Teachers, Group Work Is Overrated


I am a self-confessed introvert. I prefer the solace and comfort of writing, reading and studying to spending much time out-and-about or in crowded social scenes.

In high school, I spent extremely long hours surpassing an assignment’s parameters. My amazing teachers at Brimmer and May read and provided copious feedback on my essays and other written work, all of which exceeded the suggested page limit.

I worked hard not because I wanted to receive special praise, but because I found comfort in educational solitude.

Still, friends and family questioned what they deemed an “obsessive work ethic,” leading me to believe that I suffered from a minor psychological disorder.

That behavior continued into college. Glenn Prives, my well-intentioned freshman roommate, would lock me out of our room to force me into certain social interactions. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy being around people. I was plenty social

I just needed my alone time.

As a teacher, not much has changed. Whereas many bemoan grading and writing student comments, I thoroughly enjoy such work. At the end of the day, I take out my work and listen to soft rock—mostly John Mayer, Adele, or something mellow.

I recently finished Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. In one paragraph, Cain captures my entire existence:

Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while whish they were home in their pajamas. 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 discussions.

Those are admirable qualities. The more I think about Quiet, the more I believe that educators (I included) need to think about how we treat and assess introverts.

Every year, I teach students who favor reading an engaging novel going out with friends. Just like me, it’s not that those individuals don’t like being social. We just prefer prolonged stimulation by engaging in solo endeavors, often resulting in superior innovation.

As Cain points out, to realize the power of introverts look no further than Apple co-founder Stephen Wozniak.

I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.

Cain presents a host of scientific evidence to show that teamwork, participation and cooperation aren’t nearly as important as many (including teachers) espouse. Instead of demonizing introverts or trying to “fix them,” society should be thankful that such people exist. It’s no surprise that Cain doesn’t seem to like Tony Robbins, the most famous and highly-paid lucrative self-help guru who travels around charging huge fees to make quiet people more like extroverts.

I don’t mean to say that cooperation isn’t ever useful, or that teachers shouldn’t try to encourage it. Everybody needs to develop interpersonal skills, even introverts. But after reading Quiet, in most cases, I believe that teachers do a grave disservice by awarding or penalizing credit based on perceived levels of spoken engagement.

I’m not a fan of the Harkness method, an increasingly popular pedagogical tool that supposedly puts ownership of learning in student hands. At its best, this method encourages individuals to ask thoughtful questions and engage each other in quality dialogue, all to foster a greater collective understanding. The teacher remains silent throughout, subjectively assessing the quality (and sometimes quantity) of remarks.

But what about students who are introverts? I know that many feel uncomfortable and unnatural in such situations. Silence in no way reflects a true understanding—which, in many instances, far exceeds that of those who can’t stop talking.

I’ve also heard how students make a game out of who can say more, regardless of what comes out of their mouths. Sometimes, students meet before class to discuss who should say what and at what time during the period.

My friend and colleague Dr. Aldo Reglado, himself an introvert, offers some hugely valid counterpoints. When I read his reply (posted shortly after this article went live) I reconsider some of my thoughts. As far as “gaming the system,” he maintains that “Harkness is no more susceptible to that sort of abuse than anything else, and I’m tempted to say that it’s less so.”

Regaldo offers further interesting insight, and I wonder how Cain would respond: “Engaging in seminar discussions in no way killed my inner life of the mind. Quite the contrary, it kicked it into overdrive. It did, however, help me become a more fully realized academic by forcing me to become better at something that I struggled with mightily. Honestly, I think that feeling uncomfortable is part of learning.”

Cain also talks about how a growing number of companies are structuring offices to encourage cooperation and foster improved dialogue.

Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure.

Teachers should avoid making students feel that way.

This article was updated on Feb. 25 to include the views of my friend and mentor Dr. Aldo Regalado. Please read his entire comment posted below. He brings up very interesting and valid counterpoints.



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.

2 Comments

  • Reply February 25, 2013

    Aldo J. Regalado

    Hey Dave!

    I enjoyed reading your article! Much of what you say rings true for me as well. I too am a natural introvert. That being said, I’m a big proponent of the Harkness method BECAUSE I’m an introvert. Yes, I remember feeling very uncomfortable in such settings. The more I was forced to participate in seminars, however, the more I became accustomed to them, the more I grew in my ability to articulate my thoughts, the more I had to test my thoughts (both internally and externally) against others. Engaging in seminar discussions in no way killed my inner life of the mind. Quite the contrary, it kicked it into overdrive. It did, however, help me become a more fully realized academic by forcing me to become better at something that I struggled with mightily. Honestly, I think that feeling uncomfortable is part of learning.

    I do, however, agree that PURE Harkness (as many imagine it) shouldn’t be the only mode of engagement. There is much to be said for letting the students do the heavy lifting in the course. When they are doing well without me, I remain quiet. When they are struggling, I coach them to the extent needed. The teacher should make space for student ideas, but should also remain a presence in the classroom in other ways.

    As far as students gaming the system? Yeah, some will do that – regardless of the method teachers use. I maintain that Harkness is no more susceptible to that sort of abuse than anything else, and I’m tempted to say that it’s less so.

    Keep the thought-provoking stuff coming, my friend! I don’t know how you do all that you do!

    All the best,

    AJR

  • Reply February 26, 2013

    Scott

    Great article. I hope many will read it.

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