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Gromotka: Educating the introvert

BY ADAM GROMOTKA | OCTOBER 23, 2013 5:00 AM

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Mention group work to the average student, and you’re bound to get a less than enthusiastic response. When the announcement for a group project is made in class, take in the quiet discomfort that engulfs the room. Most students won’t get too excited. But, for some, this distaste for group work, or graded, forced participation in class, isn’t rooted solely in apathy or feeling shy. As explored in a TED Talk — presented by Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking — a large portion of society takes comfort in quietly learning and keeping their thoughts to themselves.

Enter the introvert.

A lot of them, actually. Something like a third of the population does their best thinking, processing, and reflecting in a quiet setting. In a discussion section, you’ll probably see them sitting in the back of the room, taking notes. Or, if they enjoy the class, they’ll sit closer to the front. Whatever the case, they’re learning how they learn best: quietly. While there is obvious merit in group work and speaking up in some academic settings, for many classes, it’s insensitive to force introverted students to participate in activities designed for extroverts. 

Before continuing, it’s important to defend the idea of group work. In a higher-level course or one that’s designed to be small and intimate, working and talking through ideas is a must. If an introverted student feels passionate about the material or doesn’t understand something, they will speak up. The problem arises when an introverted student does understand what’s happening, but must then throw in her or his two cents for the sake of receiving a better grade. It teaches them to dislike, even despise participating in a subject they’d otherwise enjoy.

It also teaches them the unfortunate truth about society: Speaking is more valued than thinking. As explained in the TED Talk, the United States used to value quiet thinkers, like Abe Lincoln, very highly. Then, with the Industrial Revolution, came a focus instead on those who could speak the loudest: salesmen. Self-help books changed to meet the growing popularity of these ideas, and we’ve since come to embrace the value placed in being a skillful speaker.

But, historically, a great number of scientists, artists, and even actors described themselves as quiet, introverted people. Why has the value of introverted thought been so actively masked in education? As Cain put it, many elementary schools now seat students in bunches of desks, forcing them to participate in groupthink. Kids are picked on, bullied, and even diagnosed with behavioral issues simply because they enjoy keeping to themselves. Shouldn’t higher education be a place that fosters all types of learners?

Again, there’s nothing wrong with working in a group — as long as it harbors intellectual benefit. Collaboration and good communication are what drive society forward. But forcing quiet individuals — under threat to their grades — to participate in a discussion simply to fill up class time sets it back. Give introverted individuals the opportunity to talk about something they love, and they’ll never shut up, but forcing them to speak can be painful for all parties.

For these students, written papers teach serve to teach them how to structure and shape their thoughts, and classes exist that can help them become better speakers, should it concern them. Ultimately, though, you can’t teach introverts to enjoy talking, but you can learn to respect their point of view.


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