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Rethinking the idea of schools promoting extroverts

March 14, 2012

The symbol of the ying/yang, the opposites, wholeness comes when we balance both in our lives.

As a former Upper School (grades 9 through 12) Division Director, I usually struggled with the way schools promoted students who were extroverts in exclusion of students who were introverts.  I believed there were issues underlying my observations, but I really couldn’t put my thoughts into words.  I just knew I was uncomfortable.  I think part of the issue for me was that I bought into the model that students who were more extroverted contributed more to the life of school.  They were captains of teams, club leaders, class leaders, the ones who received prizes for accomplishments, and the ones who spoke up in class.  I was just one of those leaders that promoted our societal stereotype that “extroverts have more value than introverts.”

Well today, things changed somewhat for me.  I watched a talk by Susan Cain, author of the book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.   Watch her powerful and inspiring TED talk for about 18 minutes.  I hope you too will be influenced by the power of her ideas.

I won’t try to summarize her ideas in this post.  Hopefully, you have watched her talk before reading on and have formed your own opinions of what she thinks our society needs to do to break down the stereotype.

A few quotes from the talk that I want to reference here are:

My quiet and introverted side of being was not necessarily the right way to go, that I had to pass as more of an extrovert.

Introversion is different from being shy….  Introversion is more about how a person responds to stimulation.

Our most important institutions, our schools and our workplaces, they are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts’ need for stimulation.

I do want to reflect for a moment on her ideas as applied to schools.  Here are questions that are dancing around in my head:

  • Why do teachers write official comments about students that do not speak up in class that go something like this?  “Mary would get more from my class if she contributed her thoughts more often.  She seems quite shy.  To improve, I would like to hear from her in our class discussions.”  What is the message to Mary?  [While this may not be an exact quote, many comments about students who are quiet have overtones similar to this.]
  • Why don’t we build into the school day more time for students to reflect quietly about the work in which they are engaged?  They more from class to class with maybe a 3-5 minute break.  All of their time is programmed unless they have a free period.  Do you think schools value quiet, reflective time where students get a chance to process or sit quietly with themselves?
  • Are our classrooms, athletic teams, clubs, and other programs dominated by the voices of the extroverts and what do we do to promote a culture that supports the extrovert at the expense of the introvert?
  • Should we (educators) look inside ourselves and ask the question, do we put more value on a person being extroverted?  The question could be flipped and asked, do we communicate to the introvert that he or she is a valued person for who he or she is?
  • What specifically does your school do to support and affirm the extrovert and quiet the voice or needs of the introverts?
  • How could you change your school so that it would value the contributions that introverts can make, especially when it comes to their creativity?

I have drunk the elixir of group work, collaboration, and working in teams.  I believe in the value of professional learning communities for teachers and helping students develop their collaborative skills to meet the needs of 21st Century learners.  But after listening to Susan Cain, I want to temper my thinking a bit and be sure I make room for the person who needs the space to think and work in solitude.  I won’t give up my desire to see schools become more collaborative communities but I will add to my list of 21st Century skills “the ability to work in solitude and reflect on one’s knowledge in a space free of noise.” [maybe you would say this differently]

I hope educators across the US get a chance to listen to Susan Cain, reflect on her thoughts, and work to change the culture of schools so that the 30-50% of students who are introverts are not labeled as being “shy,” “quiet,” or not contributing to the life of the school.  It could be that those students who “talk too much” are not the ones really contributing to or moving the work to a higher level.  They might be just filling the space.  Ms. Cain did a great job of balancing her comments to communicate the value to a community of both the extrovert and introvert.  We need to model her ideas in our work with students.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 20, 2012 11:24 pm

    I just watched this TED talk too and had some of the same reactions as you….but still some heavy reservations about the nature of her talk:

    1) Schools aren’t design for introverts or extroverts–they are designed as systems of mass production. The sage on the stage doesn’t cultivate or teach to extroverts–if anything it turns us into non-speakers. Certainly, classrooms and curriculums are being re-designed to be more human centric and to realize the value. Its probably something to pay attention to in design and even to help make group activities work better.

    2) Group work often integrates individual work and solitude. Or perhaps the ability to pair share in addition can help open some introverts up. Ultimately, I think this is a question of design of the work or assignment–not the type of work itself. I hardly think 15 to 25% of work being in groups is a tough requirement for introverts. If it is, they are going to have a very, very hard time in life.

    3) Group work may allow an introvert to open up. Maybe more group work would produce more extroversion in introverts (ie movement along the spectrum–not hopping from one group to the other). Introverts need desperately to learn how to work in groups and teams, as teams are a component of business, community, and social life.

    To be fair, she has done more research on this topic than I (“Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”) , but hopefully her analysis at least acknowledges #2 above.

    • March 21, 2012 10:18 am

      I don’t disagree with your added comments. However, my own experience leads me to see school a little differently. I think extroverted students do have an easier time navigating the “hallways” of school, metaphorically speaking. I think that is her point. From my read, the TED talk not her book, is that she is asking us (educators) to reflect on that reality. How to make space for the talents and strengths of the introvert personality.

      Having watched a great deal of group work, I am not sure that group work as it normally happens integrates “individual work or solitude.” Your point, that all students need to engage in group or team work, is important. Yes, I agree. I think we may have to help faculty retool their understanding of what effective group work looks like or how it is organized and implemented.

      I am not sure that the goal of group work should be to allow an introvert to open up. Opening up shouldn’t be seen as a + or -. Opening up should be on one’s own terms and not a goal to achieve. I do agree that all individuals need to reflect on how they move along the introversion-extroversion spectrum–movement is possible and desirable as an ability to adapt to new circumstances.

      I do want to read her book so I too have a better understanding of all ideas around the world of introversion.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Bob

  2. March 20, 2012 11:31 pm

    Sorry, I should add, I believe these two theories may suggest more flexibility in the identifications of introvert vs. extrovert (or even the trait she’s not dealing with–shy vs. outgoing).:

    Bandura’s Social Learning Theory
    Bandura believed that personality is learned through our experiences, observing those around us and imitating their behavior.

    Lewin’s Interactionist Approach
    Lewin’s theory states that behavior is a combination of both inherent (built-in) personality traits and environmental factors. The following equation describes the theory:
    B = F (P.E)

    Behavior is the Function of Personality and Environment
    The theory also states that Personality traits can be used to predict behaviour in some situations, but this is not exclusive.

    And perhaps even the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would amplify some of the above suggestions.

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