The challenge of the introverted child

After several days in her assigned work group 6th grader Tania remained noticeably quiet. The teacher observed that during the 15 minute discussion period on the story the class was reading, Tania offered few contributions. And when asked a direct question by other students she responded only briefly. The teacher was concerned by the disparity between Tania’s thoughtful written work on the book and her reticence in both the group and the larger class. Several weeks later the teacher brought up her concern in a conference with Tania’s parents. They agreed Tania would need help with social self-assertion.

But was there really a problem? Did a quiet demeanor signify that Tania was inhibited? Instead, maybe she was just an introvert.

In the bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain posits that Western and especially American society reward the extravert and discriminate against the introvert. Extraverts do well with conversation. They often act quickly, thrive in groups and exhibit high energy, all rewarded in the American work world, and to a large extent on that training ground for the work world, the classroom. The introvert is more attuned to the inner world and prefers working alone. The introvert tends to be deliberate and slow-paced and listens more than she talks. Her greatest challenges might be giving a speech or birthday parties. As an adult she is more likely to be a therapist than a sales executive.

Although students often work individually and quietly at desks in the American classroom, most classrooms are social hives where activities are often done in groups, particularly at the elementary and middle school levels. Cain points out that in the last 30 years cooperative learning has been the pedagogical fashion, with students learning as much from each other in small groupings as directly from a teacher. The speed of many classrooms, where a series of activities follows in quick succession, does not coincide with the kind of deliberate reflection and in depth processing characteristic of the introvert, The sheer level of classroom noise can challenge the introvert who works better without high level external stimulation. The introvert pays more attention to stimulation from within. At the high school level, classrooms can be as socially-oriented in their own way as those at lower grade levels. In high schools whole class and small group discussion has partially supplanted the traditional lecture. I work in a number of independent high schools in San Francisco where I see more whole class discussion in English and history classes than any other kind of activity. Often the conversations are like popcorn, jumping rapidly from one voice to another. A cultural comparison with East Asian classrooms is revealing. As an example, a student in a Chinese classroom would never be asked a question in front of a whole class. Public exposure of ones understanding is discouraged. The Asian classroom is often more oriented toward the introverted child.

Introversion does not, however, mean being anti-social. Introverts are as social as extraverts. They just socialize differently. Tania might prefer a deeper level one on one discussion of a topic than a whole group discussion. And introverts can still be highly successful in groups. They can make great leaders, but leaders with a different style than the demonstratively influential approach of the extrovert. Extraverts often want to express their views, convince others and jump into action. Introverts are more considered. They are better at reading a group and guiding it on a path that reflects the collective spirit.

Schools would do well to develop teaching that includes the style of the introvert. These days, educators talk a lot about learning style. Who is a visual, auditory or verbal learner? We should also examine whether a student is an extroverted or an introverted learner and design classroom instruction that accommodates students along every point of the introversion-extroversion spectrum. This is a more equitable approach. The use of a more flexible set of social approaches to teaching will ultimately allow both introverts and extroverts to benefit. It is an approach that honors how children in the deepest way relate to their outer worlds.