“There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”
So writes Susan Cain, author of Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. In the 2012 book, she explores the idea that the “extrovert ideal” has taken hold of both the world of work and the world of education, leading to environments and working practices that favour the outspoken, the articulate and the loud to the detriment of the timid, the unsure and the tongue-tied.
How guilty are we, as teachers of reinforcing this situation and behaviour?
If you’re not familiar with the terminology, “extroverts” and “introverts” are defined – on a spectrum rather than in a binary way – as those who gain energy from environmental stimulation, and those who lose it.
Put simply, if you feel buzzed and happy after human interaction, if you aren’t bothered by bright lights or loud music and you often seek opportunities for socialisation, then you are an extrovert.
However, if you find that you need “downtime”, seek quiet or respite after time spent with others and find sensory stimulus overpowering, you are an introvert. As such, introverts should be easy to spot.
Now think about your classroom (as well as your school) from the point of view of an introverted pupil. Is it bright, loud and full of people? Are there any possibilities for quiet? Is there physical space away from others? I would wager the answer to most of these questions is “no”.
In the primary classroom, the focus on group work is evident in our lesson plans, our method of delivery and, most crucially, our arrangement of the physical space.
We encourage children to work together, to speak up, to present to the class, and to share space with others, in a bid to give them social and workplace skills. And who among us hasn’t written “X needs to speak up more in class” as a target on a child’s report?
This bias towards an extroverted way of thinking is severely disadvantaging some of our pupils. We label students as shy or as lacking in confidence, when in reality they are just struggling to deal with an environment that simply feels too loud, too bright and too filled with other human beings for them to properly process.
Of course, we do need to strike a balance. As educators of young children who are still developing, we must encourage students out of their shells – but we must also accept them for who they are. That’s tricky, but by getting to know students properly and reacting to them accordingly, it is achievable. Here’s how:
Allow pupils to make their own choices about whether they work with others or alone for certain tasks.
Permit pupils to read or use the library and computer room at break times. It’s surprising how many schools don’t allow this – perhaps because of poor behaviour – but for some introverts, the playground can be utterly awful at certain times.
Consider making part of your school day completely silent – no exceptions. This is a good time for reading, reflection, or responding to feedback, and will benefit everyone (including you).
Don’t shy away from deep and meaningful issues in lessons. Introverts typically enjoy talking about topics that are universal and far-reaching, and can be incredibly insightful if you give them time and gentle encouragement.
Accept the answer “no” sometimes. When overstimulated, some introverts can feel extremely anxious and, while usually easy to please, may display obstinate behaviour. If you can, give them other options that are less daunting and then speak to them quietly about it afterwards.
Lucy Rycroft-Smith is a primary school teacher and freelance writer @honeypisquared
Marc Smith gives his tips for helping secondary students
In our extrovert-obsessed world, secondary teachers who view introversion as something to be fixed risk stifling the talents of less vocal pupils and overlooking the contribution of these children, who can be both emotionally sensitive and introspective.
Generally speaking, while extroverts’ brains are wired to focus outwards, introverts tend to focus internally; they also appear to process information differently (see references box, opposite).
This would suggest that the child in your class who appears to be daydreaming might, in reality, be running things through in his or her mind; weighing up the possible solutions and reaching creative conclusions.
While secondary schools can differ quite dramatically from primary, many of the points that Lucy Croft makes regarding primary-aged children still hold true for older students. However, as children mature into the early- and mid-teens they often become far more self-conscious and increasingly susceptible to peer pressure. For this reason, teenage introverts can face problems unique to this particular stage of development.
Don’t put them on the spot
Direct questioning can provoke anxiousness in the most confident of teenagers, but for the introverted teen being put on the spot it is more likely to negatively impact on self-confidence and cognitive processing (anxiety has been shown to reduce the capacity of working memory). Giving your students more thinking time or allowing them to jot down the answer first benefits everyone, especially introverts.
Let them seek solitude
While many children learn effectively within the chatter of social encounters, others find that such intense stimulus can be too much, reducing their ability to concentrate and process information effectively.
Furthermore, introverts tend to find such encounters exhausting. They often give the impression that they are in some way antisocial, but their behaviour is usually a response to their hyper-vigilance, which leads to a more cautious approach to new people, places and events that can sometimes come across as disengagement.
As a result, introverted teens often use solitude in strategic ways, allowing them to recover from the overstimulation incurred through social encounters.
Don’t mislabel them or become frustrated
The sensitive nature of introverts can mean that their self-esteem is more fragile than other students in the class. Unfortunately, they are often also more skilled at picking up cues related to disapproval – such as a frustrated sigh, an angry facial expression or subtle criticism – resulting in a loss of confidence and further withdrawal.
Introverted teens may also react negatively to being labelled as “shy”, with all the negative connotations that entails – they are fully aware that their introversion is not synonymous with shyness.
Be wary of group work
Introverts generally work best on their own or in pairs, and prefer to be one of the earliest guests at a party rather than arriving when all the guests have had a chance to mingle and get to know one another.
Pair work is preferable, especially in the early stages when pupils are still getting to know each other. Pairs can then be joined later to form larger groups so that the less dominant voices get the chance to be heard and to grow in confidence.
Quiet children shouldn’t represent a special case, yet education often places an emphasis on teaching methods that don’t support them. We often naively assume that our pupils will just get along in a similar way, but individual differences lead to a different kind of noise; one that can impact on students’ learning.
Just because some children are quiet doesn’t mean that they are less able – often, it can mean the opposite.
Marc Smith is a chartered psychologist and teacher @PsychologyMarc
Depue, R A and Fu, Y (2013) “On the nature of extraversion: variation in conditioned contextual activation of dopamine-facilitated affective, cognitive, and motor processes”, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, bit.ly/NatureExtraversion
Holmes, A J, Lee, P H, Hollinshead, M O et al (2012) “Individual differences in amygdala-medial prefrontal anatomy link negative affect, impaired social functioning, and polygenic depression risk”, The Journal of Neuroscience, bit.ly/IndividualDifferences