“The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight, for others, a lamplit desk.” – Susan Cain
Picture this scenario:
It’s the first day of school, and you’ve spent the last week setting up your classroom. You’re really proud of how it looks, and you smile as the students walk in and sit in the groups of desks, each trying to see if they’re sitting with their friends. You have each of the students introduce themselves – their name and their favourite memory over the summer. Then you introduce today’s project: they will make a list of possible classroom rules. You explain, “I will make notes on participation, and remember, this is my first impression, so make it count!” You see natural leaders emerging, and you love the buzz in the air as your class actively participates in discussions. After a while, you call on students to share what rules they came up with.
It’s finally lunch time. The students grab their lunches and excitedly discuss their day so far with their friends. You pat yourself on the back for a successful morning and head to the staff room with a new skip in your step.
Now picture this same scenario from the possible perspective of an introverted student:
It’s the first day of school, and you’ve spent the last week thinking about how that first day will go – planning it out in your head and thinking of possible scenarios. You walk into the class and see that the seats are in grouped tables which you don’t really like because you can’t concentrate, and you also note that none of the people you feel comfortable with are at your table. The teacher asks everyone to introduce themselves, but this is always really awkward for you because you never know what to say. Your palms become sweaty. Then you hear the dreaded words: group work. The teacher explains, “I will make notes on participation, and remember, this is my first impression, so make it count!” Uh oh. You panic as the pressure of the situation takes over and your mind goes blank. The other members of your group quickly take over, and there’s no point in trying, and even worse, the teacher calls on you to speak when you didn’t raise your hand and the Rule List isn’t really even yours anyhow.
It’s finally lunch time. You grab your lunch bag, hear the class get noisy and realize that though this is considered your break, there’s no escaping the stimulation. You just wish you could have some time to yourself.
Have you ever made one of these missteps? Have you ever seen a quiet student in your class and wrote on their report card that they needed to ‘speak up more?’ Have you ever sat a noisy class clown or disruptive at-risk student beside the quiet girl in the class because you think she will balance his behaviour and put him on the right track? Are you helping the quiet student in either situation?
Merriam-Webster defines an introvert as someone that “concentrates or directs upon oneself” and an extrovert as “a gregarious and unreserved person.” Studies have shown that 1/3 – 1/2 of people will identify as introverts, with the reminder being extroverts. That’s certainly more than I thought!
Does the classroom structure really support extroverts more than introverts? The simple answer is yes. North American society and schools prefer and cater to extroverts. And many introverts find it’s better just to fake it.
If you haven’t read Quiet by Susan Cain, it’s a must-read for understanding introverts: the definitive text for understanding these personality types. I remember reading it when it came out; it blew my mind. I also haven’t found an introvert article that doesn’t mention her or her book. In Cain’s chapter, “On Cobblers and Generals,” she argues that schools are built for extroverts. She explains it simply at first – why do we have classrooms of thirty students? Thirty students isn’t ideal to ensure every student is learning, but it’s cheaper. The extrovert ideal, Cain argues, is the American ideal: outgoing, vivacious and risk-taking. Many careers favour this ideal persona. Schools try to shape this ideal in their students because they believe the ideal to be ensuring the student’s future success, as I tried to demonstrate in the introduction scenario.
Interestingly, some societies have less of an extrovert ideal. In a comparison of Southern Ontario students and those from Shanghai, China, the results showed that more reserved children were “shunned” by Canadian children, but Chinese children preferred the shy peers to be both their friends and leaders.
I am certainly not saying that basing teaching and learning on extroverts is wrong. The goal for this blog is to have everyone feel accepted, and about 1/3 of your class, at minimum, would define themselves as introverts. Introverts can’t just change who they are. Therefore, how can we, as teachers and as a class, ensure that there is balance between the extroverts and introverts?
What’s My Perspective?
You may be wondering what perspective I am coming from… do I identify as an introvert? I decided to take a few quizzes. I came out with my usual results – slightly more introverted. In Susan Cain’s Quiet, I got 12/20 for introverted, and Buzzfeed’s (very unscientific quiz) said I was a Mild Introvert.
This reminded me of when I taught Careers last year and I had my students take the Myers Briggs test (see ‘Social Theories’ below). In my personality type, INFJ, the ‘I’ represents introverted. When I put that up on the board with my student’s results, one girl came over to question my result.
Student: “You’re an introvert?”
Student: “But you’re a teacher…”
Me: “Yes, but it’s still possible to be a teacher and to be an introvert. I enjoy interacting with all of you, but then I like going home and having some quiet time to refresh myself as well.”
She just couldn’t fathom that her teacher, who stood at the front every day and talked, could be introverted just like her.
Carl Jung popularized the terms ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ in his 1921 book Psychological Types. He believed that each person had a tendency to either retract in toward their unconscious or face outward towards others. Another way to put it is that Jung concluded that people had different amounts of outside stimulation that they needed to function well. Jung came up with four ‘functions’ that humans use when they are faced with conflict: sensing, thinking, intuiting and feeling. Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers created the Myers Briggs test using these functions, and further popularized introvert and extrovert terminology. I won’t go into too much detail on the Myers Briggs test, but it does group people into 16 categories of personalities.
The Multiple Intelligence theory by Howard Gardner is also useful to understand introversion. He proposed a list of 8 different ‘intelligences’ instead of the standard IQ test or what schools usually test for: Linguistic, Logical-mathematical, Musical, Naturalist, Kinesthetic, Spatial, Interpersonal and Intrapersonal. The final is the category which many introverts might fall into. Intrapersonal intelligence “is the capacity to understand oneself and one’s thoughts and feelings, and to use such knowledge in planning and directing one’s life. Intra-personal intelligence involves not only an appreciation of the self, but also of the human condition.”
Understanding the different intelligences can help us as educators to know that identifying as an introvert does not necessarily mean someone is intensely shy or disengaged. Instead, they are equipped with an intelligence that they might be stronger in than their peers, and they bring something new to the table just as their peers bring their sets of skills to the table.
There have been some intriguing medical studies done about introverts in the last few years which compare how the brains of introverts and extroverts are wired.
In 2005, Cohen et al. did a study titled “Individual differences in extraversion and dopamine genetics predict neural reward responses,” which researched dopamine levels in introverts and extroverts. Dopamine helps control the brain’s pleasure and rewards. The study, which used gambling as its method, concluded that introverts responded less strongly to the positive results of gambling, which might explain why they take less risks and respond less to social interactions.
In 2012, Holmes et al. researched differences in the pre-frontal cortex, which is the area of the brain that determines social patterns, cognitive thought and decision-making. They found that people that consider themselves to be introverts have differences in the thickness of the pre-frontal cortex than extroverts, which might explain why extroverts are able to live more in the moment and introverts take more time with decisions. Furthermore, introversion has been found in species ranging from the fruit fly to monkeys!
Behaviour might differ in introverts and extroverts, but these theories and studies demonstrate that introversion is not just a social construct. It’s built into the chemistry of people’s brains and has a stronger impact than one might think.
Ideas for the Classroom
If introverts feel too vulnerable in the classroom, this will not be conducive to learning. They cannot focus on critically thinking if they feel on edge. There are things that we can do as teachers, but also things that we can encourage our students to do so that both extroverts and introverts feel comfortable. How can we help them succeed?
- Support a classroom environment that doesn’t surprise or single out people, but instead gives them time to prepare
When you ask a question to the class, give them at least five seconds to think about their answer before you call on anyone, even if their hand is raised and they’re bouncing in their seats. Think / Pair / Shares are also a fantastic idea. A question is given to the class, and first, the students think by themselves, possibly writing down their answers. The second step is to share your answer with a partner, and the third step is sharing in a group or with the entire class. This gives all students a chance to express themselves, while also providing precise and interesting answers with the whole class. For speeches, give students adequate time to prepare in smaller groups as well so that they are comfortable.
- Expose students to new situations gradually, and take care to respect their limits
It’s important for introverted students to have opportunities to grow in areas where they might have difficulty. Get to know which students might have trouble with certain areas, and then have them create their steps and goals in order to get to that point. Be there to guide and support, but let them take the steps.
- Give ALL students a time for intrapersonal reflection
This exercise in metacognition is not just for your introverts, but it certainly plays up their strengths. One idea I’ve tried to implement from my time in the UK is a weekly journal. I have students reflect on an open-ended or opinion question that has to do with that week’s topic. Then they hand it in for formative assessment, not for marks, and I respond to them. The neat part is that when they hand in next week’s journal, they also can respond to my comments from last week. This allows for feedback and a continued discussion between the student and the teacher, which gives quieter students the ability to write about any issues they may have, allowing you to better support them.
- Notice their interests
Because introverts are often in their thoughts, they can fixate on something easily. They may have intense interests that you or their peers don’t know about! Take the time to ask them when it’s one on one, and find ways to fit these interests into the class, or for them to feel confident to be an expert on a topic.
- Add in creative thinking circles like accountable talks
Accountable talks are student-centred learning at its best. I believe a positive classroom culture needs to come from both the teacher and the students, and this is a time where that balance shines. Accountable talk “refers to talk that is meaningful, respectful and mutually beneficial to both speaker and listener.” Implementing the talks takes modeling from you as the teacher at first, but then students can lead them by themselves. It makes all students accountable for their learning, but in a comfortable and safe environment led by the students themselves. Accountable talks ask students to defend their knowledge, unpack how they arrived at their conclusion, link to their peers, and listen to others. It stresses the need for listening as learning and redefines the assessment of participation.
- Just as speaking frequently in class doesn’t mean you’re smart, not talking doesn’t mean you don’t know the answers
I asked my friend about being an introvert in school, and she said, “I try to avoid answering questions even when I know the answer so sometimes it’s so frustrating when they don’t get the right answer and you’re basically shouting it out inside your head.”
Give other ways for students to answer – through exit cards or smaller conferences.
- Create a quiet zone
Teachers often create spaces to encourage creative discussion, like couches around a table in the library, but it’s also important to create a space for introspection and less stimulation. This could be desks by themselves, a zone slightly cut off from the rest of the class, or other methods. Go outside and let them sit where they’d like! In my university course on Music and Geography, we discussed how headphones can change our perception of space. If you’re on a city bus with headphones, you become more isolated from others. You can use this to your advantage by allowing students headphones when appropriate. There are also noise-cancelling headphones available when stimulation is high. When I was in third grade, there was a bathtub in the back of the room filled with pillows. Thinking back, it was a little strange, but we each were so excited to get quiet time in the bathtub.
- Notice and highlight the advantages of being an introvert
Too often, they are seen as being less than an extrovert. But in general, there are great advantages. Introverts listen intently to what others say. They have rich inner worlds, and they usually read and/or write well. They tend to think before they act, which makes them good planners. They’re the dreamers, the artists; they’re the ones changing the world while you don’t even realize it.
Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is full of tips about how to positively interact with others. They’re very helpful to introverts, because Carnegie gives advice about behaviours that may not come naturally, but can be easily implemented and are ultimately quite useful. He also reinforces positive behaviours that do come naturally to introverts: he advises, “Let the other people do a great deal of the talking.” Being a good listener and making others feel heard usually makes you a better friend and a good person. What greater advantage is there than that?
Like my introverted friend told me, “You’re sort of more observant. Slowly you’re able to pick up strengths and weaknesses of others just by watching so you learn to use that when you have to do group work with them.”
– Switch between different types of activities and levels of peer interaction, so that all students can learn better.
– Don’t assume all introverted students have anxiety.
– Remember that intrapersonal is considered by research to be an intelligence, not an inability to be social.
In an era and geographical area where being extroverted is seen as successful, it can often be difficult for introverts to feel as if success is within their reach. Hopefully these tips and ideas can help you ensure your introverted students feel comfortable, confident and capable in your classroom!
Follow these links for further information should you wish:
How to support introverts in the classroom:
More information on introverts:
Tips for introverted teachers:
Understanding the limits of introversion: