Friday, February 4, 2011

It takes 10,000 hours to motivate a teen.

click for link to "look inside" at amazon.
Yup: That's the basic premise of Kathleen Cushman's Fires In The Mind, in which she collaborates with over 160 teens on "The Practice Project"; together they explore what it means to be an expert at something and what it takes to get there.  Then they apply it to what they learn in high school.  (website link:

This is a highly readable book for teens, parents, teachers, administrators, community members, and maybe even those politicians and billionaire business people who think they should be the ones deciding how to improve education in our nation.  The prescription here is decidedly different from just firing all us lazy, bad teachers. 

Instead, it involves what all us good, hardworking teachers already know:  To inspire teens and to help them make the most of their educational experiences, you need resources and structures in place to offer what's known as "project based learning" - real-world experiences that require collaboration, problem-solving, and rigorous inquiry, supported by knowledgeable adult mentors - plus opportunities for consistent "deliberate practice" of skills important to building expertise.  Of course, those resources and structures simply don't exist in many states where funding for education is being cut dramatically, technology is antiquated and/or unreliable, and class sizes are over 30 and growing. 

However, many of the ideas for curriculum from the teens and Ms. Cushman can be pretty low-tech and look quite promising.  Cushman sees her role as - in part - bringing the voices of teens to the national conversation on education, and she offers a polyphony here, which makes this book a real page-turner.  Students offer up their experiences as experts in theater or cooking or playing the banjo or cross country running while they interview experts and each other to thoroughly define the notion of expertise and to determine how practice and performance factor into its development.  And Cushman offers up many pdfs for surveys and activities, as well as the students' suggestions to parents and teachers (and students themselves) for how to engage and sustain engagement in learning.

Even so, actualizing Cushman and company's curriculum model, which relies in part on inquiry groups going out into their communities and on class projects that offer direct benefit to those communities for over 30 teens at a time, 5 times a day, would be a major logistical, political, and legal challenge in many public school classrooms, certainly daunting and, in some cases, insurmountable.  
(Mini Rant: Skip it if you wanna...Example:  It's suggested that each student be assigned tailor-made practice homework each night, rather than one assignment for the whole class, and that teachers review each and every homework assignment, noting individual needs and re-teaching each student as necessary.  So if a teacher has 150 students - the norm in many states nowadays - that's at least 30-50 different homework assignments to create for each night, even assuming that some students will have the same individualized issues.  And then how much time would it take per class period and at night to assess and reteach each student?  Combine those tasks and they'll add up to more hours than there actually are in a day, literally.  Oh, and then there's that pesky preparation for state and national high stakes tests, which would have to be shoehorned in somewhere. Oh, and then there are all those districts and schools who force teachers to deliver a "canned" curriculum in which every day is already prescribed for them, so they have no discretion to implement any of this.  Sigh.)
All those impracticalities aside, this could be one inspiring book for teachers, parents, administrators, and students who have discretion in creating their curricula and who are blessed with class sizes of less than 20 students.  And almost all teachers could incorporate some elements from this work into their classrooms, with positive results.

Jump-Start Actions:
* Online Action:  Participate in Education Weekly's online book group on this text this week. Take whatever actions result from the discussion. OR go to and take action in any of the ways they offer.
* Inquiry:  Visit and thoroughly peruse Let that inquiry lead you to others if you have the time.  Then send the link to at least three parents, students, or teachers whom you know personally, with a specific message on why you thought it might be valuable.
* Creative Spark: Think of a skill or pastime or sport or art form you've always wondered about but never taken the time to investigate.  Do it now, and make sure that you investigate an expert in that field as well.  Then do one thing toward learning your chosen activity. 
* Connection: Use any of the surveys/interview question sets in the book with an expert in your community.  You pick the area of expertise - something that inspires you, or something that's easy to do, like interviewing a family member or friend about an area of expertise you've rarely asked them about...

MY ACTION: I'm discussing at Education Week, and I'm starting right now! (and I already included some of Cushman's ideas in the Reading for Change work I'm doing, plus I'm recommending her book to a few of my colleagues...)

Teachers, parents, home-schoolers, teens, community members:  Here's how to get a copy of the book.

MFB (and I've definitely put in my 10,000 hours toward failing better, so I'm an expert!),

This book's got me thinking:  Could you read widely and then make all of your actions relate to an area of expertise you want to build?  Why not?  I've already got a plan for my reading in February and March, but I might just try it in April.  Yes indeedy, I just might.  And I'd want to focus on an area of expertise that brings me pure joy, like playing guitar or singing or dancing or writing poems or growing things or getting stronger or cooking.  Or maybe I could alternate between actions & books related to career expertise and those related to pure bliss.

click here to 'see inside'

And finally, for the Crazy-for-Books blog hopWhat are you reading right now and why are you reading it?

 I'm finally getting around to Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential

Why?  I just finished the book reviewed above and our book group discussed The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan about the Israel/Palestine conflict - last night, so I'm ready for a more lighthearted break before diving into The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard. 

I adore Bourdain's No Reservations show and I heard an hour-long interview about his newest book, Medium Raw, and found him as snarky-charming as I would expect, so I thought his prose style would sizzle.  Here's to a tasty 'amuse bouche' (delicious bite) of a book before I tackle some more intense 'courses'.


Sidne,the BCR said...

hmn, I may have to make this a gift for several friends in the education field. I think and have said plenty of times, to much time is set aside for state and national testing and teachers can't teach what they think is valuable.

Robyn said...

Sounds like an interesting book. I think reading is definitely a way to build a kind of expertise in an area. Before I went to India, I wanted to read as much as I possibly could about the country. The trip was an education, but so was all the reading I did before I went, and it made the experience of the trip that much better. Currently, I'm learning to play the fiddle, and so very interested in know all about the history of the instrument, of those who play it, the songs, etc. Nice review about a very different kind of book.

As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

Hi--just stopping by on the hop and am now a follower. I'm also an independent bookseller so I wanted to give you a great big THANK YOU for having the IndieBound button on your blog!

I read the Bourdain a few months ago in preparation for working an event where he was the speaker--the book reads very much like his on-screen narrative, I thought. I think he'd be a little too prickly to like in person, but as a character/persona, I'm quite drawn to him.

Laurie said...

Sidne - Many thanks for understanding that the vast majority of teachers want to do more for their students but are hampered by many circumstances beyond their control. Such compassion is much appreciated.
Robyn - I so agree that reading/inquiry can enliven and enrich our understanding, even when we're already passionate about the subject matter. I still wonder whether/not it's possible to bring all books back to a central theme related to an area of interest/developing expertise.
Crowe - Thanks for the inside scoop on Bourdain. Yes, one might guess that he'd be a prickly pal. And thanks for offering your life and livelihood to enrich us all through books.

Heather said...

Oh, sister teacher of mine, you are a woman after my own heart! It is so frustrating to know what the research says about the way children and teens learn best, and then see your school organized in exactly the opposite ways to that-all in the name of passing some test. We need smaller learning communities with more technology and more authentic learning (i.e. project based), but that would require way more resources than politicians are willing to devote, because "you can't just throw more money at the problem". As big an advocate as I am for high quality public education for all, I do sometimes dream of starting a school where all of the pressure for scores is removed, and the pleasure of learning reigns supreme.

Laurie said...

Thanks for the solidarity, Heather. And I admire your blogs!

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