Thursday, March 15, 2012

Understanding introverts

I am way, way late on writing up anything from ALA Midwinter, but I told a few people I'd write up my reflections from Susan Cain's talk about introversion--and I'd also like to write them up in a more formal way for my own reflection purposes. Given the amount of time that's passed however, this is going to be more of a "what she said/what I thought" list rather than something cohesive.

Cain started by asking everyone in the audience to think about a moment in their childhood that illustrated their introversion or extroversion, then gather in groups of six to share those stories. Everyone shifted uncomfortably for a moment before she said she was kidding. You could feel the entire room relax.

I think it would be fair to assume that the majority of people in that room were self-identified introverts--and I think we've all been in situations where a speaker actually wanted us to actually do something like that. And then all tried to figure out how to escape. It was nice to have a speaker instead acknowledge how terrifying such requests can be.

The idealized extrovert:

What Susan Cain had to say:
  • In this extroverted world of ours, we all act more extroverted than we really are
  • We internalize the biases against introverts from a young age
  • We view introversion as something between a flaw and a pathology
My thoughts:
I know I, as an introvert, internalized biases against introverts. I figured there was something wrong with me because I didn't like being around people all the time--and often find social situations overwhelming. Some of that was shyness, but a lot of it isn't. No one who knows me well who would describe me as shy, but I am definitely still introverted.

I think part of this is that extroverts are more likely to be public figures--and introverts who are in the public eye put on an extroverted face. Which always makes me think: we're being told extroversion is the ideal--but who are the ones telling us that? Extroverts. So maybe their viewpoint is a wee bit biased. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with being extroverted--just as there's nothing wrong with being introverted. I think these two personality types can exist without value judgments.

Different kinds of attention:
What Susan Cain had to say:
  • Introverted children absorb information by observing rather than by participating, but they’re still involved.
  • When given a math problem to solve, introverts performed better when there were low levels of background noise, extroverts performed better when background noise went up.
This made me think of the constant debate around multitasking, and students' constant insistence that "I work better with music!" I'm also curious about what this looks like for people who have ADD/ADHD or other executive functioning issues. Does more noise still help? Or hinder? I don't know if there's been any research on that, but I hope there will be.

I also know that I, as an introvert, tend to absorb more by observing than by participating; I think "l'esprit de l'escalier" is the curse of the introvert. In meetings or other groups I am often so busy trying to absorb and process what's happening that it's not until we've moved on (or the meeting is over) that I'm ready to respond. Given the option, I prefer asynchronous communication on group projects--or at least the ability to follow up in writing afterwards (writing helps me figure out my thinking on a topic). Unfortunately, following up with an e-mail about something you "should" have shared in a meeting is often viewed as weak or passive-aggressive (and this is not me projecting insecurities--I've had people tell me this). I've tried to get better in these situations about at least speaking up to say, "I need to think more about this; I'll follow up with my thoughts in an e-mail later."

Lessons for teachers and schools:
What Susan Cain had to say:
  • Classrooms used to mostly involve individual work; focus has tilted almost too much to group work. We need to have room for both.
  • We do a good job facilitating the needs of extroverts; we need to be better at facilitating the needs of introverts
  • Small groups (managed well) can be good for both introverts and extroverts.
  • People learn well in groups, but that’s not the full picture; in real life, these groups are different than the “ideal model” being studied. And really, we learn best 1-to-1
  • Introverted students love to work independently and autonomously, and it drains their energy in order to have to work as an extrovert. 
  • In our push away from “one size fits all” education, are we just trying to cram students into a different mold when the old size actually fit them well?
  • We need balance. And we need room for both.
  • Solitude is an important catalyst to creativity, and introverts are comfortable with solitude. 
My thoughts:

The more we value collaboration in school, what is the impact on our introverted students? I think it's vital that we create ways for both extroverts and introverts to play to their strengths--and to stretch a bit beyond their comfort zone. Collaboration is, I believe, important to learning, but there are different ways to collaborate. Asynchronous collaboration is possible; it doesn't all have to be active group work.

I also think this needs to impact the way we teach and manage our classrooms. Having "active" classrooms is great for extroverts, but overwhelming for introverts. It's important to create room for quiet, too. Just as introverts can benefit from developing the ability to be more active in groups, extroverts can benefit from developing the ability to sit and be still.

Cain also said something else that made me think about how I, personally, work in a school setting. She said that introverts prefer to devote social energies to people they know well. I think this is, likely, why I like working in a small school--working with fewer people, it's possible to develop meaningful working relationships with a higher percentage of the people you work with. And given that librarianship, at least in my mind, is about relationships (more on that in an upcoming post), being able to build those relationships is important. I'm sure I could build those relationships in a bigger school, but building them with a greater percentage of my colleagues feels more possible for me in a small school.

General takeaways:
  • We are losing out on the skills and talents of introverts by compelling them to pretend to be extroverted.
    Introverts are social beings, too. We just express it differently. 
    Extroverts seize the day, introverts make sure there is another day to seize.
  • Everyone shines, given the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight, for others it is a lamplit desk.
  • Collaboration between introverts and extroverts can be powerful. Each brings different strengths. 
  • I’m not saying John Donne was wrong and man is an island after all. We need each other.
  • We need a world where it is culturally permissible to go off and be quiet. At work and at school.
  • We need to let our children know that it is okay to be introverted
That last one is the big takeaway for me. We need to stop teaching--directly and indirectly--that extroversion is the ideal, and introverts better learn to measure up to it. Or we're all going to miss out.


  1. Some very interesting thoughts - thanks for sharing! As a public librarian, I spend a lot of time reassuring parents whose children's don't "participate" in storytime (but they almost always sing the songs and act out the stories at home) Some children prefer to observe and I tell them frequently that it's ok! Of course, once they leave me and go to school...

    1. Thank you for reassuring parents that it's okay not to "participate." I think a lot of young introverts internalize their parents' (well-intended) anxieties over how "social" their kids are.

  2. A comment from my friend Andromeda (for whom blogspot is being persnickety):

    The collaboration thing is so interesting to me (and was so difficult for me to handle well as a teacher), because so many of my group work experiences in school were so negative -- even though I've since realized I actually really enjoy collaborative work with the right projects and partners. From my introvert, nerd, ex-teacher perspective, here are the two things that stood out about that:

    1) I NEED to do a lot of learning independently -- I was never one for study groups and I need lots of quiet space to hear my own thinking in order to learn. I can think *or* I can talk, but I can't do both at the same time. So group work usually gets in the way of learning for me. (There are things I learn through collaboration, but they're usually not the sorts of intellectual things that the explicit curriculum of school is about, and if I'm going to learn them I'm still going to need time alone to reflect, and probably work I can do independently.) Extroverts tend to think you HAVE to talk to people in order to learn, and that's just not going to work for me -- people need the option of a variety of styles.

    1a) And really, most of the group work stuff I was asked to do in school was stupid easy stuff I could do on my own more effectively! If you're going to ask me to do group work, please make it complicated enough that it actually benefits from multiple perspectives and skills, and that I can see a benefit from having other people involved. (This is part of the reason collaboration in the real world is way more satisfying...the problems actually ARE hard and benefit from a wide range of skills, not just the ones I have.)

    2) However, I DID really need to learn more about working with other people in school. It would have helped me if teachers had taught explicitly about how to do group work well, and had structured it with roles we could play and helped me see how I could play those effectively, and how other people's contributions were useful too. (Again, this only works if the projects are sufficiently interesting.) Just throwing introverts, who might well rather be on their own AND who need time to trust people, into a group without any guidance is often a disaster. But pushing them gently out of their comfort zone, while being clear that you're teaching about group dynamics as much as you're teaching about content, can sometimes be useful.