The introvert in the classroom

MIGHT-NOT-SAY-MUCH

“If you’re a teacher, enjoy your gregarious and participatory students. But don’t forget to cultivate the shy, the gentle, the autonomous, the ones with single-minded enthusiasms for chemistry sets or parrot taxonomy or nineteenth century art. They are the artists, engineers, or thinkers of tomorrow.”

Susan Cain, Quiet

I thought I would start this piece by revealing a little bit of myself…

• I prefer not to be in large groups of people.
• I struggle with small-talk but love discussing serious matters in depth.
• I would usually prefer to read a book than go to a party.
• I enjoy spending time on my own daydreaming and thinking.
• I prefer to work alone rather than collaboratively.
• I like to arrange to do as little as possible during the holidays.
• I am uncomfortable in unfamiliar surroundings even though I love travel and new experiences.
• I am unambitious.

I do not expect to receive too many party invitations on the back of this – thankfully! What I am trying to say is simple. I am an introvert.

Unlike my extrovert brethren, who prefer the speedy, sociable glare of the here-and-now, I lean naturally towards reflection, slowness and quiet. Susan Cain’s quite brilliant book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which has reshaped my understanding of myself, has inspired me to write this post. The introvert-extrovert divide, as Cain notes, is the ‘single most important aspect of personality’ and, I believe, our understanding of it might have some interesting implications for education. Depending which study you believe, at least a half to two-thirds of Americans are introverts – I imagine that here in the UK, with our characteristically phlegmatic national psyche, the statistics are likely to be weighted even more heavily towards introversion.

So let’s roll back the years. What did the internal, unassuming child I once was struggle with at school? Group-work:  the loud shouted over the quiet. Noisy lessons: I preferred quieter conditions that allowed me to think deeply and carefully. Being put on the spot by the teacher: I would struggle to think quickly and so would appear less knowledgeable than I actually was. And the worst? A teacher in Y7 who expected us to learn from a series of worksheets with no instruction from the front.

You may think it  strange, therefore, that this introvert decided to become a teacher, a profession surely designed for the assertive, limelight-seeking extrovert. However, by shedding light on historical introverts such as Gandhi and Rosa Parks as well as a wealth of fascinating research, Cain’s book seeks to question the ‘Extrovert Ideal’ and reimagine how we view introversion. Great thinkers, leaders and teachers can often achieve greatness because of their introverted nature. In fact, for me, my natural temperament might be one of my strengths – I avoid too much superfluous off-topic chat, I plan my lessons meticulously and I read in-depth around my topic. I was once described as a ‘methodical yet interesting’ teacher and I rather like it (although I didn’t when I first heard it!). Even though teaching might seem to be more naturally suited to the extrovert personality, I like to think I have carved my own little niche through, not in spite of, my natural preference for quiet. Cain also notes the way we can put our introversion to one side and become pseudo-extroverts. This works best if we pursue ‘core personal projects’ – work that feels intrinsically worthwhile to us – because otherwise we risk burnout or unhappiness.

I have, however, not always used my personal experiences to shape my teaching practice. I have set up many a group-work task when an independent task might be more suitable. I have actively encouraged classes to be more noisy than they need be, even though I teach a subject that involves reading and writing, two naturally quiet pursuits. I have watched students squirm under my unforgiving stare after asking them to think on the spot. Why? Because I was trained to believe that student talk is everything.

By their nature, schools are set up for the extroverted personality to shine: large classes, collaboration and a wide variety of tasks do not suit the introverted student. Take Cain’s description of a group-work scenario she observed in a classroom. (Students are passing around a bag so that they speak one at a time.)

“Maya looks overwhelmed when the bag makes its way to her.
“I agree,” she says, handing it like a hot potato to the next person.
The bag circles the table several times. Each time Maya passes it to her neighbor, saying nothing. Finally the discussion is done. Maya looks troubled. She’s embarrassed, I’m guessing, that she hasn’t participated. Samantha reads from her notebook a list of enforcement mechanisms that the group has brainstormed.
“Rule Number 1,” she says, “If you break laws, you miss recess…”
“Wait!” interrupts Maya, “I have an idea!”
“Go ahead,” says Samantha, a little impatiently. But Maya, who like many sensitive introverts seems attuned to the subtlest cues for disapproval, notices the sharpness in Samantha’s voice. She opens her mouth to speak, but lowers her eyes, only managing something rambling and unintelligible. No one can hear her. No one tries…”

Sound like a familiar scenario to you? We learn later that Maya is an intelligent student and a very gifted writer.

So what are the implications for teachers? Firstly, I would be deeply mistrustful of any suggestion that introverts and extroverts learn differently. We do not; we just prefer to learn in different environments. However, next time someone tells you that all kids prefer group work, I can assure you that this is patently untrue!

Here are a few considerations for the classroom – some from Cain, some from me:

• If you choose to use group work, consider carefully who your introverted students will sit with and keep group sizes very small. (Interestingly, Cain presents a huge amount of compelling evidence that ‘collaboration kills creativity’ in the workplace – and presumably in the classroom too. A group will devise more ideas and better ideas if individuals work independently and share the ideas – preferably electronically or in writing – than if they have ‘brainstormed’ them together).

• On a similar note, the creative, multi-modal lesson may not provide the time and space that introverts need to think.

• Introversion is obviously not a get-out-clause. However, it is unhelpful to write report comments such as ‘he needs to participate more’ or ‘she is too quiet in class’. It creates anxiety in young people who become increasingly unhappy and frustrated with who they are. As Cain writes, “Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.”

• Nevertheless, some introverted children will need encouragement with speaking up and sometimes extra support at a pastoral level.

• Give kids an ample amount of time to think before they share ideas. When they do share, ensure that the ideas of introverts are given even weight to those of extroverts. Focus on what they say, not how they say it.

• Celebrate the deep interests of introverts. In time, these might become genuine talents.

• Calm parents who might be worrying about, or putting extra pressure on, their children. There is at least one parental conversation that might have gone differently this year if I had read Cain’s book beforehand.

• If you are an introvert yourself, sharing the fact with your introverted students and their parents can be very helpful.

• Remember that the definitive function of education is to help children learn not to engineer their personality. Yes, we must encourage pro-social behaviour and some degree of confidence; quietness, however, can hardly be described as anti-social.

• Finally, as cognitive scientists like Daniel Willingham point out, ‘we remember what we think about’. For learning, what  is happening inside their minds is more important than what they say and do.

The world we live in relies on the harmony between the loud and the quiet. Both are important. We need those who reflect and think, along with those who act and speak. Although most fall somewhere in the middle, it is easy to forget the needs of our quieter students.

Social awkwardness often masks brilliance – so I like to think!

Susan Cain’s TED speech:

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18 thoughts on “The introvert in the classroom

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  8. Fantastic blog. I can see myself (an educational practitioner and researcher) as well as my son (aged 5 and in Reception) in your introvert traits. I already worry his sensitivity and introverted nature might be confused with him not understanding or being socially inept.

  9. What a fantastic post , I’m very much like you. My reason for teaching is my desire to really help people. Unfortunately, the classroom tends to reflect the world outside, and it’s a Jungle, survived by the fittest, and loudest. I see the more introverted students in my classes, and I see myself, and it gives me a real buzz to try to listen to their whispers, and bring out there abilities….and I think you’re right too – “Social awkwardness often masks brilliance”. Cheers to the brilliant ones!

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  11. Great post! I, too, am an introvert and use a lot of my energy (and skills I learned from an improv course I took in undergrad) to put myself out there. I try to allow those who prefer to work alone to do so, and at the same time give them opportunities to work collaboratively. What is hard to teach 14 year olds is the duality – that in a group, one can work independently and contribute collaboratively… it is also hard to relay that message to other stakeholders (admin, parents), who put on a full court press regarding collaborative work.

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  13. I agree a key point is for the teacher to allow time for all the students to think before demanding a response. We can time it, have some kind of game, distraction or time-filler, even simple counting 10 or 20 – but the bit of thinking time is essential. It also slows down the “blurters”, who too readily give an instant reaction without without giving the issue due consideration.

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  16. I’d missed this post, Andy – thanks to David Bunker for including it in his ‘blogs of the year’ and so drawing my attention to it.

    I was pleased to hear Susan Cain speak at the Seizing Success conference in 2013. Interestingly, she asked the audience a number of questions about their preferences and, on the back of that, established that about 3/4 of the audience considered themselves introverts. This wasn’t what you might expect from an audience of teachers and school leaders! She then went on to talk about how the education system tends to favour the extrovert, which really made me think.

    I do quite a lot with aspiring leaders at all levels, and am also mindful how often introverts may find it harder to show what they’re capable of in the usual selection process. Panels (eg of governors in headship interviews), in my experience, are often over-impressed with extrovert qualities. When I’m working with selection panels I do my best to balance that and help raise awareness of the quiet strength of some less extrovert applicants.

    You may also have seen these posts by @lucindapreston. I reviewed them for Academies Week in October:
    http://greenlightteaching.com/2014/07/11/a-quiet-revolution-part-1/
    http://greenlightteaching.com/2014/09/13/a-quiet-revolution-part-2/

    Thanks again for the post.

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