Walk into any elementary school classroom, and you’ll likely see the desks clustered in little pods to easily facilitate small group discussions. Look at a high school class syllabus, and it will boast a group project or two. Open up any recent instructional strategy book, and you’ll find the buzzy phrase cooperative learning scattered throughout.
“Students work cooperatively on most activities in my classroom,” says Shelly Kunkle, a veteran educator I observed during a practicum at Wasawee Middle School in North Webster, Indiana. Because she believes “the human brain learns best through interacting, talking, and collaborating,” she gives her students plenty of opportunities “to research together, to share notes, and to pick each other's brains.”
Kunkle, like most current educators, has centered her class around scientific research promoting collaboration. Following the footsteps of psychologists Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, researchers have shown how learners benefit from swapping insights with their peers.
Yet as I prepare to lead my own classroom, I reflect back on my K–12 years and remember just how much I detested group work. As an introvert, I struggled to navigate social dynamics and never felt like my voice was heard. And the more in-class experience I get as a future educator, the more I see students struggling like I did.
Eighth-grader Abby is no stranger to group discussion and projects. In these groups, Abby often hangs off to the side and struggles to be heard over other, louder students. Abby represents the reality of introverts in our classroom—those quieter students who enjoy a calm environment and need time to tackle a task. Constant group work complicates their learning process by adding social dynamics, and they can often be talked over. Their valuable insights are frequently lost in the flood of louder voices.
Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, gave a TED talk in 2012 in which she touched on some of the ways our focus on collaborative learning could be harming introverted students. She observed that schools “are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts’ need for lots of stimulation.... As for the kids who prefer to go off by themselves or just to work alone, those kids are seen as outliers often or, worse, as problem cases.”
Cain pointed to introverts like Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, and Gandhi, figures whose quiet demeanor shaped society. In catering to extroverts, she suggests that schools could be preventing some of the world’s future leaders and creative minds from thriving.
How do we reconcile the research-based benefits of cooperative learning with the potential detriment to our introverted students? By allowing students to choose their group partners, encouraging individual and peer accountability in groups, and intentionally empowering all students, we can teach effective collaboration for all of our students.
3 Keys to Engaging Introverts
1. Choice of group members: Kunkle suggests letting students select their groups for collaborating—her introverted students struggle most when they’re not comfortable with the peers in their groups, so letting them choose their groups enables them to thrive.
“Even the most quiet students are usually comfortable and confident when they are with peers with whom they connect,” she said. “We, as adults, are this way too. When students are encouraged to share ideas and to develop skills with peers that support them, they almost always shine.”
2. Individual and peer accountability: Giving each member in a group a defined role prevents the more dominant personalities from overpowering the quieter ones. Dr. Laurie Owen, an advisor of mine who is dean of the education department at Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana, notes that we must teach all of our students how to work in groups. Then, “once the stage is set, team members should be part of the evaluation of peers.”
Owen says that collaborative learning must have clear outcomes for the team and for individual learners. Each group member should have specific tasks they are responsible to complete in order for the whole group to succeed. Try giving students different roles, like timekeeper, secretary, or spokesperson. This structure affirms that introverts are equally valued members of their teams by making their contributions essential for their groups to function.
Consider having students complete a rubric assessing themselves and their group members after cooperative activities to add this accountability.
3. Intentional empowerment: Kunkle works hard to create an environment in which all students feel safe to speak out and make mistakes. “When students know they are valued and that mean or sarcastic comments in class are never acceptable, they feel more comfortable to share ideas and to get involved cooperatively,” she says. Setting a no-tolerance policy for bullying, establishing clear classroom expectations, and celebrating introverts’ strengths through verbal encouragement and consistent feedback will encourage even the most soft-spoken students to collaborate.
Though I identify as an introvert, I have grown to love collaborating with others when I know my voice is heard and valued. And I’ve seen in-field educators celebrate the quiet confidence of the introverts in their classrooms, modeling how I want to structure my own future classroom.