Helping Introverted Students Succeed in the Classroom

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First coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung in 1921, the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” have spurred lively discussion about the definition and implications of each personality type. The place for introversion in Western culture, a predominantly extroverted society, has accrued substantial interest over the past decade, especially in the midst of the widespread fascination with mindfulness. Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introversion in a World That Can’t Stop Talking has inspired a movement to empower introverts in the workplace, calling for larger cultural shifts to create environments in which introverts will be more likely to succeed (think fewer open-plan offices and more time to work individually on creative projects). The modern school environment has been similarly scrutinized for its orientation toward extroverts; days full of large groups in large areas, participation-oriented activities and lunchroom mayhem can be detrimental to the progress of introverted students.

The actual meanings of introversion and extroversion, however, are often misunderstood. Let’s clarify.

Introversion and extroversion refer to where we get our energy from, or how we recharge our brains. Introverts recharge by spending time alone; they lose energy from interacting in stimulating, crowded environments. Extroverts, on the other hand, recharge by interacting in highly social environments, and lose energy from spending time alone. Introverts are thought to be more attentive to internal thoughts, while extroverts are driven by sensory stimulation - sights and sounds.

While many people use the terms “introverted” and “shy” interchangeably, introversion and shyness are not the same - in fact, they are unrelated. The terms are often confused because they are both related to socializing; however, lack of interest in socializing (introversion) is clearly different than fearing it (shyness). Introverts may be socially adroit and have strong friendships, but are quite happy in their own company, and often do not pursue social interaction.

Introversion and extroversion at school

The extrovert ideal is engendered by the nature of the Western education system. In Quiet, Cain argues that societal celebration of extroversion begins in the classroom, where students are seated in groups and praised for participation. Frequent collaborative work and small-group discussion perpetuate “groupthink,” often at the expense of quiet reflection and individual creativity.

While active learning is certainly beneficial, introverts might struggle in the midst of their extroverted peers, who more naturally assimilate into collaborative education. We should thus be cognizant of the particular challenges introverted students might face in an extroversion-oriented learning environment. Let’s talk about how we can use edtech tools to design a classroom atmosphere that helps introverted students reach their full potential.

Setting up introverts for success in the classroom

Rewards for classroom engagement should not be measured only by oral contributions. Do you have students who are writing fantastic papers, yet are hesitant to contribute to larger discussions? Who stay after class to make insightful comments, yet are hesitant to verbally engage with their more talkative peers? It might be time to redefine the meaning of classroom participation in the first place, and offer other formats by which students might become more involved in classroom discussion. For instance, integrating a classroom response app like Spiral’s Quickfire into a lesson will allow all students to contribute to the discussion safely and confidentially. Socrative, another classroom response tool, also provides a way to integrate anonymous, real-time responses into ongoing discussions - check out their awesome blog for lesson ideas.

Consider providing alternatives to recess. Is it possible to implement a rotating schedule for teachers to open their classrooms during recess? Many introverts prefer a semi-quiet place in which they can escape the hustle and bustle of the playground or the quad. An open classroom gives students the opportunity to get the most out of the break by reading, playing board games in smaller groups (or even developing logical thinking skills by playing CargoBot if iPads are available), or just taking the opportunity to relax in a safe place.

Build down-time into the daily schedule. Simply adding a ten-minute silent reading period post-recess or a designated independent study session after a class discussion are great ways to follow up intense periods of group-oriented activities.

Finally, consider leveraging technology to create introvert-friendly class assignments and activities. Can you start a class blog? Many students will be more comfortable expressing their ideas in writing, and will be able to contribute to class discussions in a meaningful way without the anxiety that often accompanies verbal participation.

Do you have strategies to help introverted students succeed in the classroom? Which are most effective? Let me know in the comments!

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