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Inside Out is a hit movie.

But, what does it mean to really live from the inside out? Frankly, its the key to happiness. Here's how inside out thinking can change the way students learn.

Adults should listen up as well.

There's a good lesson here.


Deanna came into the office with a worried look and a good question. 

“Pick Up” Your Transcript:

Her teenage son, Max, was called into an assembly and came out upset.  Apparently, his high school principal had called everyone together to tell them—“to pick up your transcript.” 

  • Explanation: The value of being in tenth grade is to make your transcript as good as possible so you'll get into the best possible college.

Deanna knows her son and is concerned is turned off by this kind of thinking.

“He's a good student but he finds the the principal's attitude distasteful. Max can’t stand the school’s preoccupation with grades.”

  • What should a therapist or an educator say?

It’s strange to be on the receiving end of questions like this one—it’s outside of my training in psychotherapy and medicine—but here’s a shot.

Grades and Learning:

What, after all, can possibly be distasteful in a call for good grades? After all, we are measured all our lives by performance at work, by the way we hold ourselves and, even how we look.

  • Isn’t the principal doing Max a favor by telling him how the world works? 
  • Shouldn’t Max just get with the program? Measurement is here to stay, so Max is best off understanding this early on in life.
  • And, isn’t Max’s principal helping his school by encouraging better college placements? After all, his school is being measured as well.

Listening to Deanna, I felt a bit torn. There are two sides to this story.

  • But, I think Max has a really good point. In fact, it’s the winning point. 

After processing all this with Deanna, some clarity came to the two of us. It’s the tension about learning from the inside out versus learning from the outside in. To understand this better, let’s examine an important cultural notion that intertwines with our children as they grow up.  

It’s the marketing concept called branding. 

Branding and Value:

Adults, and now kids more than ever, seem preoccupied with getting the right clothing, the right sneakers, smart phone or computer equipment—the right stuff. Branding is a function of corporate culture and American commercialism. It leads kids and adults to want to buy and have things so that they feel secure that they are in—that they’ve got the right thing and, by extension, have value.

Now, it true that many brands are simply better, but branding also carries a darker side. Sometimes the brand itself becomes the value and not the experience or quality of what that brand name signifies. 

From the Outside In:

And so, when you buy that special shirt, smart phone or purse, you are not just buying the value of that item but you are often feeling good from—what I would like to call “the outside in.” By having the right thing, the right brand, you feel that somehow you have arrived and that you are okay. 

So it is with education. If your child goes to the right school, she will be fine. If he gets the right set of grades he will be fine. Now, the same point applies here. 

While there is value in good grades and good schools—where’s the rub?

From the Inside Out:

Deanna came in asking about Max because she understood intuitively that there is an “inside out” way of learning as well. When a student feels good and is consumed by a passion for learning, the natural consequence is usually the accomplishment of good grades. She is successful in a deeper way and will better enjoy the pleasure of being accepted at a school that has a quality consistent with who she is. This is “inside out” learning and it is something that is so important for who we are as people as learners going into our lives.

Every wise educator struggles with this. 

How much do we teach to grades and to tests, and how much do we teach to passion.  On the surface it should be to passion, but what is demanded by parents, school districts and government are grades. Nobody has a good answer to this problem but the tension—that wrestling match between the two—deserves to be honored.

Deanna is Heard:

People who learn from the inside out really take pleasure in learning while those who learn from the outside in often look at the project of getting into college as something that they are compelled to do. Pleasure for the second group is replaced by anxiety—“will I be good enough?”

And so Deanna and I talked about this problem and she went to the principal to discuss Max’s concerns about being trapped in a world that compelled him to do well as opposed to a world that encouraged his passion to do well.

The good news is that this mother felt heard—at least in part. Schools don’t have a good answer to this dilemma because it is embedded in our world. 

  • Do we do study and work with the end goal exclusively in mind?
  • Or, do we engage in projects for themselves, which can lead to the goal? 

Here are two different ways of approaching school work, and later, ones chosen career path. They sit in our hearts as two competing motivators in what makes for a good life.

Outside In or Inside Out—A Choice:

For some, this is splitting hairs, while for others; it’s what makes all the difference.

If we brand ourselves too much, the car, the sneakers, the phone, the faucet, the address—you know what I am talking about—it almost inevitably leads to a new brand—the college that we go to. Yale, Harvard, Stanford and any number of colleges are often only as good for the student as their passion to get something out of it. That is one of the conundrums of education. 

Do we spend our lives developing ourselves as a brand that is of interest to others, or do we approach the world from the inside out with the passion of a person who takes pleasure in learning, that ultimately comes from the inside?

Deanna understood what was at stake, and so did Max.

Sometimes teenagers know what they are talking about.

Academic Success Guaranteed:

If you—or your child—can learn from the inside out, the world becomes infinitely more interesting. Whatever your grade may be, you will be the winner. Guaranteed.

Let’s hope that our educators agree. 


Research Assistant, Gabriel Banschick

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