I. Introverts – Extroverts: Cultivating Engagement across a Continuum
“What can I do about the introverts in my class?”
Okay, that’s not usually the explicit question.
Actual mid-semester queries about the introvert are usually more like this:
“Some of my students are soooo quiet. What can I do about them?”
It’s also likely the inquirer will offer tacit praise of extroversion with a follow up comment akin to this: “
It’s really great that I can count on some students to talk a lot.”
As a teaching consultant and teaching colleague who is a non-shy, outspoken introvert – it’s my task to find new ways of navigating conversations about achieving classroom engagement without demeaning either an introverted or extroverted mode of processing, exploring, and expressing ideas. And finding those new ways begins with re-thinking the Western dichotomy that privileges extroversion as an asset while disparaging introversion as an affliction.
If the question about “soooo quiet students” and the comment about counting on the students who talk a lot are to be taken as prompts for cultivating engagement rather than coercing participation, we have the start of a conversation.
II. Introverts – Extroverts: Don’t Dichotomize. Do optimize.
Shyness first: Do not confuse shyness with introversion: Shyness can be defined as a fear of social judgment, can be described as encountering socializing as a difficult experience. I know plenty of shy extroverts. And I am a non-shy introvert.
Extraversion and introversion, Susan Meyerott proposes in a LightArted Artist post, “are better understood as the way we prefer to pay attention to and explore our lives, and therefore what tends to energize us.”
In this way, each responds to environments / stimulation in different ways:
- Introvert: Energized by quiet and solitary considerations, by stimuli from inner energies.
- Extrovert: Energized by noise and company of people, by stimuli from environment
And each pays attention to / explores ideas from different starting points:
- Extrovert: Will scan the environment and interact with outside world to build to an Aha! moment, which will serve as a starting point for further exploration. In classes, an extrovert will draw energy from group-based learning and brainstorming, both allowing for testing and accumulating ideas.
- Introvert: Will scan ideas and experiences collected inside his/her own head in order to interact with ideas to build to an Aha! Moment, which will serve as a cap to a set of ideas. In classes, an introvert will draw energy from dyad, trio and generative writing-based learning that unfolds during chunks rather than during short, intense bursts.
The following chart, based on a review of recent writing, outlines characteristics typically rewarded in institutions and cultures that privilege extroversion:
|Extrovert – Actions||Introvert – Actions|
|Express Opinions||Share Ideas on Reflection|
|Think Aloud||Plan for Speaking|
|Collect & Propose||Curate & Extend|
|Extrovert – Attitudes||Introvert – Attitudes|
As a scholar of pedagogy, I know that development of understanding and the tasks of meaning-making draw on actions from both columns of charts like the one above.
As a learner, I know that I need to both take on sure and comfortable roles as well as step into new and unfamiliar practices if I am going to push both thinking and acting in new situations.
As a teacher, then, I know I need to invent classrooms patterns where – for example – extroverts step into active listening roles and introverts take a turn to experience facilitating roles, where thinking aloud springs from homework in which students have planned for speaking, and where every one participates in divergent thinking (brainstorming the details, perhaps quietly) and convergent analysis (synthesizing the patterns of connection, perhaps beginning in trios to test ideas as preparation for large group converging) as part of acting on thinking.
In social, cultural, political and business contexts, then, that operate with preferences for extroverted behaviors, this dichotomization of actions and attitudes sets up a “Personality – Culture Clash” in which introverts stand outside of normed behavior, and “feel the need to explain, apologize and feel guilty about what works best for them, they feel alienated not only from society but from themselves.”
To move away from the dichotomy, let’s consider this diagram:
I have long conceptualized Introversion and Extroversion as Meyerott sets them out in the right margins of this diagram, using this shorthand version when I think about classroom learning:
Introvert: Think. Act. Think.
Extrovert: Act. Think. Act.
Combined this with realizing that there are Outspoken Introverts and Quiet Extroverts (as well as Quiet Introverts and Outspoken Extroverts), and this reconceptualizing provides a foundation for re-thinking ways to and why to invite students into meaning-making – into learning in the company of others:
Thinking and acting become the foundational elements, the broad capacities to be exercised: practiced, tested, expanded upon, reconsidered and remade. The quiet introverts and extroverts each need doorways into conversation now and again as speakers. The outspoken introverts and extroverts each need resting places within conversations to operate as listeners now and again.
Most of all, students need to a experience the “norm” of significant learning as requiring them to develop new capacities and to test out new roles. And in venturing into these new realms, students needn’t be cajoled or expected to journey alone – rather, they can step up as coaches for peers who’ve identified new characteristics to develop, and they can sometimes step to invite strategies and support from peers by identifying which new ways of interacting they will test out.
It would seem prudent, then, to adopt practices in our classrooms (as in our academic lives and in our vast and complex world) that don’t dichotomize these two modes, but that do optimize.
III. Introverts – Extroverts: Change Takes Courage, Ours and Theirs
There is much to be said about caring for introverts and extroverts. This section sets out three sets of possibilities:
Set 1: When a class is small and you know your students, consider these four things I observed a favorite teacher enact as an undergraduate:
- Make room each person to experience conversation.
- Make room for each person to experience quiet.
- Make room for interacting at small and large scale.
- Make clear the task at hand: Do you want to
- feature a discussion that allows all to jump in? then make room to report on others ideas or name your own idea;
- foster reflection? then make room for quiet and synthesis, aloud and in writing;
- promote working collaboratively? then set up tasks that can be completed by pairs, trios, groups with a full range of introverted and extroverted processors; or
- feature working autonomously? then the processing prompts might be via writing rather than via speaking.
Here’s how she made room in the first class where I was one of several called into two different conversational role:
For an Outspoken Extrovert, she approached the student ahead of class and asked him to take on a “Designated Listener” role that day, which involves note keeping to document a conversation, asking clarifying questions during a discussion, and speaking at any length only at the end of class to share observations about tone and direction as well as points made or missed in a discussion.
(Why do this? Listening, focusing on a specific and autonomous task that documents a conversation – these are not generally engagement preferences for extroverts.)
For a Quiet Introvert, ahead of the same classroom discussion, she approached the student ahead of class to ask her to take on the “synthesizer” conversational role during class that day, which involves questioning or commenting to encourage elaboration, commenting to underscore links between contributions or illuminate a recurring theme – always explicitly building on other people’s ideas.
(Why do this? While linking ideas together is an introverted processing mode, doing this aloud and in the company of others is not a general preference for these synthesizing activities.)
Set 2: Whether a course enrollment is large or small, how we shape a day’s homework can help us design class session discussions where it is possible for both the introverted processor and the extroverted processor to come into class ready to act.
Whatever the discipline: Consider this for launching an open discussion in a survey course, an upper level application of theory course, an introductory lab or problem solving session, or even a graduate seminar focused how others have expanded upon foundational texts with readings heavy assignments:
- Your homework assignment asks students to complete a reading, keeping track of key points with marginal notes, of quotes that affirm or challenge their thinking with select highlights, and of their follow up open-ended questions with a focused list at the end of the reading. (Time to think and a specific time limit for introverts. Options for what to record and room to explore several ideas in one task.)
- Students post a single quote they wish to affirm or challenge or an open-ended question for discussion. The posting might be via a classroom response system like ChimeIn, or a forum in Moodle or a blog you’ve set up to capture the two different types of responses, or might be scribed onto physical or virtual whiteboards as students come into the classroom. (Why do this? Respect the need for privacy for an introvert by not requiring names and they can plan for what to share. Let’s an extrovert dive right into shaping questions and select lines of thought to investigate. And you can vary prompts, what’s to be posted, and how shared materials will begin the weaving of discussion.)
- To launch the discussion – options for a starting point includes the following:
- Prompt trios – even in a large class – to shape an answer to a question posted by another classmate, with all in the trio writing down ideas and one student taking on the role of summarizing the discussion along the way.
- If each group transcribes its question and ideas in response onto a poster-sized Post-It, a next group can add to the question answering by drawing in quotes to affirm or challenge. (Why do this? Extroverts can be surprised as you change up how you make use of the generative homework writing. Introverts have time to observe a situation and think through an answer.)
Set 3: Finally, consider these examples illuminating how a teacher’s actions or words might undercut or uphold a desire for optimizing the thinking and acting across the introvert <–> extrovert spectrum in your classroom:
- In two graduate seminars featuring cold calling, discussion of difficult US historical contexts and thorny theories with cohorts who were diverse across age, race, sexuality, geography, class and religion:
- Dr. Darwin Turner, teaching a black literature course, initiated the cold calls in this way: “Miss Alexander, please share your thinking on this matter.”
- Because this was a pattern established early in our class, so introverted me knew to expect on any class the invitation to speak from notes I’d prepared, and because the invitation to us all was to speak about our thinking, introverted processors could set out a chain of ideas leading to an insight, while extroverted processors could pose a question, gather some ideas from others in the room, then draw these together to build a demonstration of her thinking on the matter at hand.
- An American Studies professor at UIowa I will not name, less for his anonymity than for the fact that his actions were representative of the departmental approach: “Ilene, why don’t you tell us the feminist perspective on…”
- The pattern in this class was that extroverted processors – the teacher included – determined the flow of discussion even as other students in the class spoke to enter into discussion. There were lots of backchannel conversations in this classroom – in an era of writing into margins of another’s notebook, or leaning toward another for a quiet alternative conversation. The backchannels pretty much went unnoticed until a group of students asked for the professor to facilitate discussion in a way that brought in more voices. The practice of calling on the introverted processors – many of whom were solidly outspoken introverts beyond the classroom – to speak for an idea or group or theoretical frame attached to that person’s interests further damaged the conversation: extroverted processors simply waited for us to finish and then returned to their exchanges. ”Well, I tried” was the teacher’s response in class to the attempt. Out of class, we held our own discussion sessions in a TA office space.
- Dr. Darwin Turner, teaching a black literature course, initiated the cold calls in this way: “Miss Alexander, please share your thinking on this matter.”
- In an undergraduate business course in a large lecture hall with the equivalent of writing intensive and service learning components:
- Guest Lecturer A, after asking a question, re-asking it in several new ways in the face of quiet: “Come on, I know you can all speak about this, wherever you’re from.” Learning to be at ease in quiet, to make use of silent moments for collecting ideas, and to make use of small discussions within large groups is a new challenge for teachers and learners. But it’s a challenge worth taking up as we model ways of inviting in multiple ways of processing ideas. And our complex world needs those multiple ideas to be collected, weighed, sifted, distilled.
- Guest Lecturer B, on introducing a lecture that incorporates two types of short writing activities (minute papers and muddy questions): “Three of your peers will be collecting the Muddy Point cards as I’m speaking, so write the questions as they come to you and pass them down the aisle. When I finish each segment of the presentation, I’ll review the cards while you complete a short writing to summarize key points in the lecture and make connections to your community assignment.”
IV Introverts – Extroverts: Change takes courage.
As an outspoken introvert, I’ve been the one to say this in class, in department meetings, in collaborative projects:
The Courage to Optimize the thinking and acting modes embedded in both introverted and extroverted processing, and to Optimize ways of building and using skills across the collected capacities infused across extroverted and introverted preferences, these fuse to create these new capacities:
Courage to speak – softly.
Courage to listen – mindfully.
Courage to ask questions – reflectively.
Courage to synthesize – collaboratively.
 Where “engagement” might also be spoken of as participation, communication, or discussion practices in and beyond a classroom, whether student to student engagement via one-to-one or group exchanges, or student to teacher interactions/
 See Melonie Fullick’s post on “Introverts, Extroverts and the Classroom ‘Norm’” for a fuller discussion of how this assumed norm prompts us to ask not “What to do about the extrovert?” – the prized behavior – but to talk about how we can discipline ourselves (just learn it, suck it up) and others (speak! don’t be such a baby!) into the expected behavior.
 Both extraversion and extroversion are acceptable ways of spelling this term; those familiar with Myers-Briggs and Jungian publications will recognize the extra- version. I opt for the extro- version for two reasons: I prefer the parallel construction it allows, and I do want to overtly move aside the “extra-“ in a Western cultural context that privileges the behaviors of one place on the continuum over another.
 I use “act” rather than “do” for two reasons – for the semantic link to “agency” or being an actor in one’s life and in the world, for the ways “act” and “collaborate” link for me to mark that “we act with others “ rather than “act for others” in reconceptualizing the world.
 For more quite specific ideas about discussion strategies that can be used to spark courage to discuss across a group of students, see PDFs titled “Discussion as a Way of Teaching Packet” and “Getting Quieter Students Involved in Discussion” at the Diigo introvert bookmark I’ve set up here.