The classroom can be an overwhelming place for an introvert. Those students who crave quiet and do their best work while being reflective and solitary are likely to visibly shrink every time they enter the collaborative, bustling and often LOUD place that is the 21st century classroom.

Why are classrooms so loud? Do they have to be this way? We want to best prepare our students for life after school and so we focus on 21st century skills, many of which are underpinned by the keystone of collaboration. So we get students involved in collaborative groups, we ask students to present their ideas to others, and we encourage public speaking in a number of formal and informal ways in our classrooms. Some students hate it but we tell them it is good for them, they must participate, and eventually it won’t seem so bad. 

According to author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a world that won’t stop talking, Susan Cain, we might actually be hindering the learning of the introverts under our care if we always follow such an approach. Cain points out that many great thinkers, such as Charles Darwin, Steve Wozniac and Albert Einstein, are introverts and have their most productive thinking away from the hustle and bustle of others (for example, Einstein, Darwin and Steve Wozniak).  On a more personal level, Cain suggests that society and its institutions (such as schools) often favour extroverts and leave introverts feeling that they are lacking in important qualities. 

Despite being introverted myself, I am as guilty as any teacher in perpetuating these messages. I have used parent-teacher interviews to discuss strategies to bring a student ‘out of their shell’. I have devised strategies to ensure every student must participate in my classroom discussions. There are valid reasons why I encourage this: students who are confident to share their thinking and ask questions in class are more likely to experience deeper learning and have erroneous thinking corrected than students who never interact. However, it hadn’t occurred to me to factor traits like introversion into such discussions or classroom planning. 

We should always strive to cater to all of the student needs in the classroom. I am not proposing to abolish collaborative groups, spoken presentations or the practice of requiring students to share their ideas. What I am proposing is a re-think of how we ask students to engage. This might mean giving students a choice of how they prefer to work. It might mean providing online methods for collaboration. It might mean intentionally providing some quiet for those students who need it. 

Further reading and viewing: 

Susan Cain’s book: Quiet- the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking
Susan Cain’s TED Talk
Bedley Brothers podcast interview with Susan Cain


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