I just finished reading Quiet, the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. In this book, Cain challenges the American preference for gregariousness and action. She presents a strong defense of the introverted personality (without discounting the strengths of extroverts) and the caution, wisdom, and reflectiveness introverts can offer to any culture.
I have to admit that reading this book has been a healing experience for me. But let me back up a bit.
I dreaded certain days in science classes in school. Now, I want to explain, before my scientist and science teacher friends start commenting furiously, that I didn’t hate science. In fact, I find science fascinating. I mean, how can you not be excited to learn that Jupiter is 1,300 times larger than Earth or that it’s silly to take antibiotics if you have a virus or that one should always “waft” the fumes from a test tube rather than sniff them directly?
I remember all kinds of fascinating things from science classes. However, I didn’t like that every science class required me to complete lab activities. Labs involved a lot of “hands-on” learning that required me to apply learning in the “real world.”
But, most of all, lab activities required that I work with a “lab partner,” a classmate that I barely knew (the teacher or TA would never seem to pair us with our friends). Working with a classmate over the period of a semester or a year and having nothing more in common than our knowledge of what not to do with hydrochloric acid meant using a skill I may not have mastered until well into the third decade of my life:
Or worse, no small talk, in which case we would stare at the Bunsen burner in awkward silence and ask stimulating questions such as “Do we have any clean beakers?”
By the way, please don’t take offense if you were ever one of my lab partners. Actually, I’m pretty sure that if you’re reading my blog, I’m not talking about you!
This breaking-out-in-hives feeling that I get when I think about conducting labs with a partner also occurs when I think about the project I had to complete with a more popular student on whom my teacher thought I would be a good influence. Or the group projects I had to complete in college communications classes, classes I avoided as long as possible because they contained the word “communications” in the title.
I am, you see, an introvert. It may be hard to believe, because of the nature of the work that I now do. But the extroversion I display in my job is, according to Susan Cain, “pseudo-extroversion,” extroversion that occurs because I am passionate about my work and am willing to change even my basic personality to accomplish it. But underneath all my passionate energy in the classroom is the 7th grader who nearly took a zero rather than complete an oral book report and the grad student who had to take a speech course to earn teacher certification because she had successfully avoided the class as an undergrad. After reading Cain’s book, I see that my experiences in education are not unusual:
The school environment can be highly unnatural, especially from the perspective of an introverted child who loves to work intensely on projects he cares about, and hang out with one or two friends at a time. In the morning, the door to the bus opens and discharges its occupants in a noisy, jostling mass. Academic classes are dominated by group discussions in which a teacher prods him to speak up. He eats lunch in the cacophonous din of the cafeteria, where he had to jockey for a place at a crowded table. Worst of all, there’s little time to think or create. The structure of the day is almost guaranteed to sap his energy rather than stimulate it (253).
And now for my teacher confession. I can easily identify those students who share this trait of introversion with me. I empathize with them, and, as one trait of introversion is a heightened ability to read social cues and physical reactions, I often know when they are uncomfortable. However, I have failed to see introversion as a strength. I have believed the American ideal of and preference for extroverted personality traits. Sometimes I have even made it my mission to help students “get over” their introversion, thinking of myself as someone who has overcome a shameful defect and can now lead others to the light of sociability and ebullience. I now realize that I have not valued these traits enough in myself, and therefore I have not valued them enough in my students. However, after reading Cain’s book, I long to cultivate introversion more in the classroom, rather than viewing it as a social handicap. At the end of her book, Cain has some ideas about how to do this:
Studies show that one third to one half of us are introverts. This means that you have more introverted kids in your class than you think. Even at a young age, some introverts become adept at acting like extroverts, making it tough to spot them. Balance teaching methods to serve all the kids in your class. Extroverts tend to like movement, stimulation, collaborative work. Introverts prefer lectures, downtime, and independent projects. Mix it up fairly (255).
I am committing now to consider this as I plan my lessons and activities for the new semester. I will value my own introversion even when I’m working outside of it to do the work I love; I will carve out more restorative niches in my life for myself and in my classroom for my students.
Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Crown Publishers.