What teachers need to know about introverts

What was on your summer reading list? Did you find the time to read everything you wanted to read? 

Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (https://amzn.to/2ZoMsot) has been on my bookshelf for years. I finally read it this summer and I loved it! Even though it was written in 2012, the content is still relevant and can be applied to teaching.  

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As a self-proclaimed introvert, I could see myself over and over again in the many examples provided throughout the book. According to Cain, at least 1/3 of people are introverts. (If you aren't sure where you fall on the scale, take the survey in the book).

Cain defines introverts as

“people who prefer quieter, more minimally stimulating environments".

She further explains that

"extroverts feel at their best and crave a high degree of stimulation but for introverts, the optimal zone is much lower".

In Western society, extroverted personalities are valued and people believe that being more extroverted leads to success and makes for great leaders. Although introverts are often labeled as quiet, we are creatives with soft power (e.g. Van Gogh, Einstein, Rosa Parks, Bill Gates, Obama to name a few). 

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 When I was in school, I often thought that life would be easier if only I were extroverted. Kids like me were encouraged to come out of our shells as if we could instantly shed our shell, and become extroverted. Cain argues that a majority of teachers believe that the ideal student is an extrovert and that introverts should be coaxed out of their shells. I always felt like there was something wrong with being quiet, a good listener and reflective and that the more out-going kids had it easier in school.

What advice does Cain give for teachers? 

First, understand what introversion is and learn to admire these kids. Introverted children have a lot to offer that other children may not. (Look for another blog post after I read Quiet Power – A Guide for Kids and Teens https://amzn.to/2ZhI7U5r)

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Introverts in our Classrooms

One of the sections in the book that I found fascinating was the research on brainstorming which was invented by Alex Osborn more than 70 years ago! I’m sure you have asked students to brainstorm thinking that this process or activity would lead to more ideas. In fact, in the late 1960s (and in many more studies since that time) researchers have discovered that brainstorming doesn’t actually work. Studies suggest that people who participated in solitary brainstorming sessions produced more ideas! (The only exception is online brainstorming so if you are teaching an online course, this works well). 

Psychologists suggest that social loafing (where some people sit back and let others do the work); production blocking (only one person can speak at a time); and evaluation apprehension (fear of looking stupid in front of peers) are the reasons for ineffectiveness. The main issue here is that introverts are often steamrolled and do not excel in group work like this for obvious reasons.

Cain suggests that brainstorming can be done differently (and not to give it up completely). There is value in silence and solitude for our students. It is important to learn how to collaborate with others however learners need time for deliberate practice*. This is especially true for introverts because they do their “best work” when they are in a quiet environment and have privacy. BTW, Steve Wozniak, the co-creator of the Apple PC is an introvert and spent hours engaging in deliberate practicing working on engineering projects at home since he was a kid and look how that turned it!

*deliberate practice is best conducted alone. It requires concentration and self-generated motivation. 

Cain believes that the education system penalizes introverts in group work because some students pretend to be extroverts in order to fit in or receive grades for participation. (Visit Cain's website - Quiet Revolution - for specific resources for teachers  https://www.quietrev.com/resources-for-schools/ including a Quiet Engagement Rubric https://www.quietrev.com/resources-for-schools/)

What ESL teachers need to know

Chapter 8 – Soft Power is an interesting look at the role of culture and group identity that influences students’ levels of introversion. This is an especially interesting chapter for those who teach ESL or international students. There is just too much information to summarize it here.

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Introverted Teachers

I also found the story of Professor Little, (a former Canadian academic) fascinating. Little says that he often had to engage in “extrovert-like behaviours” which lead to his burn-out. The over-use of emotional labour (the effort we make to control and change our emotions) is associated with stress, burnout, and other health issues. As someone who experienced professional burn-out, I completely understand the need to exhibit extrovert-like behaviours as a teacher and how the over-use of emotional labour partially contributed to my early retirement. Also, if you work with a teacher(s) who declines an invitation to socialize after work, most likely they're an introvert looking forward to solitude!

I highly recommend this book whether you are a teacher or not. It’s a captivating and engaging look at the quiet power of introverts. As teachers, understanding our introverted students is important but even more so, introverted students need to understand their great attributes and be themselves. 

Thanks for reading. Patrice

If you are interested in more resources, here are a few:

TEDTalk https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts?language=en

Susan's podcast series on parenting and teaching introverted children. https://search.itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZContentLink.woa/wa/link?path=quiet

Cook, G. (2012). The Power of Introverts: A Manifesto for Quiet Brilliance https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-power-of-introverts/


Patrice Palmer has more than 23 years’ experience as an ESL teacher, trainer and writer in Canada and spent seven amazing years in Hong Kong. She has an M.Ed., M.A. and certificates in Positive Psychology and Positive Education. Her personal experience with professional burn-out in 2015 prompted her to reflect on her own lack of self-care and adopt positive psychology interventions which she now shares with other educators and administrators. Patrice's new book Teacher Self-Care Manual: Simple Self-Care Strategies for Stressed Teachers by Alphabet Publishing will be available in October 2019. http://bit.ly/2OC2Gmd

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