Introversion in Education: how can introverts’ needs be addressed in the classroom?

Juia Robbins, Editor-in-Chief

Jake Millman ‘15 was a co-Class President, a leader in Middle Division mentoring and Horace Mann Orientation, and a captain on his tennis team. He is also a self-described introvert who earned the Mannikin superlative of “Talks least, says most.”

It might surprise some people that Millman was both an introvert and a leader in the school. That surprise would largely come as a result of the American Extrovert Ideal. To understand the effect that the idealization of extroversion has both inside and outside of the classroom, it is worth first noting why so many people in the U.S. started to regard extroversion as the superior personality type.

‘The Extrovert Ideal,’ which author Susan Cain describes in her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” has only been prevalent in the United States since the mid-20th century when the American population shifted to cities from more rural areas. Unlike in small towns, city inhabitants did not know everyone they engaged with to the same extent, so salesmen had to start selling themselves to customers through their gregariousness.

Partly as a result of these salesmen, Cain notes in her book that America moved from being a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality. The 20th century saw a rise in self-help guides “chang[ing] their focus from inner virtue to outer charm,” Cain wrote. Advice guides shifted away from words like ‘duty,’ ‘integrity,’ and ‘work’ to words such as ‘magnetic,’ ‘dominant,’ and ‘forceful.’

While this ideal might at first seem inconsequential, it can be harmful to the one-third to one-half of the population of the U.S that identifies as introverted. While there are many definitions of introversion, the definition used in a survey sent out to Upper Division students last year contained some of the following information, as taken from the ‘Myers & Briggs Foundation’ website, an organization that conducts research and outreach about personality types.

In the survey, the explanation of personality types described introverts as people who get “energy from dealing with the ideas, pictures, memories, and reactions” inside of their own heads, versus getting “energy from active involvement in events and having a lot of different activities.”

As Millman articulated in his final paper for ‘Educational Psychology’ at Princeton University, shyness and introversion are not the same. Introversion refers to a tendency to lose energy when faced with higher levels of stimulation while shyness has more to do with having social anxiety.

In the survey, of the 100 people who responded to the question: “Do you identify as more extroverted or introverted,” 47 percent said they identified as more introverted. While results may be skewed due to the self-selecting group who took the survey, the fact that nearly half of respondents identified as introverted shows the prevalence of introverts in society and the school.

It is also important to note that introversion and extroversion lie on a spectrum and that many people share different characteristics of both personality types.

Introversion is a cluster of traits that hangs together, but any given introvert will not necessarily have every one of those traits, Counseling and Guidance Psychologist Dr. Ian Pervil said.

Additionally, students’ comments may not be exclusively tied to their level of introversion and are likely the result of a combination of different personality factors.

As personality types are complex themselves, there is no way that a classroom environment can meet the needs of every individual student at all times. However, there are practices that teachers could implement to cater to their more introverted students.

“If [shy or introverted students] are being mistreated, misunderstood or undervalued, then that is a serious problem not just for the students themselves, but for educational institutions at large as these places of learning should be supporting and welcoming all of its students,” Millman wrote in his paper.

Many of the ideas that students shared in the survey in response to the question “Do you think that there are ways in which your teachers could help encourage your participation or engagement in the classroom?” overlap with a section called “Tips for Educators” that Cain outlines in her book.

“I work better in smaller groups,” Elizabeth Fortunato ‘19, who identifies as introverted, said. “I feel more energized around a smaller group of people regardless of how exciting they are.”

Fortunato’s comments fell in line with one of the “Tips for Educators” that Cain noted in her book, which is the practice of breaking up students into pair-shares or small group work instead of only holding large group discussions.

Additionally, small group work helps meet the needs of introverts who, as Cain explains in her book, are likely to be more cautious than extroverts to comment in large group settings.

“Introverts think to speak, and extroverts speak to think,” Millman said. He further built upon this point by quoting Cain in his essay: “The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed taking, certainty to doubt” whereas “introversion-along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness-is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology,” Cain wrote.

“Just speaking with two or three people is less stressful than speaking in front of a larger group of people because I don’t have to worry as much about if I make a mistake or if there’s something that I say that I don’t really mean to say,” Mia Sebastien ‘19, an introverted student, said.

Alex Rosenblatt (10), who also identifies as an introvert, echoed Millman’s idea. Generally, introverts put more focus on how they speak than on just speaking for the sake of it, he said.

“Extroverts think out loud and on their feet,” Cain wrote in Quiet.

“[Introverts] listen more than they talk, [and] think before they speak.”

“I want to make sure that when I am speaking in class and making a point that it’s a perfectly formulated response,” Fortunato said. “And I’ll go over it like 20 times in my head and so obviously it will t a k e me longer to say some thi ng, and then I always get nervous that my point still is not going to make any impact on the conversation.”

“I definitely think that having more time to formulate what I want to say would make it easier to participate,” Sebastien said. “I like to fully get a hold of what I want to say before I say it instead of thi nki ng about it as I say it.”

One way for teachers to address this common introvert characteristic is to wait a few seconds longer before calling on students than they might do normally, Millman said. Waiting just a few more seconds can give some introverted students the time to become comfortable enough with their thoughts to raise their hands and share their ideas, he said.

“I feel like many people would contribute more to class discussions if they were given the chance to process their thoughts and tame the wild beast that is their brain,” Rosenblatt said.

62 percent of students responded “Yes” to the question, “If you were given more time to formulate your thoughts in class, would you raise your hand more?” Of course, there is not an endless amount of time in any given period and teachers can’t wait minutes between calling on people, but according to Cain’s book, even waiting five seconds could help people feel more comfortable to talk.

Another idea for addressing how introverts often like having more time to formulate their thoughts is to allow for more time to write individually in class. Teachers can have students w r i t e d o w n their thoughts to a question and then ask who would like to share their ideas, Rosenblatt said.

The Association of American Educators r e c o m m e n d s Rosenblatt’s approach of having students write down thoughts as part of their “Tips for Teaching I n t r o v e r t e d Students” article on their website.

One other way that teachers can potentially help students in the classroom is to meet with them individually at the beginning of the year, Millman said. He recommends this idea so that students can feel less intimidated by their teacher, he said.

This new level of comfort through a meeting during the beginning of the year would help introverted students be more willing to speak off the cuff because they wouldn’t be thinking as much about how their teachers are perceiving them, Millman said.

“An introverted kid could be overstimulated by whatever is going on around them and also by their internal thoughts regarding how their teachers might perceive them,” Millman wrote in a followup message. “Because of all that is going, it could detract from their being able to think through what they want to think through before speaking. Basically, comfortability with teachers can help silence some of that noise that can go on in introverts heads,” he wrote.

The relationship between a teacher and a more introverted s t u d e n t m i g h t take longer to develop if the student isn’t very vocal in class, and this can create anxiety for the student if they feel their voice is going unheard, Pervil said.

In ninth grade, one of Sebastien’s teachers asked to meet with her at the beginning of the year because he felt that she had more to say in class than what she was contributing at the time, she said. “He basically talked to me about how he knew, based on my written assignments, I had a good grasp of the material,” Sebastien wrote in a follow-up message.

That one meeting helped Sebastien feel more comfortable in the class because she knew the teacher better, she wrote. “It takes a little of the pressure off knowing that the teacher isn’t really there to judge you and they’re only there to help you learn the information,” she said.

Not every one of these ideas needs to be implemented in classrooms, but there is a notable need for at least some change in the way classes run. Out of 99 responses in the aforementioned survey, 22 students said that they have felt overlooked in the classroom due to their personality type. So even if 55.6% of students have never felt this way, the numbers prove that overlooking more introverted students’ needs is an important issue to tackle.

While introversion has not been the primary topic in the recent past in faculty development meetings, the idea of class participation and acknowledging different types of participation is discussed, Dr. Daniel Rothstein, the Director of Upper Division Counseling and Guidance wrote in an email. Teachers at the school are sensitive to different personality types and know that quieter students can be really engaged in their own way, he said.

The nuanced lenses of teachers in how they regard different personality types may be present, but many students still feel that there is work to be done.

“The school system, which favors group discussions and packing back-to-back activities, definitely favors extroversion,” Rosenblatt wrote in the survey. “It’s a problem, and we need to solve it.”