Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Introvert in Your Classroom

I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain several weeks ago, and I am still reflecting on many of the ideas. Cain begins with a discussion of the development of what she calls the Extrovert Ideal--an ideal that many of us are, consciously or unconsciously, very familiar with. As an introvert, I have frequently felt pressure to be more extroverted, as many of the cultural messages we get assume that being extroverted is "right" and introversion is. . . well, weird. I have often felt like there was something wrong with me because I wasn't more extroverted

I know that my introversion has impacted my professional life. I'm terrible at networking. I find small talk conceptually confounding. I can do it, but not without a lot of conscious thought and effort, and I find it exhausting in every sense of the word. On the contrary, when I can connect with one person (or a small group) and delve really deeply into a topic I feel energized. But chit chat? Lost on me.

I could go on and on about this book, but instead I'm going to encourage you all to read it (it's perfect for introverts who could use some affirmation, or for the extrovert who just doesn't get it) and just highlight some ideas that resonated with me in terms of teaching and learning.

* The importance of asynchronous participation

L'esprit d'escalier is a lovely expression (generally translated as "staircase wit") that describes a feeling many of us have experienced; it's when you think of the perfect thing to say after you've left the room. Usually it's used to refer to that witty comeback that wakes you up at two in the morning, but for me it applies to all sorts of situations. That crucial question about a new project or initiative. An insight from past experience that would be useful to a colleague. The idea or input that's pertinent to the topic at hand. The feedback on an ongoing project. All of which I find next to impossible to offer up during most meetings. I am generally ready to speak up in a meeting precisely when we've moved on to a new topic--or after the meeting is over.

It can be hard for introverts to speak up in class. This is not even just about extending wait time after you ask a question (though that's always good). An extra five seconds isn't always going to cut it--some students will need an hour or two. Which is not really a reasonable wait time.

While it's an oversimplification, I've heard the difference between extroverts and introverts explained as introverts think before they speak and extroverts speak to think. The introverts in your classroom are busy absorbing information, sorting it for relevance, reflecting on it, and incorporating it into what they already know. Of course, the extroverts in your classroom are doing this as well--they're just doing it out loud.

This is where asynchronous participation becomes invaluable. The introvert who isn't ready to speak up in class may be ready to contribute to an online discussion later that night. Or do better sharing with one classmate rather than a whole group. Or asked to reflect on the previous day's discussion during the next class. It's important that the brilliant ideas that occur on the stairs have a place to be heard.

* It's not just about how much you participate

The person who comments on a blog or replies to a listserv with only the phrase "I agree" without adding anything more? I can pretty much guarantee that that person is not an introvert.

I struggled with this in graduate courses that required participation in online discussions. It was important to me that I not simply be reiterating the same information and ideas--I wanted to be adding something new to the discussion. Otherwise, what was the point?

For many extroverts, chiming in with agreement is a way to build community and show consensus, so echoing earlier ideas is an act of community-building. On the other hand, many introverts only see value in adding their voice to a conversation if they're contributing new information. Both motives have value, but it often means that it looks like extroverts are participating more.

This also happens in group discussions in class. We tend to value the input from people who are the loudest--regardless of whether they're the most qualified. Introverts' voices tend to be drowned out. Cain sites a fascinating experiment in which students performed poorly on a task (selecting and prioritizing resources needed if they had crashed somewhere) despite having an expert in their group--because that expert was an introvert and was easily shouted over.

Which leads me to my next big take away:

*Group work is not king.

During a library school assignment I described my ideal library as one with room for both active collaboration and quiet contemplation. I was particularly happy with this turn of phrase, and proceeded to overuse it as much as possible.

I deeply value many of my collaborative relationships with colleagues, but I think it's important to remember that collaboration and group work are not the only way. Cain points to several studies that show that we get some of our worst ideas when we brainstorm as a group. But group work has become the assumed ideal.

There is value in group work, and I think structured group work can provide an excellent venue for introverts to develop skills necessary to sharing their work in public and with their peers. But extroverts could also benefit from developing the skills needed to work independently and reflect deeply on a topic before sharing ideas.

*Sometimes it's okay when a kid sits alone. Really.

We will, sooner than seems possible, be welcoming new students to campus, and welcoming back our returning students. The first several days are a whirlwind of group activities and events. The mantra is that everyone must participate all the time. And I get that--having everyone together those first few days really builds a sense of community, and helps ensure that our new students make connections (and don't have too much time to get homesick). Introverted me is exhausted by these days, and my heart always goes out to the introverted students in the group. There is a lot of new information to take in during these days, and the more introverted students have a hard time finding time and space to process all of it.

Sometimes the kid sitting alone is not lonely, or distraught, or unable to connect with other people. Maybe he just needs a break to reflect on the day. And that's okay. More than okay. It's what that student needs.

*Extroversion is not the ideal. Neither is introversion.

We will have extreme extroverts and extreme introverts and everyone in between in our classes. It's important that we create environments where they're all able to not only use the skills that come naturally to them, but to safely and comfortably develop other skills. We can't "make" someone be introverted or extroverted, nor should we want to. But what we can do is try to better understand the different strengths we all bring to the table.

Further reading on introversion (in case I wasn't long-winded enough):
10 Myths About Introverts

4 Ways Technology Can Enable Your Inner Introvert

Are You Shy, Introverted, Both, or Neither--And Why Does it Matter?

Is Shyness and Evolutionary Tactic?


  1. You might add to your reading list "Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto" by Anneli S. Rufus. If that book had been around when I was young it would have helped me tremendously.

    Also, keep in mind that some extroverts are not just seeking consensus. Many of them are seeking approval, popularity, and being perceived as with "the right group of kids." Loners and quiet children are often left out of this but that doesn't mean they aren't listening.

    Come to think of it, you might also check out Stephen Sondheim's lyrics for "Children Will Listen." (Below with typos)


    With best wishes

    George Heymont

  2. Thanks for the comment, George. I've heard of "Party of One", but haven't read it. I'll definitely check it out. "Into the Woods" is one of my favorite shows, so I'm right with you there.

    And of course, I painted the motives of both introverts and extroverts with pretty broad strokes. Motivations will vary from person to person and day to day. For me it was interesting to consider behavior that I often find confusing (and sometimes, frankly, annoying) from a positive perspective.

  3. Jonathan Rauch wrote a simply fabulous essay about this a few years ago: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/03/caring-for-your-introvert/2696/ (if you poke around, you can see a ton of follow-up too -- it really brought the grateful introverts out of the woodwork)

    People *think* I'm an extrovert because they confuse "introverted" with "shy". People didn't see me sleeping for 13 straight hours after ALA. And they don't see me hanging out on the couch on a Friday night by myself doing work (oh, my happening life!). They don't see me then because I'm -- wait for it -- *not with people*.

    Mostly I just gravitate toward people even more introverted than I am...

  4. That Jonathan Rauch article is one of my favorites. I remember first reading it and then forwarding it to all sorts of people with the message, "This is exactly what I've been trying to explain."

    People tend to think I'm an extrovert, too (I used to be painfully shy; fewer people mistook me for an extrovert then). In recent years I've tried to be really deliberate about outing myself as an introvert when declining invitations, which has helped me avoid situations in which more extroverted friends think I'm being standoffish or rude--and led to more friends being open with me about their own level of introversion.

  5. Insightful analysis of how American culture went from admiring Character (attributes such as thoughtfulness and honesty) to admiring Personality ( traits of salesmanship and extroversion). I disagree with very little of what I've read, and my points of disagreement are mainly that the author occasionally pushes too hard to make a point or ties a corollation too tightly together when other factors may be present. Highly recommended for quiet people who prefer a more contemplative life than the noisy, shallow party that is American popular culture.