Fires in the Mind–a review

Kathleen Cushman starts a lot of fires. She and I exist on opposite sides of a similar plane and that is a good thing. We had the opportunity to Skype a few months back so that we could share about our research. A common comment overheard during our conversation was “Yeah, I don’t do that” and we quickly discovered that we take similar approaches to answer similar questions about different players in a very large ‘game.’

I have been prodding Kathleen every so often to have an impromptu unconference discussion where we could point/couterpoint about Expertise acquisition and classroom dynamics. Unfortunately, there would be lots of points and very few counterpoints. We tend to agree a lot which, as some of you may know, is a rare occurrance in my life when talking about education.

Recently, I was surprised by a package at my door from NYC. Opening it, I found a shiny new copy (hardback, or cloth, as they say in the industry) of Fires in the Mind with Kathleen’s regards and a request to review. Flattered and eager to tear into it, I began reading. I had to put it down.

Was I too touched by the gesture? I picked it up to read again and made it only halfway into the first chapter. Was I being–perish the though–sentimental?! I put the book down for the second time.

While on vacation this week, I committed to read and review this book. I read it in one sitting and took lots of notes. There was so little with which I could argue. I have included my review below:

What the reader will find between the covers of “Fires in the Mind” is a kinship with students on their road toward success. It is a challenge not to project yourself into the seats with the students, shifting in your imaginary chair with an eagerness to share your own insights and history. Cushman has woven together the narrative of these student reports; it is a refreshing ten chapters as each page allows their commentary to shine.

As I found in my own research, students are astute in their abilities to recognize traits of Expertise and to tease out the necessary components that lead to skill development. What are considered provocative statements among teachers come easily from their discussions. Few of them began with any ‘talent’ or innate ability; they were drawn to their areas of interest. They struggled and then recognized the need to make a decision to persevere or not. Accurate statements about motivation and practice are regular occurrences in the student discussions. Several times, I found myself agreeing-out loud- with their recounted stories of ‘one more time through.’

The ideas that these students bring to the discussion about education are crucial and worthwhile. Curricular integration, homework, support structures, and performances are given real consideration by these young scholars. Their responses are impressive. Get rid of homework? No, make it better. The discussion of motivation could be a book of its own along with a sequel about deliberate practice. These students get it. It should make us question what we are doing to boost this type of activity.

Cushman does not take the role of leader in this process so corrections and redirections are not evident. My primary critique of the book is that I would like to have read more of the student interviews in their entirety. Perhaps supplemental materials either, online or in print, may be added to future additions to allow the reader a more contextualized look into the minds of these developing experts and researchers. As an Expertise theorist with a few of my own irons in the fire, there are a few footnotes I would make but the author maintains the focus on the students and they tell a great story. This book is about the voices of the students and at this task it has succeeded.

Kathleen Cushman has captured the intimacy, clarity, and insight that only students can provide about their education. The frank operational explanations of interest, motivation, practice, and expertise are an open door to the workings of the adolescent mind. This is journalism, not research, and it works; this is a diary of effort that gives hope. It is not a solution. It is a plea to teachers and students to keep it up: you are not alone.

Everyone who has struggled to attain mastery on any level should read this book. It rockets us back to the awkward beginnings of our adolescent interests and budding competencies. This is a snapshot of success about to burst.

For more information about Kathleen Cushman, her work, and this book go to:

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  • I want to thank you, and also to say that I have many hundreds of thousands of words of transcripts from these students and would love to share more completely how they worked through these questions! During the 15 months of working in depth with student groups, I was also reading through the literature (notably the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Development, but also much more), and my sessions with students were our mutual exploration and application and testing of that array of research against the ordinary context of their schooling and their life outside of school. Of course the kids knew they were not experts, but they had the craving to be really good, and they found adults whom they admired to hold up as benchmarks of excellence, and even expertise. (Also, btw, by searching YouTube for “Fires in the Mind” you can hear kids talk directly about their experiences of deliberate practice.)

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dr. David D. Timony, Dr. David D. Timony. Dr. David D. Timony said: Journalist writing about #Expertise–wait, did I just set that book on fire?! @kathleencushman […]

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