Are schools biased against introverts?
In her recent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts, author Susan Cain argues that they are, and said in a recent interview that “education, by its nature, favors the extrovert.” In her fascinating TED talk, and a recent article in the Guardian, Cain dispels some common misconceptions about introversion, and gives a powerful argument for why the world needs introverts.
“Without introverts,” Cain writes, “the world would be devoid of Newton's theory of gravity, Einstein's theory of relativity, WB Yeats's The Second Coming, Chopin's nocturnes, Proust's In Search of Lost Time, Peter Pan, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Cat in the Hat, Charlie Brown, the films of Steven Spielberg, Google (co-founded by introvert Larry Page) and Harry Potter.”
And yet, introverts are taught from an early age to despise their introversion and to conform to a world that values extroversion. Cain says introversion, defined simply as a preference for low-stimulation versus high stimulation environments, including social situations, is treated as “a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology”.
In the interview, Cain says this societal preference for extroversion is evident as early as pre-school, when adults are commonly heard to comment on children who are quiet or shy (although she points out, shyness and introversion are not the same thing, and not all introverts are shy.) Later, in school, the real damage is done, as introverted children learn that they “have to act like extroverts.” She says “as soon as they get to school they will be repeatedly encouraged to join group activities, even if they would prefer not to. It's all very well-meaning but it has the cumulative effect of telling the child that their natural preferences for how they spend their time are not valid.”
This bias towards extroversion is evident even in the way we now arrange our classrooms. With the emphasis in recent years on group learning and collaboration, desks are no longer arranged in rows for autonomous learning, but are increasingly grouped in pods. Children are encouraged to work together on assignments as “committee members”, even in subjects like math and creative writing where, as Cain points out, individual thought should play a role. In fact, solitude is key to creativity, according to Cain.
Unfortunately, research says the vast majority of teachers believe the ideal student is an extrovert, even though introverted students get better grades and are generally more knowledgeable. Kids who prefer to work alone are seen as “outliers at best,” at worst, as problem cases.
This cultural bias against introverts is surprising when you consider that introverts are by no means the minority. In fact, the population is pretty evenly split with nearly 50% of the population leaning towards introversion. The preference, like many things, is not simply black and white, extreme extrovert or introvert, but more of a spectrum. Many people, like myself, fall somewhere in between; we’re called ambiverts, people who may love to be out in groups, but who work best on their own, or who need time alone to recharge. (Take this quiz to see where you fall on the spectrum.)
It seems wrong then, with nearly half the population on the introverted side, to build an education system that caters almost exclusively to the extroverted, supposedly “ideal” student. As Cain summarizes, “the key to maximizing talents is to put yourself into the zone of stimulation that’s right for you.” If all learning takes place in groups, with introverted students trying their best to pretend to be extroverts, discouraged from working in the way that suits them best, imagine the talent that goes to waste.
And here is where I see the huge potential for individualized online learning to level the playing field, particularly the blended or hybrid learning model that is becoming more common.
With the flexibility of online or hybrid learning, students are free to work independently, but also come together for group work with a teacher. Many students may enjoy group work at times, but may also need time apart, to think, brainstorm, and problem solve on their own.
Over at the Huffington Post , in an article on classroom design, Vanessa Quirk describes a pilot math program in New York that blends online learning, collaborative group work, small group instruction, and independent learning. Of this type of individualized education model, Quirk writes “the potential for introverts is immediately obvious – here is a system that uses technology to encourage their individualistic learning style (separating them virtually, if not necessarily physically, from the group).”
Quirk goes on to say, “…our classrooms of the future will have to offer different paths toward creativity and productivity; to allow for human interaction as well as independent, virtual, discovery; and, for the benefit of us all in this extroverted world, keep the needs of extroverts and introverts in mind.”
- ThinktanK Blog: What is a hybrid charter school?
- KQED MindShift: At Flex Academy, High School Mimics the Workplace
- TED Blog: An Introverted Call to Action: Susan Cain at TED2012