“There’s zero correlation between being the best talker
and having the best ideas.” ~ Susan Cain
There is little as depressing to a teacher (save perhaps the withering disdain of a Year 8 girl from under overly made up eyelashes) than a class of saggy-spined young children slumped in front as you as you talk. This gains even more downward emotional momentum when you ask a question and the same hand – the hand belonging to the quick thinker, the one perhaps desperate for the attention of a sympathetic adult – shoots up once again with just the hint of jazz hands waving for you to toss the biscuit of recognition. Urgh, I really recoil from this sort of activity yet it is the mainstay of most classroom practice. So, to address this, last week I tried something different – I focused on the thinking not the answer. More on that later.
Susan Cain, in her remarkably well-researched and eminently readable expose of the insidious cult of Group Think, makes it plain that Introverts are not shy. For the record – NOT shy – its all about levels of stimulation not the fear of being branded a social pariah by some imagined verbal misstep. The secret to life, she says, whether you are an introvert or an extrovert is “to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk.” But where that desk is and its proximity to others of its kind is significant. Introverts need what she calls ‘restorative niches’ where they can refuel from the demands of being amongst the hubbub of daily life. Whereas extroverts are buoyed up by the fast-paced interactions with others, gaining energy from such encounters, introverts are drained; particularly those who are hypersensitive to stimuli. Cain indicates that the exhaustion these people experience has a significant impact on their own self view and their ability to undertake complex problem solving. She also provides three challenges, one of which is to reconsider the need for constant group work. (You can access her 19 minute TED talk summarising her book here.)
This all has significant consequences for the 1 in 2 to 2 in 3 introverted students in my open plan learning space that seats 52 plus 2 teachers and potential support staff. (a total of 56 in some cases). We frequently work in groups. I constantly have to ask myself how is this moment of learning, this experience going to maximise learning for the Hermione Granger AND the Luna Lovegood seated before me. How do I affirm the extrovert and provide the quiet space an introvert needs to go deep?
As an INFJ myself (Introverted, iNtuitive, Feeling, Judging type on the Myers Briggs personality scale), there is a persona I inhabit when I teach that is warm, gregarious, funny, a thoughtful but firm decision maker who, quite frankly, exhausts me. He is like a tiresome relative who won’t go home after an already over long family reunion. He is the extroverted Mr Hyde to my innately reflective Mr Jekyll. He puts on voices, pulls faces, makes amusing remarks to colleagues in order to gain a smile, offers resources and suggestions sometimes far too readily. He is loud and sometimes on the obnoxious continuum. The inner experience of Mr Hyde is not a wholesome one either. He is more of a Mr Hyper – stimulated, edgy, prone to fast decisions, a quick thinker – which cannot solely be blamed on the consistent application of coffee to keep him from collapse. He is created by the context and arises as a response to the stimulation as it flies from all directions.
Colleagues and others are disbelieving when I say I’m an introvert. Informing them that I have done multiple tests (even with a professional) does nothing to assuage their view that Mr Hyper and I must be one and the same. What is insidious about this situation is that this persona needs to exist at all. I don’t particularly like him and certainly not his taste in clothes.
But there is something even more troubling in this. Even worse, how am I in this very classroom asserting to those seated before me that the loud, the quick, the brash the snappy is somehow more appropriate than the thoughtful, the slow and the well-considered? How does an everyday lesson assert the value of the Quick over those who are Quiet? How can I provide opportunities for the introverts in my care (remember that’s 1 in 2 or 1 in 3) to have just the right amount of light? Well, crammed timetables don’t help that’s for sure.
So, back to the experiment in class when I asked a more significant question and waited for quite a while as the hands lost their flutter. This was the question- “Who finds it upsetting when the teacher only asks the ones who put their hands up quickly to give a response?” Two things of note occurred- firstly, the sagging spines and poor posture of the ‘defeated’ shot up, secondly, hands slowly sprouted from the emotionally barren floor. I affirmed that there were many ways to think – fast and slow- and that as far as I was concerned, the way we were to work together needed to acknowledge both for their relative strengths. By this time I had eye contact from everyone. I asked the last question and asked for no hands at all, “Please think of some other ways we could share our thoughts besides questions and answers from the floor.” That’s when I saw smiles as well as straight backs and saw some trust in those eyes.
When we have some more alternatives to affirming fast teacher-pleasers, Year 4 and I will get back to you. In our own time.
In the meantime, you might care to reflect on this marvelous image about how you could really NOT help an introvert.