Teacher Blogs

The Inner Game of Learning
Posted 01/03/2017 07:02PM

By Michael Chellman, Middle School

January 2017

"How can my students learn more?"— the question teachers have asked themselves throughout the ages.

There are traditionally two paths: factors outside the student and factors inside the student's mind.

What is the outer path? Students know it well: Advice from teachers, parents, and study guides.

What is the inner path? Students have no idea. Socrates said the key to wisdom is to "know thyself." Most students are strangers to themselves when it comes to how they learn from the inside out.

Most students have been trained to focus on performance—grades—to the exclusion of other concerns. But there is more to school than meets the gradebook.

When struggling students come to me I ask: "What do you want in this course?" A common answer is "to get a good grade"—the outer game. But there's a better game to play: Be in school to fulfill your potential.

The message to students could be: "Instead of focusing on getting an A, ask yourself, 'If I have abilities in this class, how can I get the most learning out of those abilities?' The grade will take care of itself. You think your obstacles are time, homework, and other factors outside of yourself. In reality, your biggest obstacles are inside you."

When one of my 8th graders came to me "struggling" with an 85 average, she exclaimed, "But Mr. Chellman, you don't understand. I'll be miserable if I don't get an A." She was essentially saying, "I am my performance." Her obsession with grades impeded her performance.

One task of the inner game is to help students like this 8th grader distinguish between who she is and the grades she earns, so her true self can shine through unimpeded by external factors.

The inner game reveals profound insights: Students get in the way of their own learning. Further, students don't need more outer advice; they need to apply more of the wisdom that already exists inside them. They need to learn from their own experiences.

Just like athletes need coaches, students need teachers who can train them to discover their own wealth of inner resources; to support their efforts to build learning skills; and to inspire them to overcome doubt.

Without a better understanding of the mental side of learning and some compassion for the vulnerabilities and aspirations of our students, all the study guides and teacher tips in the world won't help.

Building a bridge between the inner and outer paths can help our students thrive far beyond the classroom. Achievers in an array of professions describe it as "being in the zone" or "flow." Success in the inner game is often the deciding factor between outer game success and failure.

"Student growth psychology" is what I call the education equivalent of sports psychology. It's time to shine a light on the dim inner path as it applies to the classroom.

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