Boulder mom of three and psychologist Suzita Cochran reflects on why public schools seem to favor extroverted students and wonders what can be done to boost the confidence of classroom introverts.
Ashley is an 11-year-old who lives in our neighborhood. She’s soft-spoken and curious. Her big brown eyes constantly take in the world around her. A while back I bumped into Ashley’s mother and we got to talking. I asked how Ashley’s transition to middle school had gone this year, since our son Daniel had been through a harder transition than I’d expected.
Ashley’s mom said in elementary school her daughter had always had difficulty speaking up and never liked group projects, but had managed to show her other strengths. Ashley soon discovered, however, that middle school had even more group work and seven teachers to get to know rather than one. She’d been a good student in the past, but at conferences in middle school a number of teachers said they’d like Ashley to be more active in group work and talk more in class.
Ashley said she would try to improve on these areas. Yet her mom had noticed that as the year progressed, Ashley seemed to be enjoying school less even though she had good friends.
Introverts in an extroverted world
Soon after this conversation with Ashley’s mom, I began reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, and met many others like Ashley within its pages. Cain points out that we live in a country that reveres extroverts. This stance has become more extreme in recent generations. As Ashley has found, and my kids will attest, group work is widespread in today’s public schools.
Cooperative learning favors extroverts who like to think through problems aloud rather than gathering their thoughts prior to offering them, as introverts do. Yet today’s teachers are told they must prepare students for the working world where teamwork is the norm.
Cain lists additional research showing that working in groups is not always the best context for creativity. Introverts do their best work alone, at least for a good portion of their working day. Studies have also shown that organizations that don’t allow employees to close the door to distractions are less productive than those which do – for both introverted and extroverted types.
Skills of introverts
Cain also highlights the strengths of introverts. They tend to have fewer interests, but pursue them more deeply over longer periods of time. This goes for friendships as well. Introverts notice their environment more accurately and are sensitive to changes around them, often catching problems in a project more quickly than others. Their sensitivity to people and environments, and lack of focus on wealth and fame, often makes them more effective leaders than extroverts. Introverts enjoy taking in large and varied amounts of information, and excel at synthesizing and strategizing.
When I spoke to Ashley’s mom, she told me that creative writing was Ashley’s favorite class and mentioned that her daughter brought a fairly mature understanding of the happenings around her into her writing. Her writing teacher noticed too.
Like many introverted children, however, Ashley was feeling that school wasn’t a place where she could regularly draw on her strengths. Instead she often got the message that she needed to learn to be an extrovert. Granted, the skills of extroverts are important in life, but so are those of introverts. If we are teaching introverted kids to be more extroverted, why are we not helping extroverted kids learn the strengths of introverts in school?
Introverts and modern technology
Upon finishing Quiet, I picked up Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Turkle, an anthropologist and psychologist, has studied the effects of technology on today’s young people and our culture in general. She worries that teens who are constantly online or texting, are not “cultivating the ability to be alone and reflect on one’s emotions in private.” Young people who consistently look outward to their social networks, aren’t learning the skill that comes naturally to many introverts like Ashley, self-reflection.
Having interviewed numerous teens and adults throughout America about the role of technology in their lives, Turkle concludes:
A stream of messages makes it impossible to find moments of solitude, time when other people are showing us neither dependency nor affection. In solitude we don’t reject the world but have the space to think our own thoughts. But if your phone is always with you, seeking solitude can look suspiciously like hiding [to those contacting you].
I haven’t quite finished reading Alone Together, but after reading three-fourths of it, it occurred to me that perhaps Cain’s introverts have an extra layer of protection against the allures of modern technology – their natural comfort with solitude. And they have another leg up due to their tendency toward introspection.
I’ve always thought of myself as more of an extrovert, and two out of three of my kids are definitely extroverts. Yet reading Quiet reminded me that each of us has a unique mix of introverted and extroverted traits. Quiet helped me appreciate my introverted qualities, those of my neighbor Ashley, and my older son Stephen. The book even encouraged me to further develop some introversion characteristics that I don’t have in excess.
I think I’ll make a cup of tea, sit down in a quiet spot, and finish reading Alone Together.
About Suzita Cochran
Suzita Cochran is a child and family psychologist in Boulder and the mom of two boys and a girl, ages 14, 12, and 9. At her blog, Play. Fight. Repeat., she writes on topics such as helping kids "stop at enough" in a world overflowing with options and items.