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Are Schools Neglecting Introverts?

A concern with quiet students' well-being should not push us back to outdated educational models.


In a widely read article this fall at The Atlantic, Michael Godsey laments the “focus on group work and collaboration” currently in vogue in public schools. By increasingly pushing students to work together, schools are “neglecting the needs of students who work better in quiet settings,” he argues. They are, the title proposes, “overlooking introverts.”

As both an introvert and a teacher who often organizes classroom discussions, debates, and other interactive experiences for my students, I read this article with interest. Am I doing a disservice to my introverted students by forcing them out of a shell in which they do their best learning? Godsey writes that “education buzzwords ... embrace extroverted behavior” that can “undermine the learning of students who are inward-thinking and easily drained by constant interactions with others.” He suggests that group-based learning “enables noisy, distracting conditions that make learning particularly difficult for certain students.”

Godsey acknowledges that collaborative learning doesn’t inherently alienate quieter students. “[E]xcessively social or overstimulating mandates” need not be part of the pedagogy, he writes; “quiet components that facilitate internal contemplation” can be used as well. The article quickly sets this nuance aside, though, and ends on a disappointing note. Godsey observes, with evident approval, that of the four classrooms he saw during a school visit where students were “seated individually in rows,” three were AP or honors courses. Seating kids the old-fashioned way in more rigorous courses suggests, he seems to say, that collaborative learning is no sure pathway to true intellectual development. The ducks-in-a-row model more closely “resembl[es] ... university classes,” he writes.

There are two important mistakes lurking here. The first is reacting to legitimate concerns about noisy classrooms geared to extroverts by pining for the old days when teachers lectured to captive audiences of silent, note-taking pupils. All the evidence shows that students learn best when they are doing something, not just listening to a teacher at the front of the classroom. The executive director of Harvard’s Bok center notes that “active learning ... is the most effective” mode of instruction, hands down. Second, it’s wrong to assume that higher education is permanently stuck in lecture mode. A Harvard Magazine article, “Twilight of the Lecture,” notes that “scores of Harvard faculty members are experimenting with innovative styles of teaching,” finding that students often learn next to nothing by sitting through traditional lecture classes. So while it’s a great idea to consider how introverts are faring in the new educational environment, a reactionary response that pushes right back to outdated models is not the wise course.

A good education is, in part, an interactive experience. Anyone can pick up facts from a Wikipedia entry glowing at you from a laptop screen, and individuals can sometimes have transcendent experiences alone in a room, or on a beach, or in a subway car, knee-deep in a great book. But working together on an intellectual problem or discussing various interpretations of the nuances of a complex text offer opportunities for deeper, wider-ranging engagement with ideas. Godsey closes by citing “[Jean-Paul] Sartre’s famous line, ‘Hell is other people’” — an odd choice of sentiment for an essay on education. Whatever school is, it isn’t a forum for misanthropy or hermeticism.

I suspect that Godsey’s small sample of the American educational scene — he visited one school in California — is not fully reflective of the reality of public schools in this country. My daughters’ experiences in three public schools in Brooklyn (just as anecdotal as Godsey’s evidence, I admit) do not bear out the straw-man depiction of classrooms as boisterous havens for constant group work bathed in oppressive fluorescent light. (OK, most classrooms do have bad lighting, but that has nothing to do with pedagogy, as Godsey oddly suggests.) My kids say that their teachers spend about half of a class period on direct instruction, while students work in groups or on independent projects for the other half. I’d say that balance sounds about right.

In my own classes, drawing on Bard College’s “language and thinking” tradition, I often ask students to begin by writing silently in response to a prompt designed to elicit an analytical or critical take on a selection from the previous night’s reading. Students may then read their responses to a neighbor or two before a class-wide discussion begins. (This video gives you a taste of how it works.) I find the structure of the activity works well for introverts who otherwise may feel reticent to volunteer their ideas in a large group. It gives them an opportunity to participate in a quiet, low-stakes setting. The point is not to break introverts out of their shells, but to give them a chance to engage with other young scholars — and to develop themselves in ways that will prepare them for collaborative efforts in future studies and work — on terms that are comfortable and meaningful.

Steven V. Mazie is Professor of Political Studies at Bard High School Early College-Manhattan and Supreme Court correspondent for The Economist. He holds an A.B. in Government from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Michigan. He is author, most recently, of American Justice 2015: The Dramatic Tenth Term of the Roberts Court.

Image credit: shutterstock.com

Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

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