- Be aware of over stimulating introverts (or indeed under stimulating extroverts) and use a mixture of activities to address the needs of both types of student;
- Introverts tend to prefer working individually (whereas extroverts tend to prefer working in groups), so, again, make use of both independent and group work in class in equal measures;
- Introverts like to think deeply about content (especially before sharing in public), so provide time to think and do not impose extrovert ideals on introverted students (by telling them to participate more).
I have just finished reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Just Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I read it as an introvert myself, trying to gain a greater understanding of some of my own limitations and find some of my strengths. But what I came away with most, was how being aware of the introverts in my class is so vitally important. Ironically, as an introverted child myself, I had never really considered this before.
Starting with an exploration of how extroversion became the ideal and the norm in the Western world, Cain looks to remind the world that both those on the extroverted side and the introverted side have strengths to offer. There are several reviews online that summarise the main points, and indeed Cain has a TED talk on the book too.
Before diving into the actual implications on teaching, a very important point must be made. Being an introvert is not something that needs to be "fixed". There is nothing wrong with introverted kids (or indeed adults). It is simply that they process information in a different way to extroverts. Much of society has developed to praise extroversion, but, as Cain goes to great lengths to explain, introverts have their own strengths.
It is estimated that between a third and half of all people lie on the introverted side of the spectrum. That means that in a class of 30 kids, we would expect between 10 and 15 of them to be introverted. This may surprise you, as many introverted people have developed ways to appear to be more extroverted. But in doing this, they are not being themselves, but rather living up to what they think is expected of them by society.
And now to the impact on education…
First, introverts tend to be more sensitive to stimuli. That includes loud noises, lots of displays, and even caffeine. Their brain processes these stimuli in a different way to extroverts. Where extroverts are naturally "under-stimulated", introverts are naturally "over-stimulated". Let's consider classroom talk as one example. For an extrovert, the noise and buzz around the room is exactly what they need. This stimulates them to actually be thinking more. But for an introvert, this noise is a severe distraction. It over stimulates them, leaving them both exhausted and unable to think clearly.
I can relate to that. When having a conversation with somebody, I enjoy getting into the details of whatever we are talking about. But when our conversation is in a loud space (such as the staffroom), I find it really difficult to focus on the conversation I am having. I often find myself flipping between the various conversations going on around me, and so I usually sit back, unable to actively participate in any of them properly. Now I understand this is because I am simply being over-stimulated by all that is going on around me.
What is the implication for teaching? Most teaching spaces are populated with lots of displays. These, especially if bright and large, can over stimulate the introverted students in our classes. And when students are working, if they are allowed to talk to each other, the introverted kids may be more likely to be unable to focus on the task on hand. Most introverts are able to deal with these in small doses, but being consistently bombarded by stimuli is a very draining experience for introverts. So when thinking about our classrooms and the activities we plan, try to use a range of activities that will suit both the extroverted kids and the introverted ones. And think about what time of day it is. If an introverted student has been made to work in high stimulus environments all day by the time they get to you, they may be utterly exhausted. And they may be in no fit state to do homework or anything else after school.
Secondly, Cain argues the importance of quiet sustained work, referencing the idea of flow from the work of Csikszentmihalyi and Deliberate Practice from Ericsson, and this is useful for both introverts and extroverts. Both these ideas require sustained time of silent work to think deeply about the current work, and they suggest that this individual deep work is where the most profound advances are made.
This is the natural state for most introverts. They are most comfortable working individually and in silence, and enjoy the challenge of the deep thought that this type of work enables. Introverts tend to be more engaged by parts of lessons which require them to think deeply and "be inside their own heads". This includes lectures and individual work.
Extroverts, on the other hand, tend to be less naturally adapted to this way of working, preferring to work in groups and discuss ideas. But, just as we need to help all students develop their ability to work in groups, we also need to help all students develop their ability to do deep independent work. What is more natural for extroverts is less so for introverts, and vice versa.
What is the implication for teaching? Think about the types of group activities you use. Whilst introverts are not against working in a group (many actually enjoy this in small doses, as long as it is productive and roles are clearly defined), they need some time to themselves to think deeply too. We should also be providing support for extroverts to develop the ability to work individually, allowing them to access the strengths of deep work. Again, ensuring we use a mixture of group based and individual activities is vital to address the needs of all students in the class.
Thirdly, introverts tend to think very carefully about what they are going to say before actually saying something. They are more hesitant to say something that might be perceived as foolish. This can mean that in class discussions, whilst they are thinking of lots of great things, they may not choose to share them with the class. In fact, many introverted students might get fed up with their extroverted peers who will often shout out the first thing that springs to mind without thinking it through. They will probably see this as a waste of time, and will almost certainly get frustrated if this kind of behaviour is praised (e.g. when a teacher says something like "Good effort" or "Nice try" when it was completely irrelevant or plain wrong).
Whilst we do want students to develop into adults who are able to say what they are thinking when it truly matters, forcing them to do this is probably not the best way to approach this situation, and may just cause more anxiety. Similarly, we want to help our more extroverted students develop the skill of thinking before speaking at times, so they do not just say what is on their mind.
We must remain constantly aware that asking introverted students to participate in class more is asking them to act more like an extrovert, which is just not who they are. Instead we should celebrate the amazing qualities they bring to the class, such as deep thought.
What is the implication for teaching? Giving students time to think before requiring answers is a great strategy, but even more so for introverted students. They will probably benefit from an extended period of time, where they can jot down a few of their ideas, and focus them a little, before being asked to share anything with the class. Whilst you should expect introverted students to participate in class, ensure they have time to be prepared before sharing. And don't force them if they really do not want to. The other side of this is when reporting to parents. The most dreaded line in a school report for an introverted student is "xxx needs to participate more in class". If they have something they feel is worth sharing, they will. If they are not sharing, then it is probably because they do not feel their ideas are fully formed and ready to be judged (by you or their peers). Telling them to participate more is telling them to be more extroverted. Rather than telling them to be something they are not, help them achieve their potential as an introvert by saying something like "xxx thinks deeply about content before sharing their well-formed ideas with the class" or "xxx has some really good insights in class based on their deep thought about the content".
There are so many more insights throughout the book, and I strongly recommend reading it. If you are an introvert, it might help you identify with some of the parts of your character you have tried to change or hide to fit in with the extroverted ideal (as it did for me). If you are an extrovert, it might give you an idea of what life is like for an introvert.
But I can summarise my main takeaways with regards to teaching in three points:
I am a maths teacher looking to share good ideas for use in the classroom, with a current interest in integrating educational research into my practice.