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Embracing Introversion: Ways to Stimulate Reserved Students in the Classroom

Tony Baldasaro

Chief Human Resource Officer/Virtual Learning Academy Charter School
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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.

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Tony Baldasaro

Chief Human Resource Officer/Virtual Learning Academy Charter School

Comments (16) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Shwetha Radhakrishna's picture

Very nicely written article! I especially liked Susan Cain's comment ,"The one important exception to this dismal record is electronic brainstorming, where large groups outperform individuals; and the larger the group the better...."

I have been an introvert my entire life and I agree to most of the things written here, but, there was a time when I realized that the world does not accept the introverts with open arms. My own school teacher "complained" to my parents when I was in 6th grade saying I was introverted and I need to change. Although I am happy with myself, over the years I have made good progress and what I observed was it was easier for me to interact with people in online communities, compared to the in-person discussions. It was easier for me to "write" and communicate rather than "speak".

I believe in order to truly help the introverted kids shine in the classroom, we need understanding and new methods which help them perform well at ease.

Jeffrey Joseph Isaac's picture

A nice article indeed ! Especially I liked the way, author had presented the difference between shyness and introversion. Whenever there was a group activity or collaborative learning, I used to participate less and I used to think that I am shy. Even when I had something to contribute, I refrained from doing so. I had preferred to do my learning myself and this article makes me realize that is was not shyness but being introvert.

The author had also presented ways to make introverts participate by giving them the time and space. Online communities have in a way made people participate. In a classroom environment, there can be many ways to stimulate students. Instructor can ask questions and make everyone contribute their ideas. Everyone can be made to give presentations. In a problem solving session, everyone can be made to solve problems. This way, we give introverts an opportunity to open up. Once we bring them out of their shell, they become an extrovert and they never turn back. These are some ways to embrace and accommodate introverts.

Wasif Bokhari's picture

This is a very interesting article and I find the distinction between introverts and extroverts as explained in the article fascinating. However, is such a distinction really useful? Are we going to benefit from classifying students as introverts or extroverts?
In my opinion, the answer to these questions is no. I feel we should have a set of teaching principles and methods that work for both introverts and extroverts.

The reason for my above claim is that classification can always be wrong. What if classify an extrovert as an introvert and apply the wrong methods on him? What if we make an introvert even more nervous by giving him added attention? What if a lack of interest in a particular topic is the cause for not voicing an opinion? What if an extrovert feel that he has nothing useful to add to the discussion and remains quiet. The above questions make us think that classification might not be as simple as it seems as there is a lot of grey area involved. Moreover, I believe that applying the introvert methods to an extrovert and vice versa could be harmful to learning.

Shashank Sasidharan's picture

The general notion about online learning is that it is automating human learning. This article, thus, comes as a relief to quash such ideas. In my opinion, online education is increasingly 'humanizing' automation. Rather than merely provide the content, there are attempts to ensure that it reaches everyone-be it introverts or extroverts. This article has reassured my belief and with more such attempts to relate social sciences to technology, we may be able to bridge the gap between human psyche and automation.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Auditory processing is the way that we comprehend what we hear (rather than what we read or see do touch). Some people take longer to comprehend verbal directions so "wait time" can make a difference in their capacity to participate in a conversation. I can see how a student with a significantly slower auditory processing speed might be perceived as shy, introverted, or less able to manage the content. I'm not sure there's any actual linkage between the two, however. Maybe you can say more though? How do you see the difference?

lifelongluthmc's picture

I recently read an article pointing out the difference between an IL and a person who is shy. The description of the IL was very similar to that of a student with auditory processing. I wrote the author and she directed me to this website. My experience is that students with auditory processing are either expected to do less and are often lumped in with students with behavior disorders. This student does not nor has ever had a dx of ED/BD. It has been frustrating as this student is an eager and capable learner.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

IL learners are quiet thinkers, not necessarily slow thinkers. They would rather keep their ideas and suggestions private and really pick their speaking times wisely. The IL I know (kids and adults) would rather present their ideas in art or music, rather than talking about it.

AP issues can really stump the learner. What's "going in" is sort of jumbled and hard to rearrange into something that makes sense in order to respond. AP students want to engage, but the puzzle of thoughts in their head needs to be constructed before they can offer a response.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Ah! I got it- I wasn't thinking APD, just 'auditory processing" as in "the way people process what they hear." Important distinction!

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

I'd like to offer another thought on group work. With young kids its difficult to distinguish between shy and introverted. With either population, consider letting the kids pick their partners or groups. As stated above, they aren't adverse to being with people, but as teachers we often pair the most disruptive student with the quietest, least likely to get riled up. It seems to me that offering more choice, whether in partners, classroom seating, or demonstrating thinking, would benefit all students.

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