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How Schools Can Accommodate Their Introverted Students

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Engaging the Quiet Kids: Brain Science and the Teaching of Introverts” by Susan Cain and Emily Klein in Independent School, Fall 2015 (Vol. 75, #1, p. 64-70); Klein can be reached at
“Why do so many introverts look back on high school as the worst time of their lives – and why do we accept this reality as normal and ‘OK’?” ask Susan Cain (author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking) and Emily Klein (Montclair State University) in this article in Independent School.
“Do professional educators have a full understanding of how tough a place an American school can be for introverts? Do we realize what an extroverted act it is, in the first place, to go to school all day long in a classroom full of people, with constant stimulation, precious few breaks, and almost no quiet time or alone time? Even for introverted kids who like school, it’s still an over-stimulating environment – not unlike an all-day cocktail party for an introverted adult (but without the alcohol).”
Researchers have found that between one-third and one-half of students are introverts, but most teachers think the “ideal” student is an extrovert. A number of introverts have achieved great success – among them Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, George Orwell, Steven Spielberg, Larry Page, Steve Wozniak, and J.K. Rowling – but their success may have been in spite of their schools. Cain and Klein are on a mission to reverse the historical bias of schools in favor of extroverts.
They start with lessons from brain research on temperament, which shows that “physiological differences profoundly influence temperament – and therefore the classroom experiences of students.” Introverts differ from extroverts in the way their dopamine-based reward network reacts to external rewards – it’s less activated. Social situations that are energizing for extroverts are exhausting and “unrewarding” for introverts, who need to be alone to recharge their batteries after stimulating interpersonal interactions.
“And while extroverts and introverts are equally warm and loving (dispelling the myth that introverts are somehow antisocial), extroverts are more likely to respond to the reward value of a social situation,” say Cain and Klein. “As a consequence, they tend to seek positive social attention.” School is tailor-made for them: “From grading students for participation (almost exclusively defined as raising one’s hand and speaking, rather than engaging quietly with the material), to an emphasis on cooperative learning and group discussion, to subtle and informal but powerful incentives for being well liked and socially active, schools reward outgoing students and penalize quiet ones.”
Drawing on a Connecticut school’s lively interchange among students and faculty on this topic, Cain and Klein suggest several ways for schools to right the imbalance:
• Rethink grading for participation. The point of grades is to accurately assess students’ learning, not how much they talk in class. “We encourage teachers to separate grades for learning from grades for participation,” say Cain and Klein. “Why not give one grade for mastery of the material and a separate grade for character?” The second grade would measure meaningful intellectual contributions, empathy, courage, persistence, listening, and respect for others.
• Change classroom dynamics. Teachers should think about orchestrating classroom engagement, defined as how absorbed students are in a variety of tasks. Instead of whole-group discussions, this might involve “think, pair, share” with students reflecting, writing, and then discussing with one other classmate. This is also helpful for extroverts, who benefit from slowing down their thinking and putting a filter between their brains and their mouths. The best classroom structures push both introverts and extroverts out of their comfort zones. Another approach is posting several quotes around the classroom and asking students to engage in a “silent dialogue” about them, rotating from sheet to sheet “conversing” with classmates through their written comments and questions.
• Connect with introverted students. “I was more intentional to make warm eye contact with them,” says one of the Connecticut teachers, “smiles that let them know that I know they are with me, even if they are not sharing as much.”
• Wait five or ten seconds before calling on students. This gives all students more time to think and shy students a chance to gather their courage.
• Use social media in the classroom. Quiet students may have an easier time sharing their thoughts in an online response or blog, which will make them more confident in all-class discussions.
• Coach introverted students. Cain and Klein encourage teachers to talk individually with shy students to prep them for a comment their might make in class or a question they might think about answering. Parents can also be coached on how to support their introverted children.
• Create groups for students who are anxious about public speaking. “In a class swirling with social and, in the later grades, sexual politics, practicing public speaking can be so frightening that it becomes counterproductive,” say Cain and Klein. “Desensitizing the fear in small, supportive settings is crucial for students who are afraid of the spotlight.”
• Rethink recess. “The notion that all students should restore themselves, each and every day, by running out into a big noisy yard is very limiting, and frankly unimaginative,” say the authors. Students should have the option to play board games or chill by themselves.
• Change cafeteria tables. Socializing in a noisy group of 10-12 kids at conventional lunchroom tables is not an introvert’s cup of tea – they’re much more comfortable chatting with two or three peers at a small, round table.
• Encourage deliberate practice. Many students do their best work taking on challenging tasks alone.
• Some quiet, please! Extroverts perform better academically in a lively environment while introverts do better when it’s quiet, so there is no one-size-fits-all formula for schools. All the same, accommodations must be made, say Cain and Klein: “In order to flourish, quiet students need to have the ability, for at least part of the day, to have some control over the amount of stimulation that is right for them to optimally learn.”

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