The extrovert ideal is perpetuated throughout education, how can teachers harness the positive features of the introvert personality at school?
Author Susan Cain has made a loud splash with her new book Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Introverts the world over have breathed a collective sigh of relief at Cain's reassurance that it is okay to choose a night at home with a good book over a dinner party invite, and that letting your phone go to voicemail doesn't necessarily make you a friendless misanthrope.
Quiet celebrates the positive features of the introvert personality, while examining the way in which our society is geared up to celebrate and encourage extrovert personality traits. As a result of this, introverts are placed in opposition to the extrovert ideal and risk being undervalued and overlooked. Cain argues that our celebration of the extrovert type begins in the classroom, where, from the start, young pupils are grouped facing each other in pods, and are praised by teachers for giving quick (rather than thoughtful or original) answers.
This extrovert ideal is perpetuated throughout education. As far as I know, almost every teacher in my local authority has attended an intensive three day course on co operative learning.
The course is led by a charismatic Canadian, who, within minutes, has participants designing group logos, creating group lessons (to be team taught, naturally) and generally rejoicing in the power of togetherness. Every teacher I know has left the training session with renewed enthusiasm and a determination to put their new tool kit of co operative learning ideas into immediate effect.
Their enthusiasm is genuine, and it is clear that co operative teaching provides an engaging and inclusive methodology. But do we risk alienating our introverted learners through an over reliance on it?
As a child I was most definitely an introvert. Painfully shy and bookish, I would never have willingly volunteered an answer. "Hardworking but quiet" was a frequent refrain on my report cards. I enjoyed one to one interaction and loved writing and working alone: so-called "treats" such as sports afternoons not only baffled me but filled me with dread: I would have preferred the quiet security of classwork to the noisy social activities which are now called "golden time" any day of the week.
Well over thirty years later, I have learned to disguise my introvert tendencies, at least in the workplace. I am vocal at meetings, gregarious at gatherings and never slow to put myself forward for exciting sounding opportunities.
However, deep down I know I'm still an introvert. How can I not be, when the workshop refrain "Now I want you to get into your groups and discuss…" sends a shiver down my spine? Thank you, Susan Cain, for finally giving me the courage to publicly admit to colleagues that the three day co operative learning course with its relentless seat shifting, group forming and speed dating style interaction felt, for me, like a brief descent into hell.
Thinking about Quiet has prompted me to re examine not only my own learning preferences but also my own teaching practice. In the process I have been surprised at the great disparity between the two. So much of what I do in my classroom is based on collaborative learning.
My learners are regularly asked to peer check answers, work together on information gap activities and take part in mingle activities. Recently, I led a poetry translation workshop: my learners worked on this highly subjective and personal endeavour in - you've guessed it – pairs.
It could, I suppose, be argued that there are sound reasons for all this collaborative work. I am, after all, a language teacher and oral communication is a key goal in language learning. I also work with a class of sociable and outgoing learners who frequently end up conferring in small groups even when they have been asked to work alone on a task.
But how would a more introvert newcomer to my class fare? In encouraging the extrovert learners in my class am I perpetuating "groupthink" at the expense of reflection, sensitivity and creativity?
Over the coming month I will keep a log of the types of activities I do in my classes and monitor my learners not just for their linguistic performance, but also for their reactions. I also plan to administer the simplified personality test available on Susan Cain's website in order to gauge the introvert/extrovert balance in my classrooms (you can find this here Are you an introvert?)
The Quiet manifesto proclaims that: "Everyone shines given the right lighting." As teachers it is our job to guide learners towards their own light, whether this be the spotlight or the "lamplit desk" that Cain herself suggests.