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Student Engagement

Where Do Introverts Fit Into Group Work?

Striking the right balance between group and independent work isn’t easy.

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In Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, the best-selling author raises a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. In the chapter “When Collaboration Kills Creativity: The Rise of the New Groupthink and the Power of Working Alone,” Cain quotes Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, who endorsed working alone in his memoir:

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone—best outside of corporate environments, best where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of people designing it for marketing or some other committee. 

What can Wozniak’s views tell us about teaching and about pushing introverts, who typically prefer to work alone, to collaborate? John Aime, assistant head of school at Santa Catalina School in Monterey, California, may have put it best. “It’s not whether teachers should have kids work alone or in groups,” he told me. “The point is that both methods of coming to some understanding about an unknown topic are valuable. One approach should not be emphasized to the exclusion of the other.” Still, I struggle to find the balance in my classroom.

The Power of Questioning

In my high school humanities classes, before each unit I distribute focus questions and focus terms for the students to respond to as a culminating assessment. I constantly encourage them to further their understanding, alone and in groups, by engaging with the text to connect overarching terms, concepts, and themes.

During class, students work in pairs to explain their responses, not simply recite what they wrote. This requires introverts and extroverts alike to make sense of and internalize large amounts of information—not merely regurgitate it. Dr. Ken Bain, author of What the Best College Students Do, reinforced my thinking when we spoke about his book. Have students “spend time questioning and questioning each other,” he told me. “Students can spend hours reviewing a vocabulary list or an approach to solving a problem, but if someone questions [them] about it and asks [them] to explain it . . . and to think about its applications to a particular problem, [they’re] going to learn much more deeply.”

The Right Way to Engage Introverts in Group Work

When it comes to fostering creativity in the long term, Dr. Keith Sawyer, a leading scientific researcher in the field, echoes Bain and Aime. “The most effective creative process alternates between time in groups, collaboration, interaction and conversation, . . . [and] times of solitude, where something different happens cognitively in your brain,” says Sawyer, who in 2007 wrote one of the first major books on collaboration, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration.

Sawyer’s work rings true to my own teaching experience, but so does Susan Cain’s. “I hear too many stories of children who are given the message by very well-meaning teachers that there's something wrong with the way they are,” she told me, “I think well-meaning teachers see their role as being to turn introverts into extroverts. We really need to understand that an introvert is a totally normal personality type.”

Not wanting to be a teacher who causes introverts to wonder what’s wrong with them, I asked Sawyer if group work should be required. He told me, “There is a lot of research showing that introverts can participate in groups and teams, and they can benefit from the additional creativity that comes from collaboration. I would recommend that even introverts do what they can to interact with groups and have conversations that, typically, drive creativity and innovation.”

From speaking with Cain and Sawyer, I gather the trick is knowing your students as individual learners, and that includes knowing when to push and when to ease up. It involves hard work, differentiating instruction and assessment to appeal to a wide range of learners, and finding a way for introverts and extroverts to show what they can do with what they know. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. 

Keeping Introverts Motivated and Engaged

To be fair, Cain never suggested to me that educators should avoid learning activities that could favor extroverted personalities. Rather, she told me, “I think it is a matter of finding one-on-one time with [introverted] students, figuring out what are the areas that they’re really interested in, and maybe calling on them or asking them to participate around those areas.”

In my experience, all students, not just introverts, perform best when they sense intrinsic value in their pursuits. When assigning groups, I do my best to match students by shared interests. Last year, for instance, several of my introverted American history students worked diligently on an academic debate in which they passionately defended President Truman’s decision to use atomic warfare to end World War II. As advisor to The Gator, the student news site of Brimmer and May School in Massachusetts, I marvel at introverted student-reporters who work alongside others in numerous capacities, including brainstorming story ideas, reporting, writing, editing, and promoting their work.

What sort of balance do you strike between group work and independent work? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Margaret Shafer's picture
Margaret Shafer
Third grade teacher in the Midwest

As the parent of an introvert, I appreciate your thoughtful analysis.
Although my experience in elementary school is going to be different from your high school experience, introverts are introverts throughout life. I believe all students need to know both how to work independently and how to collaborate with a group. At the elementary level I'm able to separate periods of collaboration with independent or whole group activities, reducing the stress on students who dislike group work. To make collaboration most comfortable for introverted students, it's important that students are able to work with people they know and are comfortable with. It also helps to have small groups and a quiet environment. Having choice involved in the product or process helps all students' level of comfort. Sometimes the choice I give is to say this is a "PIG" project, with a choice of Partner, Independent, or Group. While I wouldn't want introverted students to have to feel uncomfortable, I think it would be a mistake to allow them to avoid all group work situations.

Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
Middle school teacher

I agree that all of our students need time for solitude as well as time for collaboration and conversation. As an introvert myself, I would say that introverts often enjoy group work or performance best if they have time to prepare and know what to expect -- as in the debate activity you describe. One thing I think schools could do better is make sure all students have one or two solid chunks of time each school day in which to work or read silently. The quiet is calming and restorative for students (and sometimes their teachers, too!)

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