Group work and presentations can hinder learning ability in some cases, though in others it proves an effective and beneficial method. AnFor some of us, the possibility of being asked to present a project or suddenly forced to answer a question is a source of intense worry or stress. Sophomore Harper King is one introverted student who has experience with this: “I do have some teachers that call on quiet and introverted students more than the ones that actually want to answer the questions,” she says. “I don't like it because it makes me feel uncomfortable, especially when I don't know the answer to the question. Some teachers have even given me bad participation grades because I don't raise my hand in class, and I guess they think that means I'm not paying attention or that I don't care.” For others, teachers and students alike, the thought that some individuals may be nervous to share is difficult to understand. We all have had at least one teacher – but likely several – who are so adamant in their belief that all students must speak out in class that they will call on anyone at any time, perhaps not realizing that the threat of being in the spotlight is incredibly distracting for some people.
How many times have you been assigned a class presentation worth a test grade or more? As a junior, I’ve seen this over and over again in my academic classes. If you’ve attended Athens Academy for a while, chances are that you have been giving these formal class presentations for a very long time: one junior reports giving her first presentation as early as second grade. Of course, we all know that Athens Academy is a college prep school, helping us to prepare for the mysterious and challenging world of college classes. For some students, this practice of regularly engaging in public speaking aligns perfectly with the careers they hope to pursue. However, for others, these are terrifying, extreme versions of something we struggle with daily when we are called to speak out in class.
The frequency of group work indicates how often educators conform to the idea that all students learn better when working and studying with others. Many individuals prefer to work alone, and actually learn more efficiently when thinking independently. Some students can even be hindered when forced to work in a group setting due to the added stress and pressure that may ensue. This divide between those who thrive in a collaborative environment and those who are better suited for independent study highlights the main difference between extroverts and introverts. There are many other factors distinguishing introverts from extroverts, apart from learning styles. You may be an introvert if you prefer a small circle of close friends rather than a wide group of acquaintances, if you are uncomfortable being the center of attention, if you dislike small talk, or if you find yourself “too intense.” This last attribute pertains to the tendency of introverts to feel emotions more deeply than others. Often, perhaps due in part to the depth of emotions and smaller number of close friendships, introversion is stigmatized as a “condition” plaguing “loners.” Even as recently as 2010, “introverted personality” was listed as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the first and most reliable comprehensive list of mental illnesses utilized in the field of psychiatry.
Introversion, however, is not a handicap. It is a temperament, applying to all aspects of life rather than purely social ones. It relates to how one thinks as well as to the way one acts. Contrary to popular misconceptions, introverts actually tend to socialize easily. They also tend to be intellectual, intuitive, and empathetic, but prolonged social contact can leave them feeling drained. Dr. Maura Mandyck, former instructional librarian at Athens Academy and current instructional librarian at Spring Hill College, is an expert on introverts as well as education. She says, “Introverted students might be fully engaged and learning but just less inclined to enter the conversational fray. And the school day itself -- large assemblies, group activities, and oh wow, the lunchroom... There is almost none of the down time that is so necessary for introverts, so that even an ordinary day can be draining and exhausting.”
Being forced to be outspoken can even inhibit some introverts’ ability to learn, because many identify as visual and independent learners. An extrovert is inherently better equipped for the class discussions and presentations that have become commonplace. According to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking, “the archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. S/he favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. S/he works well in teams and socializes in groups.” Cain also reports that 35-50% of Americans are introverts. This is probably surprising, but the number is high because introverts often pretend to be extroverts in order to conform to what Cain calls “the extrovert ideal.” Cain explains that the extrovert ideal is the notion of “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight,” existing in all corners of our society, including, unfortunately, education. She writes that “talkative people are rated as smarter, better-looking, more interesting, and more desirable as friends.” This shows how outspoken behavior is highly regarded in our society – in high school, in college classes, in many popular careers, and in social life at nearly every point in one’s development.
We can assume that a college preparatory education would provide ample experience in the areas of class discussion and public speaking; the problem this raises is that this set of learning styles is much more tailored to extroverts than to introverts. Notice how most, if not all, of your teachers include some percentage of your average as a “participation grade.” There are immense levels of pressure on students to exhibit extroverted qualities, which can cause introverts to feel uncomfortable with their temperament or that their ideas and achievements are worth less than those of more outspoken individuals. But remember the statistics – a very large number of people identify as introverts, and they deserve just as many opportunities to express their ideas as do extroverts.
Advancements in technology provide perfect examples of how the extrovert ideal becomes more outdated as the development of social media helps to pave the way for introverts to share ideas more comfortably. Thanks to these devices, we are able to communicate and collaborate with others quickly and without being surrounded by all contributors at once. While some may argue that social media weakens our ability to socialize face-to-face, the reality is that we interact with peers just as well as we did before these modern innovations. The ability to share ideas with a large audience without having to talk in a pressured environment is a blessing to many introverts who feel uncomfortable in crowds.
Teachers could use these technological advancements to their advantage. However, technology is not the only solution when it comes to stopping the extrovert ideal. In the words of Harper King, “If teachers want to better accommodate more reserved people, I would suggest that they don't force students to answer questions or make comments in class discussions if they know that they are paying attention. If they are anything like me, they'll be more comfortable taking part in these once they've gotten comfortable in the classroom. It tends to take longer for more reserved students to get comfortable in the classroom, so I would also suggest for the teachers to not rush it.”
Some teachers may view technology as a classroom distraction, and may not know how else to accommodate introverted students. Dr. Mandyck is one example of an educator who alters her teaching methods without technology to accommodate all types of students: “I think variety and balance have to be the key... I ask students to speak up and participate that way if they want to, or to write down some thoughts on index cards that I hand out at the start of class and take up at the end. That way, those students are ‘heard’ and can engage...but without having to speak out and compete for ‘air time,’ as it were, with their more extroverted classmates. And I can also anonymously (or not) share those ideas in the next class period and keep a real full-class conversation going.” Despite all of this, the United States’ education system is still determined to breed extroverts in the classroom, as evidenced by the frequency of formal presentations and the ever-growing demand for introverts to “speak up.”
To me, these practices reinforce the detrimental extrovert ideal and the unfortunate yet common falsehood that if someone isn’t immediately sharing every thought they have, they aren’t thinking or engaging enough. I’ve noticed some teachers go so far as to hold their roster in class, going down the list and systematically calling on each student to give answers, a practice that can cause extreme anxiety and a shift of focus; where a student should be paying attention to everything, some will be worrying only about what they will be expected to say aloud and when they will be called on. Heightened anxiety and stress can make learning much more difficult. However, I mentioned earlier that public speaking can be a useful skill in many fields, so practice is necessary. It is also important to mention that some introverts have little difficulty presenting formally and participating in large classroom discussions, especially if given ample time to prepare.
My last concession is that in some classes, like foreign languages, speaking is absolutely necessary to learn and be successful; some amounts of discomfort will certainly arise but, as we know, that’s just part of life. That being said, I believe there should be some sort of limit on or relaxation of this over-amplified expectation. As Susan Cain says, “experts believe that negative public speaking experiences in childhood can leave children with a lifelong terror of the podium.” Athens Academy’s current instructional librarian and editor of The Spartan Review, Sara Scribner, has experience with this “terror of the podium,” as well as an example of how the extrovert ideal doesn’t exist in high school alone: “I almost dropped out of graduate school because I was forced to do so many presentations -- ten big ones in my first semester. I powered through it, but it probably took me five times the effort that extroverts put into their presentations because just getting up in front of the classes was so nerve-wracking. If I had learned a lot by doing them, I would have thought it was all worth it. In some cases, though, it was just an easy way for the instructors to fill their class time.” As an introverted student, I can report that the extrovert ideal does exist, and it is an issue that affects others with similar learning styles. I have seen how thinking to oneself rather than blurting out answers constantly has been viewed as a lack of participation. In fairness, teachers can’t read students’ thoughts and vocal participation is certainly a helpful element when gauging students’ grasp of content. Still, the emphasis placed on extroverted qualities has been overdone, especially considering the increasing number of ways to convey ideas and work in groups resulting from both awareness of introverts’ needs as well as the rise of technological developments. The emphasis on being outspoken proves the existence of the antiquated extrovert ideal, a major source of struggle for us quiet kids in class.