Better Serving Introverts in the Classroom
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, November/December 2017
By Scott Carver
Communication exercises and assignments have traditionally put introverts at a disadvantage by design. The regular contributor to discussions in history, the first student to explain or write out the solution in math, and the student that offers to explain their experiment to the rest of the class in science will always be showered with positive reinforcement and generally rewarded with high achievement.
But what about the students that know the answer but prefer one-on-one conversations? Or the ones that are comfortable speaking to the class but prefer time to process their thoughts before answering a question? Or the ones that do their best critical thinking when it’s not spontaneous? Presentations in geography, class discussions in careers, and pick-up games in gym are not just the wrong format for introverts to display their skills, they can be counterproductive to their education. As curriculums move away from an emphasis on content to skills, the time is right to use that move as an opportunity to better serve introverts in school.
Communication tasks and assignments are hardest on introverts. Historically, participation marks hurt introverts, but now, with subjects like English shifting from language into a communication strand, that can make up to one- quarter of a student’s in-class mark; communication assignments count more than ever before. To better serve introverts and provide them with the best opportunity to demonstrate their skills, we need to carefully plan communication tasks so that they don’t unintentionally put introverts at a disadvantage. A communication exercise that allows introverts to flourish is circle discussion. For example, in an English class, instead of asking a question about a short story and having students raise their hands to respond or calling on them at random, a teacher could organize the class in a circle, propose a question and work around the circle one student at a time. This is a great set-up for introverts because they know exactly when their turn will be, allowing them time to process and consider how they want to respond. Everyone has a voice and everyone makes an equal contribution.
Having the teacher sit with students where everyone participates in a predictable order eliminates the feeling of being put on-the-spot that inhibits introverts from demonstrating all their skills.
Another assignment that better serves introverts is a podcast. I’ve used a podcast as the culminating assignment for my Grade 11 English class recently and found it’s a great platform for introverted students to excel. While recording one’s thoughts may be daunting, the forum of a podcast has many benefits for introverts. First, it allows for a student to work from notes or a script. As an aside, this proved to be an unexpectedly beautiful writing task as many students revised their scripts to perfection and that provided me with a mechanism to suggest that all writing requires such revision. Writing the notes or scripts allows the processing time that introverts prefer. As well, a podcast can be recorded multiple times before the final product is shared. This removes the on-the-spot feel of traditional presentations that often cloud an introvert’s true ability. By encouraging critical thinking and requiring a revision process that benefits all students, podcasts provide the opportunity for introspective thinking that traditional presentations do not.
As a whole, society is doing a better job of recognizing that introverts have been set up for second place by a world that rewards charming, outgoing people. For example, my wife is a lawyer and she recently told me how many private sector businesses are changing their interview process in an effort to better reach introverts. Introverts may actually be the best candidates for jobs long-term, but the traditional process unintentionally favours extroverts and allows them to appear to be the best candidates. To account for this bias, many companies now provide their questions in advance allowing time for processing or having critical thinking case studies as part of the interview to evaluate the candidate’s problem-solving ability.
As education strives more than ever to provide opportunities for all students to achieve success, the time is right to reconsider how introverts can best display their communication skills. The use of circle discussion and podcasts are just two examples. Teachers can create platforms for introverts to excel at communication tasks with some innovative lesson planning.
Scott Carver has been teaching English with the Toronto District School Board for 18 years where he has been a member of many literacy committees. He is also the author of the novels Blind Luck and Barrett Fuller’s Secret (Dundurn Press).