What I love most about teaching is nourishing the idiosyncratic, impressive, and/or hidden talents in my students. And I love how students show that they want these talents to be noticed: they walk into class emphatically humming Mozart, or they leave elaborate drawings in the margins of their tests, or suddenly, in the middle of class discussions, they declaim the poems they memorized in second grade. Philosopher and psychologist William James once commented to his class at Radcliffe, “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” For me, the greatest joy and challenge of teaching lies in appreciating and nurturing my students’ individual (and English-related) talents, even as we learn together as a group.
But noticing talents can be a challenge when it comes to our more introverted students, who don’t always lead with their strengths. Like many teachers, I’ve read Susan Cain’s illuminating book Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, looking for clues to help me in my work. Research, though, is one thing; practice is another. As James points out in his Talks to Teachers, “Psychology is a science, and teaching is an art…to know psychology, therefore, is absolutely no guarantee that we shall be good teachers” (23-25). After reading Quiet a second time, I wondered how well I really used my improved understanding of temperament, especially introversion, in my teaching. When I brought this question to my colleague Fred Lindstrom (Upper School English teacher), we decided to combine forces and create a workshop, “Hidden Gifts: Working With Introverted Students,” for Dana Hall’s faculty/staff DYI DEI (Do It Yourself Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) Conference last January. Fred and I wanted to offer our own knowledge and experience, and we also wanted to learn from our smart colleagues, who rose to the occasion and taught us back. It was a wonderful conversation, to be continued, and I’d like to share some of it with you.
Here are some of the ideas and practices we discussed at this workshop:
- It’s important to understand introversion and extroversion as essentially unchanging features of temperament that can be measured on a continuum. Bottom line: introverted people tend to prefer, and need, quieter, less stimulating environments and alone time in which to recharge their batteries. Extroverts, on the other hand, thrive on a high degree of stimulation and tend to recharge in social settings. These categories are not absolute or airtight; it’s best to avoid seeing them in terms of opposites. People fall on different points of the spectrum. Some people are ambiverts.
- More extroverted teachers may have blind spots about introverted students, and vice-versa. In fact, to think about the four plus possible combinations (extroverted teacher/introverted student; extroverted teacher/extroverted student; introverted teacher/extroverted student; introverted teacher/introverted student; and variations with ambiverts) is to understand how important it is to use a variety of pedagogical practices.
- Introverted and extroverted students tend to favor different approaches from their teachers. In one interesting study of robots interacting with stroke patients during rehab, researchers found that introverts liked gentler, more encouraging voices (“I know it’s hard, but you’re doing so well!” Keep up the good work!”) while extroverts reacted more positively to sharper language (“You can do better than that!”) (Cain, ). Many of us commented that while we prefer one or the other approach, we understand that combining good cop and bad cop approaches allows us to reach more students.
- Discussions of temperament have been making their way into education over the past few years, taking their rightful place alongside discussions of learning styles and differences. When getting to know new advisees, I review their learning profiles (if applicable) and comments from teachers; I also administer a version of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality assessment and discuss the results with advisees individually. Other teachers ask students to write them letters at the beginning of the year or term, outlining the way they learn best and describing their strengths.
- Misconceptions about introverts abound. It’s a misconception to think that introverts are shy, as introversion and shyness are two entirely different things. Dana Hall is filled with shy extroverts as well as friendly introverts. It’s helpful to remember that shyness can wear off (which is why ice-breaking activities can be great), while introversion is essentially a fixed a feature of personality (which is why we look for new ways to get to know introverted students instead of repeatedly telling them to “speak up”). Some of us invite students to introduce each other to the class on through structured pair-shares in class or short videos to teachers. Ice can be broken in many ways.
- It’s a misconception to assume that introverts are poor public speakers who don’t want the limelight. In truth, many introverts love the limelight, and all students, with the right preparation and coaching, can improve their public speaking skills. In the past few years, teachers in the English Department have deliberately expanded our range of public speaking opportunities; students now regularly synthesize and reveal their knowledge through formal and informal presentations; podcasts; morning meeting presentations, and presentation of mastery conferences. Our students have also participated in more formal public events like Moth storytelling and Poetry Out Loud performances. Introverted students have experienced high rates of success in these assisted invitations.
- It’s another misconception that introverts are not natural or good leaders. As a girls’ school, we care about gender and race gaps in leadership positions across professions. But there is a subtler temperament gap underneath the gender gap. One study of this temperament gap reveals that “although 50 percent of the workforce self-identifies as introverts, 96 percent of leaders and managers self-identify as extroverts. Whether we acknowledge it or not—whether our biases are conscious or implicit—we are living in a society that privileges the male extroverted leader: masculine, alpha, gregarious, and bold” (Kasevich). Seeking to avoid this bias in our own work with student leaders, many of us talk with students about different kinds of leadership and routinely call on quieter students for leadership positions in discussions and activities.
- As a girls’ school, we also pay special attention to social interactions when planning and facilitating group activities. But there’s another reason to do this. One study shows that introverts almost always experience slower processing speed, especially when also attending to social interactions (Cain, 236). Another study shows that extroverts more easily decode social cues than introverts—but only when involved in the social situation. When observing without participating in social situations, introverts decode social cues more accurately. Social participation, then, demands a sort of emotional multitasking that extroverts are better at than introverts (Cain, 237). Many of us now fold pockets of individual work in with group projects, to allow breathing and regrouping room for introverts. Overall, think-pair-share (the practice of writing, then turning and sharing thoughts with a partner) works especially well with introverted students, before, during, and after group work. More structured, skillfully planned group work allows students to better learn from each other. It’s a win-win: when I ask students to evaluate their small group work, I’m always struck by how often introverted and extroverted students express appreciation for one another.
- As we rethink group work, it’s also helpful to understand that introverts and extroverts have different emotional responses to classroom social interactions. In one study of people playing games in groups, the findings suggest that introverts prefer people they meet in friendly contexts; extroverts, on the other hand, tend to like those they compete with (Cain, 231). What feels like a “friendly competition” for an extroverted student could feel like a draining distraction to an introvert; many of us now organize games of “Jeopardy” to emphasize the “friendly” in the “competition” to engage all students.
- Online group work can be a great alternative to in-person group work. Many of us have found that not only does online group work allow students to collaborate despite their busy individual schedules, but it also allows introverts to assume more comfortably prominent roles in the group—especially when the individual roles are clearly designated and assigned in advance.
- Shifting from a “class participation” to a “class engagement” model helps introverted students see possibilities for engagement beyond “speaking up more,” advice they may be sick of hearing. In my courses, for example, I ask students to decide how they’ll best show their engagement and then set engagement commitments and goals for themselves that we go over together periodically. Some teachers ask students to write letters setting goals for each term; others share engagement rubrics with students at the beginning of the year.
- Whole-class discussions can be enlightening, but they should be organized and facilitated judiciously. We ask students to participate in other kinds of discussions too: formal in-class conversations for which students write and prepare in advance (Harkness, Socratic); online (Schoology) discussions; one-on-one discussions of peers’ work in peer review sessions; fishbowl conversations and debriefings. Some teachers begin classes with a homework review, run entirely by students; introverted students often volunteer to put their work on the board, since they are comfortable sharing what they’ve prepared in advance.
- Technology has leveled the playing field for our introverted students in many ways. In addition to the Schoology discussion threads used heavily in many of our classes, some of us have embraced “backchanneling”: online conversations that take place alongside class activities. In the corporate world, backchanneling is common at conferences, where attendees use tools like Twitter to respond to talks and events. We have found that apps like Padlet give students digital space to question, comment, and discuss topics during and after classroom activities and they level the playing field for less talkative students. Fred asks students to comment on Padlet as they watch films or videos in class.
- Some of us cultivate quieter spaces in our classrooms during Conference Periods, places where quieter students can restore themselves.
- Our learning resources are calibrated for both introverted and extroverted students. Dana Hall’s Upper School Learning Lab, for example, offers introverted students equal air time. As students enter the Lab, they sign in on the whiteboard, write down what they will work on, and indicate if they’d like help. Our learning specialists, Kim Stewart and Jillian DeBusk, work with students individually or in pairs or groups, according to their preferences. Our Middle and Upper School Writing Labs offer students one-on-one work with teachers on a sign-up or drop-in basis.
My favorite takeaway from our workshop was a renewed appreciation for my colleagues. I work with smart, dedicated adults who consistently seek better ways to bring out the best in our students—all of our students, whether their gifts are apparent or hidden.
Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Broadway Books, 2013. Print.
James, William. Talks to Teachers on Psychology: And to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals. Rockville, MD: Arc Manor, 2008. Print.
Kasevich, Heidi. “Gender & Temperament: The One-Two Punch That Can Hold You Back.” Quietrev.com. Web. 20 December 2018.
Rauch, Jonathan. “Caring for Your Introvert.” The Atlantic. March 2003. Web. 20 December 2018.