Quiet: Susan Cain On Introverted Students


It’s 2005. I’m a junior at Brandeis University attending “Modfest,” a loud, crowded and sweaty party organized by student events. I’ve been socializing for two hours, and I want go home.

It’s not that I don’t like being around people. I do. I just feel smothered. As I leave early, I walk by my roommate, who urges me to stay. I continue walking, and I fall asleep that night thinking that there’s something wrong with me.

Six years later, my mood changes upon reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It’s the most helpful book I’ve ever read, and also one of the best researched.

“Introverts…may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas,” Cain writes. “They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussion.”

Cain has me pegged to a tee, and I feel a great sense of relief and validation. I’m an introvert, a perfectly normal person living in a world obsessed with championing extroverted characteristics: dominance, assertiveness, spontaneity and loudness.

I am thrilled to speak with Cain, who says that of all the audiences she’s happy to reach, she’s most passionate about students.

“I hear too many stories of children who are given the message by very well-meaning teachers that there’s something wrong with the way they are,” Cain says. “I think well-meaning teachers see their role as being to turn introverts into extroverts. We really need to understand that an introvert is a totally normal personality type.”

I wonder about teachers who place a big emphasis on class discussion, and if this unfairly discriminates against introverted students. I’m equally concerned about whether teachers are doing right by encouraging these kids to “come out of their shells.”

“The most recent study found that half the population are introverts. Other studies have said a third of the population,” Cain says. “That’s one out of every two or three students. They don’t need to be changed, these students. They do need to be cultivated so that they make the most of their natural talents, so they learn the skills that they need to flourish in extroverted schools and workplaces. But that’s different from changing who they are.”

Cain tells me that introverted children often have an easier time identifying their interests, and that they become extremely passionate about pursuing one or two subjects. As I hear Cain talk, it’s like she’s reading my mind. With teaching, running and blogging, my introverted personality enhances my work ethic and productivity.

Last month, I wrote about school culture’s unhealthy insistence upon instilling in young people leadership qualities. Before I even have a chance to ask Cain for her take, she’s already addressing the issue.

“One of the mistakes that I’ve seen in education as I toured the country and sat in on classrooms, I noticed that leadership has become a real buzzword,” Cain says. “There’s an expectation that everybody should be a leader. It’s kind of like, ‘Well, why? Why does everyone have to be a leader, exactly?’ I don’t think we’re designed that way. I think if you look at many of the great thought leaders and political leaders in history, they were not the ones who were leaders in the classroom.”

Cain is quick to provide an example.

“Gandhi would run home from school every day as soon as class was over because he didn’t want to have to talk to the other students,” Cain says. “He was very shy and very reserved. He came to leadership out of a sense of passion for his causes, not out of being a ‘natural leader,’ whatever that is.”

I can already hear the naysayers, insisting that fostering leadership potential provides the best possible avenue for success. To that, I say hogwash—and Cain agrees.

“Why can’t [students] be really creative or really thoughtful or really kind?” Cain says. “Or any number of other attributes that serve the greater good. It seems like a collective lunacy we’ve bought into, that everybody has to be a leader. Really, if everybody was a leader, we would get nowhere.”

I ask Cain how teachers can better reach introverted students. It’s important to acknowledge that this involves more work, Cain tells me.

“With the extroverts, they’re raising their hands,” Cain says. “They’re telling you what they know, what they don’t know. They’re giving you a very fun back-and-forth. It’s just easier. An introverted student is sitting in the class. Their face might seem impassive, so you have no idea. Are they engaged or are they not?”

Two years ago, I stopped grading students on class participation. Any type of assessment is subjective, but this feels especially so. I notice no clear correlation between how much an individual speaks, including the quality of what he or she says, and performance in all other aspects of the course.

“Why is engagement measured only through how often do you raise your hand?” Cain says. “There’s a lot of different ways of being engaged with material or participating in a classroom. This is especially true now in the age of technology and social media. I know teachers are beginning to experiment with bringing social media into the classroom. What I’m hearing is that if you generate a class discussion of kids that’s happening online that the quieter kids will often participate just as much when it’s online as the more vocal kids.”

I think back to my conversations with Curtis J. Bonk, Professor of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University. Bonk is also author of one of my favorite books about learning, The World is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education. I wish that he and Cain would work on a project together.

“If you are introverted in a regular classroom setting, online environments allow you to feel comfortable and at home,” Bonk tells me. “You are in a safe harbor. You can tinker with your ideas. You can search the Internet to find a visual cue to enhance what you’re trying to show.”

I’m eager to hear from Cain about how educators can more effectively teach and assess introverts.

“I think it is a matter of finding one-on-one time with those students, figuring out what are the areas that they’re really interested in and maybe calling on them or asking them to participate around those areas. Giving them extra assignments around their areas of passion.”

I have taught many introverts, and many fear that college admissions offices will frown upon a perceived lack of traditional extracurricular activities. Cain and I discuss whether this fear is justified.

“It feels like if you’re not the editor of the paper, president of the student body, or captain of the soccer team then nothing else counts because that’s what high school culture tells you,” Cain says. “But that’s not actually really true from a college admissions point of view. They might actually be more interested in the kid who is excelling in less common activities. It makes you seem more distinct and more individual.”

Before we part ways, I ask Cain to provide one final piece of advice for introverted students trying to succeed in high school.

“Find your niche,” she says. “Find the thing you really love to do. Find the people you really love to be with and don’t worry so much about the other stuff.”

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

1 Comment

  • Reply May 3, 2013

    Curtis Bonk

    The opportunities for those who tend toward reflection, synthesis, and personal introspection to participate in a course discussion or activity is dramatically increased in effectively designed fully online and blended learning.

    First, they have time to think. Much of the hesitancy among those deemed introverted or shy is that they want to fully form a response before commenting. Thoughtful responses and creative ideas often take time to formulate.

    Second, they might also simply be courteous to those around them. Hence, others are allowed to go first and one who does such may be deemed more toward the introverted side.

    Third, in online courses or discussion forums, introverted and shy students can refine their ideas before sharing. Many people strive toward perfection before allowing their ideas to be shared. Their standards may be higher.

    And, fourth, if and when you do share, it is just ideas on a virtual napkin. If there is a typo or an misconception, that is a problem of that virtually shared space, not a problem with me or my brain. We can fix or adjust that shared idea. Unlike a live class event, we can edit it. The Web, in effect, become a safe harbor for sharing one’s thoughts and ideas.

    Fifth, the tools for creative expression are amplified on the Web. You might have an idea in audio or video format instead of text. The use of VoiceThreads is a case in point.

    Sixth, instructors can offer more options in a world of abundant course resources. Open education now offers a rich array of video, animations, text, and audio options. Those deemed introverted may simply just have more skill, passion, or interest in nontextual spaces. They may excel in an academic space rich in video or pictorial resources. Unfortunately, text continues to dominate in schools and universities. This is now changing, however.


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