The Inner Game of Learning

I recently read W. Timothy Gallwey’s “The Inner Game of Tennis”. Written to help tennis players understand the mental component of succeeding in tennis in 1974, this book has been widely recognized for its sagacity beyond the tennis court. I have been reflecting on the wisdom of this book as it applies to learning and school.

Start with the art of relaxed concentration. In my life, relaxed and concentration often exist in mutual exclusivity. I am relaxed at the end of the day plopped on the couch with a book or in front of the TV, and I concentrate while sitting in front of my computer in the office. In classrooms we want students to concentrate on the important learning tasks, but we are not always fostering an environment of relaxed concentration. I’ve seen teachers do a check-in with students and ask them to take a moment to become aware of how their minds and bodies are feeling at the outset of class. The mindset of the teacher often sets the tone for the students. There is so much pressure to cram so much into each school day. Yet teachers must maintain a mindset of relaxed concentration to create an optimal environment for learning.

Yesterday during a session about engaging students at the IB Conference in Chicago, educators from MacLachlan College in Ontario, Canada posed the question “What is the difference between a busy classroom and an active classroom?” I realize that I often create busy environments in which a great deal of activity occurs, but to create an active classroom mindfulness is required. Creating an environment in which relaxed concentration can occur takes time and planning.  The presenters from MacLachlan demonstrated how they involved fifth grade students in envisioning and designing the classroom layout to create a space for active learning. My first thought was “How could they afford to spend so much time on designing the classroom space when there is so much curriculum to cover?” and my second objection was “Won’t the students feel frustrated when they don’t actually get the pasta maker and beds suspended on ropes they asked for?”  

Yet, as teacher Ashleigh Woodward explained how she understood the motivations behind the students drawings—this one focused on being comfortable while learning; that one focused on collaborating to learn—it became evident that there are common needs when designing a space to promote learning and student buy-in empowers students to be mindful of themselves as learners. The real question is, Can we afford not to take time to prime students for learning each day at school?

Gallwey develops the metaphor of Self 1 and Self 2 in which Self 1 is constantly observing, reflecting and judging Self 2 during the learning process. By learning to distract Self 1 one can avoid judgment to enable Self 2 to learn and grow, a natural human process. An example of this is how babies learn a language. Parents don’t directly instruct their children to speak and understand English. Babies learn naturally. To tap into this innate ability to learn, Gallwey instructs us to simply observe, rather than judge, ourselves to allow learning to happen. When the mind “is still and acts like a mirror” we grow. Teachers can do this by staying curious in the classroom, and listening to student discussion without judgment. Rather than responding with “great!” or “not quite” teachers can thank students for their input and seek responses and reactions from other students. 

These tweaks to teaching—checking in with students, involving students in designing spaces for learning, staying curious and neutral, rather than judging—can have a large impact on the amount and quality of learning that can take place. I’m inspired to practice these ideas in my home and at school…and possibly to work on my serve this summer as well.