Introverts and Education: Understanding the Shell

David DeHetre image

I am an introvert.

As a student I was quiet. I never raised my hand in class, even when I knew the answer. I preferred to sit in the corners and edges of classrooms and auditoriums (I still do). I had a few very good friends, but still favored my own company over large social gatherings. I loved learning, but was bothered by certain classroom rituals like presentations or group work. I enjoyed every subject and got good grades, but struggled with aspects of school where my extroverted peers excelled.

Recently, the topic of introversion has been gaining a lot of traction, entering conversations about education, business management and a number of research fields. As part of that trend, Susan Cain’s book Quiet has spent some time on the New York Times’ bestseller list, among other worthy distinctions. Inspired by Cain’s own experiences as an introvert in an extroverted world, Quiet traces the history and value of extroverted qualities as we’ve turned our “culture of character” from the 1940s and 1950s into a “culture of personality” today.

Check out Susan Cain’s TED Talk from 2012:

At its core, the distinction between introversion and extroversion has more to do with how a person might respond to stimulation, rather than a measure of social prowess. Extroverts crave stimulation, often in the form of other people; they are energized by stimulation and tend to actively seek it to feel balanced. Introverts, by comparison, need to recharge their batteries alone when the stimulation subsides. Though they may enjoy people and social activities, a feeling of balance comes only after more solitary or quiet activities.

As Cain points out, many aspects of our society are set up to favor or reward more extroverted qualities. It is a frustrating trend, considering 1/3 to 1/2 of the general population are introverts. Our education and corporate cultures tend to reward people who are seen as more outgoing. (Indeed, people who speak faster or more often are perceived to be smarter than their quieter peers, despite a lack of evidence to support such a conclusion.) Even the social infrastructure of both institutions has shifted in recent decades, encouraging the use of group activities and brainstorming, or open office concepts to facilitate collaboration.

There is hope for the quiet and socially reserved. A growing awareness of the differences between introverts and extroverts offers parents and educators a chance to find ways to value and develop the strengths for each. Some of the most revered minds in history (Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Bill Gates, etc.), earned their recognition from things they did after extended periods of time alone. As the era of the extrovert goes on, Cain offers some tips in her book for educators to help level the playing field for both extroverts and introverts, especially in the classroom.

Tips for Educators

  1. Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured. If an introverted child needs help with social skills, teach her or recommend training outside class, just as you’d do for a student who needs extra attention in math or reading. But celebrate these kids for who they are.
  2. Re-examine classroom “group-work.” Some collaborative work is fine for introverts, even beneficial. But it should take place in small groups – pairs or threesomes – and be carefully structured so that each child knows her role.
  3. Don’t seat shy or introverted kids in “high-interaction” areas of the classroom. They won’t talk more in those areas, but will feel more threatened and will have trouble concentrating.
  4. Balance teaching methods to serve all the kids in your class. Extroverts tend to like movement, stimulation, and collaborative work. Introverts prefer lectures, down time, and independent projects. Mix it up fairly.
  5. Try “pair sharing” techniques. In class discussion, ask a question. But instead of having students respond to the teacher, ask them to talk quietly with their neighbor about the answer. This is a low-stakes way of encouraging participation – with one other person. After, you might ask students to share their answer with the entire class. The more reticent students are more likely to speak to the group after talking quietly with a partner.
  6. Wait five seconds after asking questions in class. This gives the introverts time to think and encourages reflectiveness.
  7. Use online teaching techniques. Children may reveal their thoughts, ideas, and selves online in ways they would not in live discussion. And once they’ve participated online, they’re more likely to participate in class as well.
  8. If you’re going to grade on class participation, award separate grades for content knowledge versus participation. Also, broaden the notion of what constitutes participation to include online and written participation, as well as subtle skills like being a good listener and sharing airtime with classmates.

What have you learned from the introverts in your life?


Education Research Assistant, Bon Education

Image available under CC License by David DeHetre

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One Response to “Introverts and Education: Understanding the Shell”

  1. Julia Hedges July 31, 2014 at 8:13 am #

    I love being reminded of the importance of addressing all learning styles in the classroom, both for children and adults. Myriad multiple intelligences can be best met in a conducive classroom environment. I absolutely agree that on line platforms work great for opening learners up, providing higher order thinking time, and for demonstrating what they know safely, which helps scaffold the classroom time of pair sharing and group work. Individual reflection and thinking time is equally as important, and often gets lost in the classroom shuffle. Simple but informative article!

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