Teaching introverts: Do schools prefer big talkers to big thinkers?

Is a quiet classroom a less effective one?

Today, a roomful of students working alone at desks would look outmoded. These days children sit together at tables or in clusters of desks facing one another to encourage engagement and collaboration rather than introspection and solo thoughts.

This group-project infatuation overlooks the learning styles and strengths of  introverted students, said Susan Cain, author of the best-selling 2012 book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” (Her related TED talk remains one of the most widely watched ever.)

To help introverted students, Cain launched the Quiet Schools Network and this week published a new guide for introverted students, parents and teachers, “Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts.

Schools contend group work prepares students for jobs. Yes, the business world requires collaborative effort, said Cain, a Harvard-educated corporate attorney turned researcher and writer. “What we are seeing in schools is a very blunt misapplication of those truths. When people collaborate in the business world, it doesn’t mean they read a book together or write a memo together. You have a meeting and you decide what you are going to do. Each one goes and does it. It is not a 24/7 in-your-face collaboration with desks pushed together and students sort of looking at each other all day long. I don’t think any human beings work that way, particularly not introverted learners.”

A guidance counselor recently told me, “Our schools are now designed for extroverts,” a sentiment Cain understands. She’s compared the typical boisterous high school to “an all-day cocktail party without any alcohol.”

“The vast majority of students believe the ideal student is an extrovert,” she said in a telephone interview from New York. “There is zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas. I mean zero. But as long as you can talk and reformulate the same idea 17 different ways, that is rewarded.”

(Cain distinguishes between shyness and introversion. A shy student may hesitate to answer a question for fear of being embarrassed; an introverted student may just not feel compelled to contribute or be more interested in listening.)

Susan Cain

Susan Cain

As a child, Cain was asked, “Why are you being so quiet?” She came to realize schools and society idealized “outgoing students,” despite research showing introverts earn better grades and are more knowledgeable. A third to half of all people are introverts, she said.

An exchange student from China told Cain she was taken aback at how American students dominated classroom discussions, even when they had little to say. “All you have to do is talk nonsense and then the teacher nods respectfully and says ‘very good,”’ the student told Cain.

“Being able to hold forth on stage has come to take the place of the thought and actual work,” said Cain. “Yes, vocal contribution is a useful skill, but it is one skill among many others. It is not without value, but not inordinate value.”

That’s why Cain opposes grades for participation/effort that reward the students who are quickest to speak.

“I am more in favor of splitting out grades so we are grading kids on knowledge and material. I would encourage teachers to think in much broader, deeper ways about classroom engagement and contributions. We need to recognize there are many ways to engage with the material and classmates. It is not just raising your hand a lot. I would also start looking at questions of a student’s character. Are you a good listener? Are you a good citizen? Are you helpful to your fellow students? All these things matter.”

On Cain’s Quiet Revolution website, people share painful school experiences, echoing much of what she talks about in her new book:

•I was pressured in school to be extroverted, even to the point where I was held back in kindergarten for being “socially inept.” I was also a people pleaser so I learned to be chatty. Unfortunately, it was never comfortable. I envied the quiet kids, thinking that I’d be so much more comfortable in my skin if I could just have permission to be quiet.

•My parents were always told, “Your daughter is an excellent student but she is very quiet and reserved.” Being quiet and reserved are not necessarily weaknesses as many of you know. Rather, they are personality traits and teachers should treat them as such. When I heard about this as a child, I became even more self-conscious about my introversion and was made to believe that my love for calm solitude was something that needed to be remedied. Despite the feedback I received from teachers, I decided to go into teaching myself. Based on my experience in the classroom as a student and elementary teacher, I think the best thing we can do for introverted students is give them space and time to be introverted. I love the cooperative learning we do in schools but even I need a break every once in a while. I try to balance extroverted learning and introverted learning by have periods of action and solitude within my classroom.

•As a mom and fellow introvert, I watch my introverted 6-year-old daughter work hard not at the academics but in a classroom model that has group learning and desks in pods at every turn. Introverts need to be nurtured in their own way and having more teachers that are introverted will certainly help to direct that conversation.

•I think that it is so true that teachers in general try to change the quiet child instead of accepting them. It is a constant message that something is wrong with the child. There is nothing more powerful than a teacher who can say, “You are great just the way you are.” I’ve seen too many times children are criticized for being quiet.

Teachers often tell parents their child is an introvert as if it were a condition requiring correction. Cain believes schools ought to recognize the strengths — she calls them superpowers — of introverts, their ability to focus deeply on topics and activities, and a talent for listening with empathy and patience.

 

Reader Comments 0

20 comments
Moreofthesame
Moreofthesame

As the mother of a high school introvert, thank you.  I have the original book and bought this one for my daughter.  Very informative for me, an extrovert, who tries very hard to support my quiet kid.

Falcaints
Falcaints

I am still teaching the old fashioned way, teacher led.  I just nod and smile when we have to sit through "reform" presentations and then just continue to teach the way I always have.  I'm willing to let others be judged as an "all stars" by the administration, my test scores are just as good.

Carole Jester Spinks
Carole Jester Spinks

Introverted kids should be taught by quiet, introverted teachers, who enjoy thinking rather than incessant talking, and understand the feelings of introverts. Introverted kids are not comfortable with kids who talk, rather than listen, preventing them from hearing the teacher. Leave the loquacious, histrionic teachers for the like-minded children.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

I'm retired after 30+ years of University teaching, and always noticed--from the beginning to the end-- that many of my quietest students turned out to be my best students. They would sit near the back of the class and listen well, but just not have much to say in class. Often they were the ones who came back years later to tell me how much they appreciated my class. 


And this was a major reason that I never graded my students on their class participation.

bu22
bu22

@OriginalProf I disagree with her definition of shyness.  Some people just don't feel comfortable being the center of attention.  That doesn't mean they are "afraid" of giving the wrong answer.  I do think its beneficial in business to be able to "fake" being extroverted.  It is important to be able to work collaboratively, but it is also important to be a self-starter and to be able to complete things on your own.

bu22
bu22

@OriginalProf I always sat at the back of the class.  I still remember one HS teacher making the comment about me, "X doesn't say a lot, but when he does, its important."  Its a good article.  There are different ways of learning.

Looking4truth
Looking4truth

Whenever I gave a major assignment, the first question was always (at least in the last 7-8 years) "can we work with a partner?"  I usually said "no" (unless I designed it to be a team project).   I wanted students to think and do for themselves and not rely on a partner.  Lazy, unmotivated kids always want to partner with the "A" student because they know the "A" student will do all of the work to assure themselves the "A", and the lazy student won't have to work/learn. 

southerntchr
southerntchr

Students need to be taught that quiet, reflective time for reading, thinking, responding, writing, and listening is imperative to a well-rounded education just as collaborative work.  I have high school students who can not/ will not work independently on anything. 

Travelfish
Travelfish

One day, when each parent is free to choose the school which best meets their child's needs, this theory (and so many others) might be put to the test.

Nice glam shot of her, though.

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

@Travelfish One day you will realize, Moving your child to the school of choice is your responsibility not the government! 

Amy Blafer
Amy Blafer

In classrooms, we are allowed to differentiate as long as it looks like group students. This model does not appeal to all students. It certainly does not appeal to all teachers. A quiet classroom does not mean a worthless to all students. I just wish we had more options to show kids are learning beyond group learning. When I take college classes, I don't like to pull the lowest boat up on my tide all the time.

DrPohl
DrPohl

An excellent article. Indeed, there seems to be a particularly American preference for outgoing, talkative children (and adults) and a suspicion that quiet children are not conforming to this norm for nefarious reasons.

Craig Spinks
Craig Spinks

While this thesis appeals to my preference, I should remember that with classrooms, unlike with cheap socks, "one size doesn't fit all."

Milo
Milo

Please. Talk is everything. Look at politics. 

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@Milo Susan Cain made that point in the interview that the political scene right now illustrates the appeal of charismatic talkers over deep thinkers. 

redweather
redweather

Students typically complain, at least at the collegiate level, about "flipping" the classroom.  They don't want to be evaluated on group work. 

I think it has it's place, but some professors use it as an excuse for not teaching. My daughter took a sophomore literature survey and reported that every class meeting was "flipped" for anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes. That is dereliction of duty as far as I'm concerned. 

Fulton30350
Fulton30350

There's another element to this with teacher evaluation. My school interprets "positive learning environment" as mostly kids talking and teachers facilitating. You get marked down if students aren't doing most of the talking. Thus, tons of forced "turn and talk" scenarios for the sake of well, doing it, rather than if it's appropriate.