The symbol of the ying/yang, the opposites, wholeness comes when we balance both in our lives.

As a former Upper School (grades 9 through 12) Division Director, I usually struggled with the way schools promoted students who were extroverts in exclusion of students who were introverts.  I believed there were issues underlying my observations, but I really couldn’t put my thoughts into words.  I just knew I was uncomfortable.  I think part of the issue for me was that I bought into the model that students who were more extroverted contributed more to the life of school.  They were captains of teams, club leaders, class leaders, the ones who received prizes for accomplishments, and the ones who spoke up in class.  I was just one of those leaders that promoted our societal stereotype that “extroverts have more value than introverts.”

Well today, things changed somewhat for me.  I watched a talk by Susan Cain, author of the book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.   Watch her powerful and inspiring TED talk for about 18 minutes.  I hope you too will be influenced by the power of her ideas.

I won’t try to summarize her ideas in this post.  Hopefully, you have watched her talk before reading on and have formed your own opinions of what she thinks our society needs to do to break down the stereotype.

A few quotes from the talk that I want to reference here are:

My quiet and introverted side of being was not necessarily the right way to go, that I had to pass as more of an extrovert.

Introversion is different from being shy….  Introversion is more about how a person responds to stimulation.

Our most important institutions, our schools and our workplaces, they are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts’ need for stimulation.

I do want to reflect for a moment on her ideas as applied to schools.  Here are questions that are dancing around in my head:

  • Why do teachers write official comments about students that do not speak up in class that go something like this?  “Mary would get more from my class if she contributed her thoughts more often.  She seems quite shy.  To improve, I would like to hear from her in our class discussions.”  What is the message to Mary?  [While this may not be an exact quote, many comments about students who are quiet have overtones similar to this.]
  • Why don’t we build into the school day more time for students to reflect quietly about the work in which they are engaged?  They more from class to class with maybe a 3-5 minute break.  All of their time is programmed unless they have a free period.  Do you think schools value quiet, reflective time where students get a chance to process or sit quietly with themselves?
  • Are our classrooms, athletic teams, clubs, and other programs dominated by the voices of the extroverts and what do we do to promote a culture that supports the extrovert at the expense of the introvert?
  • Should we (educators) look inside ourselves and ask the question, do we put more value on a person being extroverted?  The question could be flipped and asked, do we communicate to the introvert that he or she is a valued person for who he or she is?
  • What specifically does your school do to support and affirm the extrovert and quiet the voice or needs of the introverts?
  • How could you change your school so that it would value the contributions that introverts can make, especially when it comes to their creativity?

I have drunk the elixir of group work, collaboration, and working in teams.  I believe in the value of professional learning communities for teachers and helping students develop their collaborative skills to meet the needs of 21st Century learners.  But after listening to Susan Cain, I want to temper my thinking a bit and be sure I make room for the person who needs the space to think and work in solitude.  I won’t give up my desire to see schools become more collaborative communities but I will add to my list of 21st Century skills “the ability to work in solitude and reflect on one’s knowledge in a space free of noise.” [maybe you would say this differently]

I hope educators across the US get a chance to listen to Susan Cain, reflect on her thoughts, and work to change the culture of schools so that the 30-50% of students who are introverts are not labeled as being “shy,” “quiet,” or not contributing to the life of the school.  It could be that those students who “talk too much” are not the ones really contributing to or moving the work to a higher level.  They might be just filling the space.  Ms. Cain did a great job of balancing her comments to communicate the value to a community of both the extrovert and introvert.  We need to model her ideas in our work with students.