us that schools and communities must work as partners. All our young people must have rich opportunities to use their minds well, crossing cultural and political divides to help solve the problems that confront us all.
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.