Today, January 2, is National Introvert Day. I didn’t know there was a national day for introverts. I probably should have, however, since I am an introvert myself. I would much rather spend a quiet night at home reading a book than at a busy restaurant or other social gathering. In school, I was much more comfortable working alone on an assignment than in a large group of classmates.
Last year, I read the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. The book discusses how introverts – those who are quiet – have to navigate a world set up and dominated by extroverts – those who are outgoing. For example, the business world views extroverts as the models of success, often promoting and rewarding the most outgoing individuals and those who are willing to take charge of almost any situation or group. (Try being a quiet, reserved person at the notoriously extroverted Harvard Business School.)
This business approach, which favors extroverts, has trickled down to our classrooms. Cain explores how our classrooms, following the lead of the business world, are structured to promote group work and peer collaboration. According to a nationwide study, “55 percent of fourth-grade teachers prefer cooperative learning,” and “42 percent of fourth-grade and 41 percent of eighth-grade teachers spend at least a quarter of class time on group work.” The younger the teacher, the more likely she is to place an emphasis on group work in the classroom.
While it is important for students to share their ideas and learn to work in groups, it is also valuable to consider how each child thinks and processes information. How can we balance the benefits of sharing ideas in groups with an introverted student’s desire to work in a quiet environment? Does engagement always need to be tied to discussions with peers or talking in a group? How do we find opportunities throughout the day to guarantee time for students to work individually and without talking? How often do we give students the choice of working with partners vs. alone?
The word balance is important in our classrooms. We need to ensure that we are thinking about the needs and preferences of all of our students. Group work is important, but you might have an introvert sitting in your classroom with brilliant, creative ideas which are more likely to come alive in a quiet environment. Cain shared a quote from organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham, who said, “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.” Imagine if Theodor Geisel, an introvert, had a teacher who never let him work alone. We might never have met The Cat in the Hat, eaten Green Eggs and Ham, or learned How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
I started giving students more choice in whether they work with a partner or individually. Yes, there are still times each day when collaboration is required, but I’m trying to create more balance. I have students sitting in groups, but they are often allowed to move around the room to a spot which is more “comfortable” for them. The interesting thing is that many of them choose to sit in a quiet spot and complete their work independently, and the quality of that work rarely suffers. Why should I stop a student from working quietly? He might just be the next Dr. Seuss.