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How to Teach Introverts

In the immortal (and slightly edited) words of Ronald Reagan: Here we go again.

Once more, "schools" (and, naturally, their research-avoiding employees) are doing something wrong, threatening the maximization of students' potential. This time, it's young introverts who are suffering from all the cooperative learning, group projects and interactive instruction running rampant across the public school landscape.

This growing emphasis in classrooms on group projects and other interactive arrangements can be challenging for introverted students who tend to perform better when they're working independently and in more subdued environments. Comprising anywhere from one third to about half of the population, introverts sometimes appear shy, depressed, or antisocial, when that's not always the case. 

The ideal, of course, would be to establish arrangements that facilitate differentiated instruction for varying personality types, but this might be difficult in large classes with students of diverse levels of proficiency and motivation.

Might be difficult? You think?

As a teacher--a teacher of very large classes, I might add--simply finding the time to appreciate and care about each student, getting a handle on what they know and can do, is often overwhelming. It's overwhelming in a modestly sized kindergarten class of 20 five-year olds and it's even more overwhelming when you have 150 teenagers who need to learn algebra. Finding the ideal environment--solitary or collaborative, active or passive--for each student's optimum performance, when you see them four and a half hours in a week, if there's no pep assembly? Not likely to happen.

Not that teachers don't try.

That's what bothers me most about these "if schools would only" articles: the assumption that teachers are blindly plowing ahead, happily adopting "fad" educational trends, heedless of the needs of individual students. As a band director, I was once approached by a parent asking if she could bring her son to school early, so I could hear his required scales and exercises in private, because he got "nervous" when playing in front of the group. I was tempted to ask about how he dealt with his nerves at concerts--or point out that I had 250 students, and was giving him an assessment perk that other students, who had to take the bus to school, could never have.

I didn't do that, however. I got to school early on days arranged with his mother, heard him play and offered tips on playing the euphonium well and without fear. I assessed his progress--and I taught him, in the process. And that is the norm for teachers everywhere: Do the best you can, with the resources and time available.

Three things pop into my head as I think about adjusting instruction for introverts:

  • What is an introvert, anyway? Is introversion a real, solid, unchanging human condition? Or is it like being a visual learner--a trait or tendency acknowledged by educators, but not clearly definable or treatable?  It would be hard to say whether any given 7th grader in my classes was an introvert. The ESL kids appeared to be super-shy--but perhaps they simply didn't understand the language. Girls who were silent and cooperative in class turned into attention-grabbing gigglers in the lunchroom. The boy who was nervous about playing euphonium in front of his classmates played starting center on the basketball team. Just who is an introvert?
  • School classrooms are all about group learning, and always have been. In fact, the whole idea of school is to offer an education to kids whose family situations did not permit tutors and governesses and being sent off to a private university to read the law. (I am trying to imagine the teacher in a one-room schoolhouse out on the prairie, devising special lessons for the introverted child who is too sensitive to take part in the weekly spelling bee.) Public school instruction has never been monolithic--it has changed and evolved as the science of teaching developed and pupil demographics shifted. The only constant? One teacher dealing with a group of students.
  • All over the country, teachers are being forced to read and adopt practices from a teaching manual--Teach Like a Champion--that is the very antithesis of differentiating instruction to meet individual preferences. Before we get on our high horses about group projects and student interaction not being motivating for a third of our students, let's take a look at the robotic, quasi-military, insulting instructional model that's now being prescribed for students in poverty and in charter schools.  No introverts in KIPP schools, evidently.

As a person who would prefer to stay home and read a book, rather than do almost anything else in a crowd, I empathize with kids who are uncomfortable in forced group work--for any reason. But perhaps there is a solid reason to push kids out of their comfort zones sometimes: working with others is what their work life will likely hold, once they're out of the shelter of the school and university.

The article did have a proposed solution for parents dismayed by all the collaboration:

Private schools I've visited also seem to create space for the introverted students, ultimately resembling the university classes to which they hope to send their students. And at the aforementioned public school I observed, three of the four classes where students were in fact seated individually in rows were AP or honors courses.

Too bad this individualized approach is not an option for every child. Or maybe that was the point all along.

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