Some initial thoughts on Quiet and introversion in education.

As anticipated, Susan Cain’s book has provided much food for thought, casting a lot of light on the behaviour of both pupils and myself – in the latter case, rather unnervingly so. I’m resisting the temptation to over-use this new toy, but I think there are nonetheless some quite profound lessons about the nature of teaching and learning to be drawn from her work.

The most immediate point is the degree to which introverted people are forced by circumstance to operate in a climate that does not suit them temperamentally. Introverted does not mean shy – simply someone who tends to be inwardly-focused; they may still have perfectly adequate social skills, depending on the situation, and they may not be in any way antisocial. Cain suggests that introverted people constitute between a third and a half of the population, and that having to operate in a largely extrovert—dictated environment is akin to living as second-class citizens in a foreign country. Introverts find that large numbers of people drain their energy, while extroverts feed on group energy.  I can relate to all that.

While reading the book, I have been paying more than normal attention to the quieter members of my own classes, both by observation and by seeing what happens when I consciously create more opportunities for them to participate. I have also given short presentations to some classes on the issue, in order to gauge their reactions. I’m not using my pupils as psychological guinea-pigs – I suspect that this knowledge is extremely relevant to their educational success. Their reaction has generally been neutral or positive.


The slide above (from my PowerPoint) attempted to show the pupils some of the pitfalls of being extroverted and some of the overlooked benefits of a more internal approach. It’s not meant to be an exhaustive list. The premise is that we all have some elements of both types within us, and we might be able to adjust our approach within certain parameters. The killer point, at least for older students, is that formal exams are overwhelmingly an introverted activity, and therefore it may make sense to cultivate the necessary behaviours, especially when it comes to revision.  It certainly rings true to me that it’s often the quieter students who are most focused – and ultimately more successful. And the higher up the educational tree you go, the more it becomes true that study is a personal, even solitary affair. Even outstanding team players (be they musicians, sports-people or thinkers) often do the real nitty-gritty work alone.

The concept of social loafing has also been useful to explain this – when working in more social situations (e.g. group work), any one student’s required input is reduced from 100% to, say 25%. This creates both the possibility to evade or miss a lot of necessary learning and the potential for a lot of dead student-time. There is also the risk that one or two individuals will take on more than their fair share, while the others loaf. Again this rings true, and as a consequence I have decided mostly to limit future group work to pairs or at most, threes.

It is ironic that secondary school work in the U.S. and U.K. has increasingly moved in the direction of extrovert-orientated group work. Cain attributes this to the infiltration of corporate mindset, which values the ability to self-promote and be a group-worker above the ability to be reflective. Could it be true that we are unknowingly preparing children so insidiously for a specific type of workplace with such activities? I am more inclined to suspect it has come up from primary schools where communal activity is perhaps more appropriate. I also see elements of Affluenza-aspiration in the tendency of people to sell an image of themselves rather than doing the harder work of developing the substance.  I am resolved to shift the balance in my classroom back towards more reflective individual work as a result.

I am backing this up by telling my more vocal students that I will be deliberately choosing student who demonstrate quiet characteristics to participate in preference. While this carries the risk of discomfort for the quiet students, their reaction so far has not been visibly difficult – most have been willing – while it has had at least an intermittent suppressant effect on the pushy ones. Whether it outlasts the novelty-factor remains to be seen.

Likewise, I am unashamedly reintroducing more reflective thinking tasks and more extended individual writing – all things that have largely been ‘directed’ out of my subject over the years. Cain says that introverts often prefer to think before they speak, and tend to prefer to write their thoughts to speaking them; again, this is my own experience. By doing this, she says, they are often capable of greater insight than immediate-speakers.  I have tried to marry this with the recommendations of Nancy Kline’s book on deep listening. It has been interesting to watch older students pondering in silence before being asked to talk themselves dry to the class on a topic… it’s not easily done. There is, of course, a risk of going too far with this, and neglecting the extroverts; I think it’s a matter of balance – but perhaps what is needed is a bit of rebalancing right now.

Finally, Cain’s investigation into Asian Americans’ academic success (and their subsequent carer flops) provided a real gem. She discovered that the achievement rates amongst such students was not down to factory-teaching techniques (as also seen in Singapore), but to a culture that values introspection, deep personal study, and social deference above self-promotion. They excelled academically, but encountered great difficulty progressing in the hot-house of the loud-talking American corporate environment.

Given that the other highly successful nation, Finland, is also known for its introspective culture, I wonder whether this reconciles the problem of how such different educational systems as those in eastern Asia and Finland can both work so well. Both systems in their own ways voluntarily accord high status to those who provide education – which is another thing entirely from our system worthily reminding people just how important it is. I wonder, too, whether the shift to more extrovert school environments might actually be a cause of the still-sliding attainment levels in the U.K. Maybe we are simply avoiding that hard fact that real understanding is internal.

I have always felt that the Singapore/Asian system was a major ‘hole’ in my arguments for a less industrial approach to education. Maybe this provides the answer – it’s not in the ‘supply-side’ of the equation, but in the pre-existing value-systems of the ‘consumers’. If correct, it’s a nicely oblique explanation to be toying with for now. Trust the current system to miss that one…




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