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Quiet in the Classroom: The Power of Introverts in Learning

Student works in libraryby Jacquie McGregor

I came across a series of articles recently that made me rethink some of my philosophies as an educator. A great deal of my time as a teacher has been spent in music classrooms. Band, choir, orchestra, jazz band, general music, guitar — you name it, I’ve taught it. These are the classrooms that we consider that proprietary domain of the extrovert: if a student wants to be involved in music, then obviously she wants to perform. Certainly, I have approached my classes with this mentality, making performance a large part of my yearly objectives, and urging every student to grow as a musician by performing in public.

However, at the suggestion of a professional colleague, I spent some time perusing articles by Tony Baldasaro and Mark Phillips as well as author Susan Cain’s website The Power of Introverts. All discuss the plight of the introvert in today’s classroom, and their points are well taken: in today’s extroverted world, the introvert runs the risk of becoming invisible. However, introverts have a lot to offer in both the classroom culture and the greater community.

Understanding introverts

The first step to understanding the introverted student is to define the personality type. As Tony Baldasaro notes, “The key is how your student re-energizes. If she does so by being with others, she’s an extrovert. If she does so by being alone, she’s introverted.” This characterization is necessary, as it can be easy to confuse introversion with shyness. Extroverts, or those motivated by others, can be shy. They may find inspiration and motivation in social settings, without necessarily finding it easy to interact with others. Introverts, on the other hand, are not always shy. The introverted student refocuses by spending time alone. However, this does not mean he is reluctant or fearful when it comes to meeting and interacting with those around him. It is important for teachers to be able to recognize the difference between shyness and introversion. Introverted students and shy students have different needs, and require different types of learning experiences.

Three ways to help introverted students thrive

Once a teacher has identified a student as an introvert, he can begin to work with the student to find out how to modify in the classroom. Although the modifications vary based on individual students, there are some classroom changes that have benefited introverted students, with great success.

1. Help the child embrace her learning style

Teachers should make sure they are never trying to help a child “overcome” being an introvert. Introverts are thinkers; they are people who learn best when they have quiet time to think and reflect. This is not a learning disability, and teachers should be careful not to treat it as such.

2. Provide adequate time and space for the introverted student

Introverts recharge by being alone. In today’s classrooms, these same students are bombarded by group learning projects, higher numbers of students in small spaces, and crowded hallways. For introverted students, this wall of sound is highly draining to their learning processes. Teachers need to make sure that introverts have enough time and sufficient personal space to process the events of the day. This can be as simple as providing quiet, individual spaces in the classroom where students can take a personal time out without penalty or judgment.

3. Make sure learning activities are equally split between group learning and individual work

Today’s classrooms are working laboratories for group learning experiences. The focus is on project-based, collaborative activities, working under the philosophical premise that students will learn from each other as they work. For the introvert, however, the opposite is true. Instead, these students are most successful when they are given opportunities for individual exploration and self-directed learning.

The power of introverts in the classroom

Although introverted students need some modification in the learning environment, the benefits they bring to a classroom community far outweigh any “inconvenience.” These students, when approached with an understanding of, and attention to, their needs, can bring an element of mindfulness to the classroom. Further, introverts, as thinkers, can often present new ideas and perspectives, if other students and teachers are taught to listen to them. 

Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, sums it up best:Our culture rightly admires risk-takers, but we need our ‘heed-takers’ more than ever.” Personally, I plan on heeding this advice in my classroom, paying careful attention to my “invisible” students. Not every student is a performer. Sometimes, creative people find inspiration in their solitude, and even the music teacher has to be ready to help these children tap into their best selves.

Jacquie McGregor has taught a wide variety of subjects in 15 years as an educator, including music, art, language arts and life skills. She currently works in online education as a course mentor, teacher and curriculum writer, at both the K-12 and university levels. She is completing her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focusing on arts programming in educational free markets.

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