You Don’t Have to Take My Word For It #3: Student Mastery

My guest today is Kathleen Cushman, who runs The Practice Project (an initiative of the nonprofit What Kids Can Do, with support from MetLife Foundation). Kathleen Cushman’s new book with the students of WKCD is Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery (Jossey-Bass, 2010). She blogs about the Practice Project at


What makes kids want to get good at something?

Although I no longer have a classroom of my own, I’ve spent the past ten years at WKCD (What Kids Can Do) recording everything I can get students to tell me about what goes on in theirs. And last year, working closely with very diverse adolescents around the country, kids opened my eyes more than ever before.

We were talking about what makes them want to learn. So I started with the simple question: “What does it take to get really good at something?”

From their lived experience, the kids already had plenty of answers. Some of them were skateboarders, or played chess. A lot were really into sports, or music, or art. A couple of them liked making robots, a few acted in plays. They all had something they were good at, even if was simply making it safely home through a dangerous neighborhood.

In what WKCD dubbed the “Practice Project,” the kids and I took apart how all that learning happened. What sparked their early interest? What kept them going when it got hard? What and how did they have to practice? Whose encouragement and critique mattered? When they got really good at something, where did they take it next?

The students wanted to compare their answers to those of “expert adults” in the community, so they went out and interviewed some. Then they pulled out all the common elements of the process of getting good at something. We made our own list, called “The Habits of Experts.”

Still, there was an elephant in the room. It was time to stop pretending and ask: Where in school did kids see those habits fostered?

Did they feel a spark of interest when teachers introduced a new topic or task in math, science, literature, or history? Did schoolwork gradually lead them toward real mastery, despite frustrations? Did class routines and homework really give them the “deliberate practice” they needed?

Their answers—sometimes affirmative, often not—changed the way that all of us thought about what should go on in school. It had to be possible, we thought, for academic learning to unfold in the same way that kids experience when they are working hard at basketball or chess.

Before long, we were filling a book and a blog (both called “Fires in the Mind”) with what these young people could tell us about motivation and mastery. Once we had a common language that made sense of how they “got good” at something, it was easy for us to apply it to every challenge they took up.

I tried out that common language last year when I facilitated a regular “Practice Study Circle” with a group of New York City public school teachers. (Most taught middle school, some high school.) As we talked, we kept coming back to two simple questions:

“What am I asking my students to practice right now? And how am I asking them to practice it?”

That small shift in perspective – toward “deliberate practice” – helped these teachers make small but important shifts in how they organized their everyday lessons, homework, and assessments.

I’m sure you’re already planning for the school year that’s about to start. So what about you? What will you be asking your students to practice? How will you ask them to practice it?

The checklist below might be helpful as you think about what you want students to be practicing in the year ahead, and how you can encourage and support that practice. I’d love to hear your suggestions to make our list better—and your ideas about what else would light kids’ fires.

Our Goals for Practice in Class

A checklist by students for teachers

Do we see the meaning and value in the material you introduce?

  • You begin with a story, conflict, or puzzle that goes to the heart of it
  • You ask for ideas about how it might connect to our lives and interests
  • You introduce us to people whose work involves this knowledge or skill
  • You suggest class projects that would help us explore the material
  • You encourage us to adapt your project ideas, or propose our own

Do we know what excellent work with this material looks like?

  • You show us the work of real-world masters who use these ideas or skills
  • You share with us exemplary work by other students
  • You ask us for good examples we have seen outside of school
  • You write with us a clear rubric describing the qualities of good work

Do we know what to practice so we can put our learning to use?

  • You give us each a clear goal that we can expect to succeed at
  • You give us the chance to explore the material in different ways
  • You get us to tell you what we don’t yet know
  • You break what we have to learn into manageable parts or stages

Do you know what we understand and don’t understand?

  • You listen while we explain things to each other
  • You have us write directions for how to do some part of the work
  • You arrange Socratic seminars, debates, and other ways to discuss the work
  • You use homework and pop quizzes for diagnosis but not for grades

Do you coach us in what we don’t yet understand?

  • You have us play games that involve using the concepts and skills
  • You let us explore and discover in groups, through experiments and research
  • You have us demonstrate successful techniques to our peers
  • Your worksheets are short and give us only one thing to practice
  • You pair us up to practice skills together
  • You work with us one-on-one when we need it
  • You give us time in class for reading, writing, research, and problem solving

Do you ask us to assess our progress and that of our peers?

  • You have us assess ourselves based on the rubric we developed together
  • You ask us to reflect on what new things we have learned
  • You ask us to describe where we need to practice more
  • You ask us to suggest what kind of help you need
  • You ask us for feedback on how to teach the material better


Thank you, Kathleen!

You can also download Kathleen’s 5-day curriculum to try your own Practice Project with students, or watch her series of 3-minute videos in which kids talk about practicing everything from ballroom dancing to reading.

Next week’s Word, and the last in The Line’s summer series, is with Mike Doyle, exploring his unique perspective on education as both a science teacher and a former doctor.

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