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A concern with quiet students' well-being should not push us back to outdated educational models.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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On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.