Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Embracing Introversion: Ways to Stimulate Reserved Students in the Classroom

Tony Baldasaro

Chief Human Resource Officer/Virtual Learning Academy Charter School

In April, Mark Phillips wrote this article for Edutopia that highlighted the importance of recognizing the introvert in your classroom. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, please do.

It’s okay, I’ll wait.

Phillips most poignant point was this:

I tend to shy away from books that focus on helping a child to "overcome" being an introvert. Although I think it's important to help introverted children learn to effectively navigate our extrovert-dominated world, I don't see introversion as a characteristic that needs to be "overcome," and neither do psychologists.

As an introvert, I couldn’t agree with him more. I don’t see introversion as anything different than being left- or right-handed, boy or girl, naturally athletic or not. It’s a part of who we are, and just like those other qualities, introversion is not something to be “overcome.” In fact, I would argue that as educators it is our job to harness the sometimes hidden gems hiding within our introverted students. To do so, I would suggest we keep in mind the following:

Introversion and shyness are not the same

In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain makes a clear distinction between introversion and shyness when she writes:

Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.

The key is how your student re-energizes. If she does so by being with others, she’s an extrovert. If she does so by being alone, she’s introverted. It’s important to realize, however, that introverts are not always shy, and extroverts can be shy. Shy extroverts may appear to not be shy because they are often found with others, but they do so wary of the vulnerability that comes with being public.

Conversely, introverts are not necessarily shy. How often have you had that student who says little, but when she does, she is able to push the thinking of others? Or how about the student who offers a piece of writing that is so profound you wonder why he doesn’t share these thoughts more often in class?

As educators, we have to first determine if the student is shy or introverted. The difference is profound because you are either trying to minimize the pain of a shy student or respecting the process of an introvert -- which leads to my second point.

Introverts Need Time

Recognizing that we already don’t have enough time to work with our students, introverts need time to process. In The Introvert Advantage How to Thrive in an Extroverted World, Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D., makes the case that the brain chemistry in introverts is markedly different than that of extroverts. In short, processing pathways in introverts are longer and more complex than the pathways found in extroverts, thus it takes them longer to process information, which causes a problem in our schools.

There isn’t a more time-depended institution than school. Forty-five minute classes. Six hour days. Forty-five day quarters. One hundred and eighty day school years.

In many ways, time is the currency of education. The more time one has, the more one can do and presumably the more one can learn. Of course, our time in school is fixed, so instead of adding time we tend to move through our curriculum faster. We tend to cover instead of discover. This can work for the extrovert feeding off the energy of the classroom but can wreak havoc on the introvert with the slower processing as described by Laney.

Introverts Need Space

Literally. Because introverts re-energize through solitude, it’s important to provide the space needed for them to be alone. While there is more information coming forward relative to classroom space and introverts, it doesn’t have to be too complex. Introvert friendly classrooms provide private spaces for those who need them. In an elementary classroom, it may be a tunnel or a “cave.” Older introverts may enjoy the peace and quiet found in a small couch or chair tucked into the corner of your classroom. It could be something as simple as not seating introverts in the middle of your classroom, but instead, providing a desk on the edge of the class instead. Further, you may be able to assign the introvert to the back row as the privacy may be just what is needed to allow for maximum learning.

But, there is another way we can provide space for our students. Headphones. Yes, why not allow students to listen to headphones that allow them to cancel out noise interruptions from the outside world? Kids do this all the time, and I learned this myself when attending ISTE11 in Philadelphia. After spending much of the day wearing my headphones as I walked around the enormous convention center, someone later told me, “I didn’t think you wanted to be bothered because you had your headphones on.” In other words, she was giving me space.

Asynchronous Learning Opportunities

In her book and this article in the New York Times, Susan Cain talks about the rise of “groupthink” despite the fact that “research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.” This presents a real challenge to schools as cooperative learning and collaborative projects have become a staple of the American classroom.

This group work can be a challenge to the introvert as the time and space often needed for learning is not always consistent with groupthink. In fact, the introvert may be a pushed out as the extroverts of the group dominate the conversation even if their thinking is not on target.

But there is an exception. One space where groupthink has worked and it is one that schools have been slow to endorse: online communities. As Cain writes:

The one important exception to this dismal record is electronic brainstorming, where large groups outperform individuals; and the larger the group the better. The protection of the screen mitigates many problems of group work. This is why the Internet has yielded such wondrous collective creations. Marcel Proust called reading a “miracle of communication in the midst of solitude,” and that’s what the Internet is, too. It’s a place where we can be alone together — and this is precisely what gives it power.

The asynchronous environments found on the Internet can provide introverted students with the ideal space needed for them to learn. The freedom to explore their passions, the ability to connect with similar learners, and the time to participate at their personal pace and depth, all with the solitude needed by the introvert, can make these communities the ideal space for learning and creativity to blossom in the introvert.

I don’t mean to paint a picture of a student alone interacting with a screen, tucked away in the corner of your classroom, or cowering to the almighty extrovert in your classroom. In fact, introverts aren’t averse to being with people; it’s just that they need solitude to re-energize, engage in deep creative thinking, and process the mass sensory input that the extrovert thrives on. But, since we live in an extrovert-dominant world, we either forget to provide the environment needed for introverts to grow or we consider that environment to be peculiar. Instead we need to begin to create and embrace the environments needed for introverts to flourish. By providing space, time, asynchronous opportunities to learn and acknowledging that introversion is not something to be “overcome,” educators can help natural introverts shine in their classrooms.

Tony Baldasaro

Chief Human Resource Officer/Virtual Learning Academy Charter School
Related Tags:

Comments (6)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D.'s picture
Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist & Author of The Homework Trap

I would like to use this article as a springboard to emphasize something I have said many times, and that is that homework needs to be time bound. The author here highlights that children who are introverts have slower processing speed. This is important information for the teacher to know and it may have bearing on what that teacher expects in his or her class. But what happens at home? The processing speed issues are the same at home as they are in school, except that homework is an assignment whereas the school day is bound by the clock. It may be that the introverted child is getting the homework done, but at what cost? Is it possible that that child feels uncomfortable with others yet might benefit from having more social interaction, maybe not in a large group, but at least with a few other shy or introverted kids? Yet, homework can have a way of intruding on play time. Learning to interact despite one's basic introverted nature is an important life skill. If homework is the be-all and end-all of education, and parents are dissuaded from using their judgment about what's best for their children, teachers can end up creating excessive demands to complete assignments that are actually working against what that child needs. Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D. www.thehomeworktrap.com.

Sandra Wozniak's picture
Sandra Wozniak
President, NJ Association for Middle Level Education

I wrote a blog for Tolerance.org http://www.tolerance.org/blog/digital-discussions-get-all-kids-conversation on the benefits of using online discussion platforms to get all students involved in discussions. Using an asynchronous platform like Collaborize Classroom (collaborizeclassroom.com/tregoed) gives kids time to think and encourages all students to contribute to the discussion. A tool, like the SCAN tool at tregoed.org, uses online discussions in real time - students represent different points of view, use screen names and avatars, etc. I have seen introverted students thrive in these discussions.

The Dixie Diarist's picture
The Dixie Diarist
Teacher, Writer, and Artist

One of my students, Huckleberry, doesn't like to say anything. Even when I go ahead and tell him the answer to a question, and then ask everybody else not to say the answer when I ask Huckleberry the question, and then ask him to say the answer so he can hear what it's like to say something out loud in class from his own larynx, Huckleberry will smile, but he still won't say the answer from his own larynx even when he knows the answer.

But during the morning and afternoon break and while he's waiting for the bus, Huckleberry's out there with his buddies and he's yakking away like Rush Limbaugh, with arm gestures and everything. He really does have a great smile, too, and a fuzzy wad of red hair with a life of its own. Huckleberry and another student named Flavio are best friends. In class and on breaks, Flavio is just like Huckleberry. The great smile included.


Ellen Z.'s picture
Ellen Z.
Reading Specialist from Hellertown, PA

With my Community College students, I've noticed that some of the students I have that do not open up in class discussions do open up on our online discussion board which is part of the Online classroom page. Our Reading class is web-enhanced. The computer can be a great tool to give those who are more introverted a way they can participate and add to discussions on a regular basis.

There are other platforms which are more appropriate for the Elementary grades. I discovered one this summer called Cubert's Cube. It is a site for creative writing and students can collaborate on stories, essays, poems, plays you name it. The site is based on Wikis which makes this possible. It is also very user-friendly and has super security controls for the teacher. There are also interactive story starters which are inspirational and gallery feature where the students can create or upload illustrations! It is a nice way to do a group project and give the needed space for the introverted child.

Heidi's picture

Hi Tony

Thank you for this and thank you for pointing us to some valuable resources. I do believe that introverts are often misunderstood and overlooked, because they do not draw attention to themselves. I am concerned, however, that the distinction between a troubled teen and a natural introvert is not clear. Grief is an emotional state and an introverted child may respond the way that this young man did, but so may any bereaved child. Introversion is a natural trait that may mean that the person will PREFER not to share thoughts and feelings. It is definitely important that teachers know and are tuned into their students character and emotions, but knowing how to get the best out of a happy introvert and knowing what to do for a child in distress are two different things.

brownin329's picture
special ed teacher (preschool-3rd grade)

I am an introvert and I have never had a problem with doing my homework and handing it in on time. In fact, I was often early with my assignments. I did not need more time, but I did find other ways around doing it after school. For instance, I did my homework in between classes or at lunch so my after school time was mine and I was not distracted by things going on at home. I am aware all of us are different, but I seriously do not think that homework is the biggest issue facing introverts in school. It's the bullying and demands of peers and adults. It's not that we want to "fit in" it's that we want our space and our property to be respected. We want to communicate in our way. We are efficient in the ways we interact with others. We tend not to be fake or superficial for the sake of being social (unless it's forced upon us). It is not a disorder and I do not care what the DSM-V says. People need to start respecting the fact that introverts in the classroom or in the boardroom are not extroverts and never will be and if you need to understand who we are, just ask instead of coming up with some nonsense that doesn't apply (at least across the board).

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.