The introverts’ classroom

The observation that American society seems to place a higher premium on extroversion (and, by extension, extroverts) than on introversion (and, you guessed it, introverts) should hardly be cause for debate.  After all, this is a culture that has produced and retained the likes of the elevator pitch, the business luncheon, and the corporate brainstorming session, all intensely interpersonal rungs on the ladder to social and professional success.

The man who sits quietly during a meeting or the woman who stumbles over seemingly simple introductions at a meet-and-greet often strike others as less polished, less socialized, and even less upwardly mobile than the glib, garrulous small-talkers who have no compunctions about making the rounds at corporate events. The latter are born leaders.  The former? Aloof, taciturn freaks of nature.

It can be especially difficult for introverts to come into their proverbial own in the classroom, where educators may confuse participation with engagement and where the more vocal can drive the more reflective to the margins. As classrooms shift to incorporate more discussion-based models into their daily workings, introverts can feel as if teachers and parents are trying to supplant their own unique talents – active listening skills, thorough reading comprehension abilities, and vivid imaginations, among others – with traits that quite simply cannot be absorbed.

From personal experience, I can remember how the sheer sight of “class participation: 30% of total grade” on any syllabus was enough to make my heart nervously palpitate and make me even consider dropping a class.  Luckily, introverts should not and need not sacrifice their education because of their personality. Rather, introverted students and their teachers can learn how to use introversion for everyone’s benefit.

High school and college-level humanities courses often seem to fall victim to the “participation equals engagement” mindset.  One seminar I took at university stipulated that 50% of the final grade would be based on some arcane algorithm involving contributions to ad hoc discussions.  Granted, the course was conducted in French at an American university, so the professor surely wanted to foster a familiarity and facility with the language among her students.  That said, her approach failed to distinguish between meaningful contributions and spotlight-stealing.  Naturally, towards the end of the semester, a chosen lot was able to effortlessly include new vocabulary and irregular verb-forms into their seminar-generated lexicon, but what about the rest of the students who were too scared to speak for fear of bungling grammar or just out of sheer shyness? I would wrack my brains the entirety of each ninety-minute session trying to think of something, anything that would be insightful, meaningful, and original.  However, by the time I found that one little pearl, the rest of the class was already out exploring a different sea.

Please do not misunderstand me: when conducted properly, classroom discussions are dynamic, fluctuating fora where participants can grow among different and differing points of view.  Their intrinsic value is high for introverts and extroverts alike. However, they do beg the question, where is the greater good? In perfunctorily producing information, or in gradually absorbing information?  There are multiple channels of communication, though, that exist beyond classroom discussions.  If students and teachers can harness these to maximize introverts’ personal growth and contributions to the class at large, they will succeed in providing an environment where everyone is free to flourish, irrespective of personal type or strengths.  For example:

– Digital message-boards can promote engagement and interaction outside the classroom, leaving students free to either continue existing conversations or branch into uncharted territory.  They are largely relieved of the pressure to think, act, and speak on the spot, and they can thus focus their attention on the quality, rather than the volume, of ideas generated.

– One-on-one discussions with teachers via email or in person are another way for students to demonstrate engagement and for teachers to collect insight.  They demonstrate that while a student may not be audibly articulating her thoughts, the gaze on her face does not betray distraction or apathy, but rather concentration and internalization.

– There is certainly a lot to be gleaned from unscripted, impromptu discussions, but instead of large discussions open to the entirety of the class, how about smaller, simultaneous discussions on a given topic?  Groups can elect someone to present findings, disagreements, and commonalities to the class at large.  Introverted students may find this approach much more bearable, as their audience is reduced in size, and they are afforded a heightened degree of anonymity.

– Consider the merit of allowing students to prepare for discussions beforehand.  Even if the ebb and flow of conversations affect the course of a given discussion (and thereby complicate the process of pre-planning), having students answer reflection questions at home and then share them before discussion ensures their voices are heard (literally and figuratively) and provides them the luxury to prepare and think in their own space, at their own rate, in their own terms.

Introverts will never be extroverts.  No amount of teasing, cajoling, exhorting, or gentle pushing can change this fundamental neural wiring.  However, with the right techniques in place, introverts can become a crucial fixture in classroom interactions.  The key is to eradicate any stigmas associating introversion with poor socialization/disinterest/melancholy/etc. and to cultivate an environment of mutual respect, targeted speaking, and engaged listening.


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