Are quieter students considered less intelligent?

Today’s issue of Education Week has an article by Sarah D. Sparks about quiet, shy, and introverted students in the classroom. It’s gist is that current pedagogy (and teachers themselves) favor the extraverted child. Teachers commonly perceive quiet children as less intelligent than talkative ones, according to studies cited here. The article distinguishes (up to a point) between introversion and shyness.

A 2011 study found teachers from across K-12 rated hypothetical quiet children as having the lowest academic abilities and the least intelligence, compared with hypothetical children who were talkative or typical in behavior.

Interestingly, teachers who were identified as and who rated themselves as shy agreed that quiet students would do less well academically, but did not rate them as less intelligent.

As many as half of Americans are introverts, according to the Center for Applications of Psychological Type, located in Gainesville, Fla.

There’s a distinction between shyness—generally associated with fear or anxiety around social contact—and introversion, which is related to a person’s comfort with various levels of stimulation.

A shy student, once he or she overcomes the fear, may turn out to be an extrovert, invigorated by being the center of attention.

By contrast, an introverted child may be perfectly comfortable speaking in class or socializing with a few friends, but “recharges her batteries” by being alone and is most energized when working or learning in an environment with less stimulation, social or otherwise, according to Mr. Coplan and Ms. Cain.

I was interviewed for the article, but some of my points didn’t make it in. I find the denominations “introvert,” “shy” and even “quiet” limiting. There are students who speak very little in class on the whole but liven up when particularly interested in a topic. There are students who speak a lot but are not necessarily “extraverts”; they enjoy the exchange of ideas in the classroom. Many students who might classify as “introvert” do not desire “lower” levels of stimulation; rather, they find certain intellectual activities highly stimulating. And, of course, there are students who seem quiet in class but are social ringleaders outside.

What’s important is to stay alert to the students and to do what will bring out the subject matter. Most subjects require a good deal of focus and quiet thought. Even a class discussion can set the tone for that. Ideally, all students would learn to both speak and listen, to grapple with problems out loud and in quiet. But for this to have meaning, there must be things worth thinking and talking about.

As to whether teachers consider quieter students less intelligent, my experience says no, but this may be because my trachers, especially in high school, recognized the importance of thinking about the subject and not rushing to speak.


  1. As a college professor, I find that this issue is very relevant to higher education as well as K-12. We have less classroom time with our students, and that makes it difficult to determine if a student is shy or introverted or simply likes to take their time to process information. As a result, I find that I am very cautious about drawing conclusions based on classroom demeanor. Of the student that feels a constant need to participate, I have to wonder if they have really taken the time to think critically and thoroughly. By contrast, the very quiet student presents me with a different conundrum. Frankly, I worry that if I encourage or require frequent participation from them and they have a significant level of shyness, they will have a meltdown or stop coming to class–both of which have happened. The element of choice complicates this: unlike K-12, college students elect to enroll, and will take flight if made uncomfortable. It’s a tricky situation at times. I think that’s why some “shy” college students enjoy online courses. I wrote a blog post about that a while back: But I would hesitate to encourage anyone who seems quiet in class to go for the online option, because, as you point out above, they may not be shy but simply introverted and waiting for something that really engages them before they participate.

  2. Why is this news to anyone.

    Supposedly, all kids have their own learning styles, but schools force them into “active” learning groups (that usually require art or data collection). The dominant in the group take charge whether or not they are moving in a positive discovery direction or making best use of time. As long as it’s “active”, it’s good. Apparently, you can’t discover things on your own doing problem sets at home or with a well-prepared teacher in charge. You have to let the dominant people in the active learning groups directly teach the the less dominant ones (that kind of direct teaching is apparently OK), whether or not they are right or wrong. I’ve long said that educators really don’t care about discovery. They only care about active learning groups in class with the teacher as the guide on the side. Knowing whether that works or not is really not their goal. It’s their assumption.

    I remember when my son had to do over 100 crayon drawings of science terms in sixth grade. The teacher was so surprised that it was taking him 40 minutes per drawing (he could memorize the terms in less than a minute). She said that the drawing didn’t really amount to much in the rubric scoring. She lied. Apparently, drawing good pictures means that everyone remembers better that way. Bad drawings were not an indication of poor art skills, but lack of effort.

    When did reality ever cause educators to question their basic assumptions?

    Everyone has different learning styles, as long as it includes art and it’s done in groups. Then again, my son’s sixth grade teacher didn’t allow my son to learn the science terms using music or his incredible memory. Apparently, if you just memorize things it’s rote, but if you draw a crayon picture, it’s not.

    In Kindergarten, our son’s teacher didn’t want to tell us about the results of a reading test where he got a very high score. (It was no surprise to us who used phonics and taught him to read.) She was afraid that we might get weird, so she immediately went into a preemptive strike telling us that some kids can read encyclopedias, but they don’t know what they are reading. Did she test him on comprehension? No. What ever happened to “Learn to read and read to learn?”

    I could go on and on with examples of how educator pedagogy and reality don’t match up.

    • Some of what you say is spot on. Often pedagogy and reality don’t match up.

      Broad generalizations about teachers lying (in reality these are isolated incidents) are a insulting to teachers, in general.

      • “She lied.”

        That was quite specific, not general.

        The generality is that there is often a big difference between what teachers say and what they do.

  3. It’s gist is that current pedagogy (and teachers themselves) favor the extraverted child.

    Regardless of whether teachers perceive quieter kids as less intelligent, it’s definitely true that current pedagogy, and by extension teachers who practice it, consider quietness and introversion as disadvantages. The thing of it is, they are, but they’re disadvantages created by the pedagogy itself.

    The focus on external signs of activity is inherently punitive to those who are active on the inside. Too often, you hear/read teachers who think it’s a great thing to get introverts out of their shell. But if we’re in our shell thinking about what’s being taught instead of being “engaged” in the extrovert sense and someone tries to bring us out, our learning process has just been disrupted so we can conform to the extrovert-centric expectations of current pedagogy.

    Pedagogy needs to catch up with the fact that introversion is *not* a defect.

    • Good points. I especially like “introversion is not a defect.”

      Quiet kids make me want to inject more technology that often engages them. When I use a message board, I get 100 percent participation. The quietest kid in the class will post to a message board. They want to be heard; they just don’t like talking.

      I had a student a few years ago who, literally, would not speak in class. When we were doing an oral presentation, I let him present at home, away from peers, using a web cam. He produced a beautiful presentation.

      • Quiet kids make me want to inject more technology that often engages them. When I use a message board, I get 100 percent participation. The quietest kid in the class will post to a message board. They want to be heard; they just don’t like talking.

        I’m not sure quiet kids categorically “want to be heard”. This sounds like an extrovert-centric assumption. I’ve spent plenty of time in my life thinking and engaging with material and having absolutely no desire to be heard by other people.

        That said, something like a message board or presenting in a safe environment can be useful in assisting introverted kids to meet your expectation that they make themselves heard.

        Most introverts I know, myself included, will make themselves heard quite clearly when we have something to say to the people around us. However, since we’re processing information and ideas internally, that’s much less often.

  4. Sometimes, kids are quiet because they already know the material, because they “got it” the first time it was presented (either in a book or in class), they’re bored and they’re thinking about something else. I had one of those, and he was/is rather quiet but not shy. He had few, if any, teachers who underestimated his intelligence, however. He certainly would not have been happy with the eternal groupwork, discovery and navel-gazing currently in vogue, but neither would any of his more outgoing siblings. They all prefer to be left alone to do their work. The talk about the importance of learning styles is just talk; all kids are shoved into the same heterogeneous box and fed the same instructional methodology.

  5. I was one of those shy students in school… I have always hated speaking up in class discussions. Though I did fine in smaller groups. Even at the university level, I had this same problem. I don’t think I would make it through the K-12 system as it is today. I have some artistic talent (had to make my daughter’s dioramas.. *sigh*) but I hate stupid tedious work and would fail utterly at “participation.” I also had a tendency to mouth off to teachers in high school… nah, I’d be in reform school. LOL

    My daughter has Asperger’s and absolutely no artistic talent… she hates those crayon projects. Some of you might be able to imagine how well she handled your “typical” K-6 classroom. Yep… in 4th grade I pulled her out to homeschool her, using traditional methods (some Charlotte Mason) and she is learning so much more and MUCH happier!

  6. Many students prefer small groups to whole-class discussions, and others are the opposite. I liked whole-class discussions because the teacher was there, and he or she could challenge us further. Also, the emphasis was on the subject matter, not on the social dynamics.

    On the other hand, some “quiet” students prefer small groups. That’s part of the reason why schools began emphasizing them more; they wanted to draw out students who were otherwise silent. They believed that many children learn by talking things out and wanted to give more “talk time” to all children.

    But even if that were so, even if “talking things out” helped children uniformly, you’d still need something to talk about. To have something to talk about, you have to learn it, and to learn it, you need to spend some time listening and thinking without talking. If there’s too much group work, it undoes its own purposes.

    I am not convinced that children always learn best when talking things out. It does help, some of the time, yes. But there’s also much to be said for holding something in your mind and puzzling over it without talking immediately. Also, one student could “talk” something out (for instance, presenting a proof) and twenty others could learn from this. They don’t all have to be talking at once.

  7. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Generally, quieter students (at the high school level) are better engaged through lots of feedback on their writing.