Introverts, speak up!

Introverted Kids Need to Learn to Speak Up at School, writes Jessica Lahey, an English teacher, in the Atlantic. “The parents of introverts complain that I am not meeting their child’s unspoken educational needs, or that I am causing serious emotional trauma by requiring their child to speak up in school.”

Class participation is factored into students’ grades.

. . . we spend a large percentage of our of class time in dialogue. How does Pip change once he receives his Great Expectations? What does Edmund mean when he says, “Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law / My services are bound”?

After reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Lahey “made a number of changes to my classroom in order to improve learning opportunities for my introverted students.”  But she’s not dropping the class participation requirement.

As a teacher, it is my job to teach grammar, vocabulary, and literature, but I must also teach my students how to succeed in the world we live in — a world where most people won’t stop talking. If anything, I feel even more strongly that my introverted students must learn how to self-advocate by communicating with parents, educators, and the world at large.

Are these kids introverts — or very, very shy?  Or do they have nothing to say about Pip or Edmund?

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  1. Crimson Wife says:

    I have to wonder how much the reluctance to speak up in class is due to introversion and how much due to anti-intellectualism in the peer culture. I’m an introvert and for me, it was highly situational-dependent whether I felt comfortable participating in class discussions. I felt very self-conscious in mixed-ability classes and tended to keep my mouth shut as much as possible to avoid drawing negative attention to myself. By contrast, in classes where everyone was bright, I felt much more comfortable participating.

  2. I am (extremely) introverted and Jessica Lahey is correct that introverts need to learn to speak up in real life. I’m quite uncomfortable turning an ‘A’ grade into a ‘B’ grade, however, because the teacher wanted the introvert (or anyone else) to speak up. I’m also uncomfortable turning a ‘B’ grade into an ‘A’ grade because a student talked a lot.

    Right now we have the concept (true or not) of the “bright slacker” whose SAT/ACT test scores are much higher than his (or hers … but usually his) grades.

    Slacking is one explanation. Another might be refusing to do homework problems when the concept is already mastered (especially in math). Now we can maybe add “knows the material, but doesn’t talk enough in class.” Eventually we are going to be at the point where an ‘A’ grade means “the teacher likes this student.” Does this really help anyone?

    NOTE: In high school, one good way to learn to overcome shyness is to spend a year on the speech and debate team. It works wonders.

  3. I think the quality of in-class comments or questions is far more important than the quantity. I’m sure everyone has been in classes where there’s far more quantity than quality. Unfortunately, I’ve also observed that there are a lot of teachers who favor quantity or rather shallow comments; other students aren’t always the only anti-intellectuals in the class.

    That said, in modern foreign language classes, there does need to be a participation grade, because speaking the language is a requirement.

  4. J. D. Salinger says:

    Introverts also do poorly when forced to work in groups. Unfortunately, group work/collaborative learning is the norm in most schools. Ms Lahey is the latest in a series of “celebrity” teachers. She publishes regularly in the NY Times, The Atlantic, has a blog, and even has appeared on TV. She isn’t afraid to speak up, evidently. Good for her; too bad for her students.

  5. Much as I hate to critique an English teacher who quotes Lear, I think she’s talking about shyness rather than introversion; I don’t think “Reluctant to look strangers in the eye” is one of the classic traits of an introvert. I’m extremely introverted but never had a problem engaging in a good class discussion–I considered it much like crossing swords, as we do in this forum. (However, being forced to engage in a meaningless class discussion to compete for discussion points–I absolutely hated that!)

    But two words from a teacher would make me very uncomfortable: Group project. Thank God I graduated from high school before that became the rage. And before someone raises the obvious objection, I learned teamwork where and when it was appropriate: on the playground, in athletics, in chemistry and physics labs, etc.

    Having said all that, with that minor adjustment in semantics, I agree with most of what she says. Students need to be encouraged–and perhaps taught–to find their voices.

  6. Some children who seem to be introverted or shy are responding to difficult home circumstances; or, they have crippling social anxiety. I would hope that teachers would make allowances for these sorts of conditions, and not add to the child’s burden by penalizing them for not participating in class discussion. Participation should be encouraged and supported, but not demanded for some students.

  7. Also, kids on the autism spectrum may have a lot of trouble with eye contact. Grading on assertive speaking and eye contact isn’t fair if you don’t also teach the kids HOW to speak up and make eye contact. People don’t realize that this skill doesn’t come naturally to all (and these are the same sorts of people who admit to not being ‘math people’ and needing more help. Well, some people just aren’t ‘social interaction’ people like you’re not a math person.)
    Anyway, I had one teacher who taught us a really good trick for ‘making eye contact.” If you stare at the space just over a person’s ear, they think you’re making eye contact, and you don’t have that creepy feeling of having to keep looking someone in the eye.

    Very useful for being shy, bored, or just really distractible. But, if a teacher is unwilling to specifically teach a skill, she shouldn’t grade on it. It’s unfair to grade kids on things they haven’t been taught. Likewise, Math teachers shouldn’t grade on grammar, and science teachers shouldn’t grade on art skills.

    I’m willing to bet Ms. Lahey is NOT working to teach the ‘social skills’ she’s grading on, and I bet that since she’s a self-proclaimed extrovert, she doesn’t even realize that some kids need these skills taught. (And haranguing them to ‘make eye contact!’ without teaching them how is like walking into a room of 9th graders and screaming at them to ‘do calculus.’ not going to happen.)

    • I hardly harangue, but yes, I do spend time teaching about eye contact. We also teach how to give a firm and sincere handshake, hold doors for people behind you, and empathize with other’s emotional state. We are a core virtues school, and these skills are a very important part of our mission.

  8. Also, if a kid is shy, do you really think threatening her with bad grades is going to REDUCE her anxiety in her class? Sheesh… yes, certain types DO try harder when threatened. Others crawl further into their shell and shut down. Threatening won’t help the kids who are already shy and anxious….

    It’s like those moms on the playground who scream at their kid and smack him to get him to stop crying over his scraped knee—abusive, not helpful…

  9. When is Lahey going to acknowledge that extroverted kids need to learn to shut up and listen?

    Funny how the door only seems to swing one way – it’s always the introverts that “need” to learn to suppress their nature, never the extroverts. I’m sick and tired of these do-gooders who expend more energy trying to get people to focus on eliminating weaknesses (impossible task, anyway) rather than taking advantages of their strengths.

    • There was not room in this piece for that tangent, but I absolutely DO teach extroverts about learning when to listen, particularly when the kids who jabber on are taking discussion off on tangents or squashing the other kids’ ability to speak. I am also a fan of teaching the kids who have trouble understanding when and where is the RIGHT moment to speak. Not every thought should be spoken as it’s created, and helping kids develop self-control and restraint is another very important part of my job. Hmmmm…interesting topic for follow-up piece, and you are right, it’s as important to teach this as to help others find their voice.

      • Thank you for your response, and glad to hear you do not single out introverts, so to speak. Too many folks fail to realize that some people talk a lot but don’t say a thing ~

  10. In a previous discussion of introversion here, I said introversion is not a defect. That bears repeating in light of the Lahey article.

    I’m definitely not shy but I am a strong introvert. This can lead me to keep my mouth shut at times. Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” I’ll speak to something when I can explain it simply and no sooner.

    Lahey’s wording displays a strong extrovert-bias: “Or I can ask them to open their mouths, turn on their brains, and share their ideas with the rest of the class.” Note the order, mouth then brain. Perhaps she needs to give Susan Cain’s book another read.

    All that aside, I’m with Norm. I don’t think she’s talking about introversion. She seems to be talking about shyness, which can be a problem for both introverts and extroverts.

    Worse, while conflating shyness with introversion, she also manages to completely avoid even a hint of a way to help shy kids communicate more assertively. Literally, her only suggestion is that parents expect their shy kids to communicate. Does she likewise believe her students to learn grammar simply because parents expect it?

    Lahey put out an article that shows she doesn’t grasp the subject yet. Since she’s an extrovert, I can’t expect her to have either the same ability to form ideas internally or the sense of when an idea is fully-developed that introverts have. Maybe she can learn these and then start working on them with her extroverted students…

  11. The one fact I should have included is that participation does not count for much in my classes these days – weekly, it’s about the same as a materials check – but the fact that it’s there is significant. I really do think it’s vital to teach kids how to speak up for themselves and speak persuasively. I also see the distinction between shy and introverted, but have not fully fleshed out whether or not that’s simply a matter of terminology that’s in vogue or semantics. Still working on that.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      In an extreme case, how much would a very quiet student lose in terms of letter grades? A to B? A to A-?

      I care as part of a more general “what is a given letter grade supposed to mean” interest. It seems, as an example, that a B can mean “knows the material at a B level” or “knows the material at an A level, but doesn’t participate in class enough or maybe blows off the homework” or “knows the material at a C level, but did lots of extra credit.”

      Treating all three the same is a problem (and part of the problem is the linear grading scheme) …

      • I hear you. Two of my kids didn’t need to do anywhere near all of the assigned homework to learn the material (both had 800s on the higher SATII math and 5s on BC calc) and they didn’t do it. The older one had teachers who didn’t count homework and the fact that there were lots of kids who didn’t need to do much was probably part of it. The other one had one teacher that gave him a B in honors algII/trig, despite high As on all tests and quizzes and then gave an A to a student who had “done” (by whom) all the homework but had one C and the rest Ds and Fs on the tests and quizzes. We weren’t too happy about our son’s grade but didn’t complain about it; but went to the teacher, department head and principal about the other case – which I call serious teacher malpractice. Naturally, all said “academic freedom”, can’t do anything about it.

    • Jess,

      You say you “see the distinction between shy and introverted, but have not fully fleshed out whether or not that’s simply a matter of terminology that’s in vogue or semantics.” That statement alone tells me you’re not there yet.

      The back-of-the-napkin distinction between shyness and introversion is that shyness is rooted in anxiety about social situations while introversion is based on a preference for solitary time.

      You might well have introverts in your class and not know it because they’re not shy. They can be vocal, witty, and funny. Ronald Reagan, the great communicator and master of the political zinger, was an introvert. No fear of public speaking whatsoever and an ability to respond very quickly to the situation.

      You might also have extroverts in the class and not know it because they are shy. They are the ones I really feel for. They miss so many opportunities for energizing social situations due to anxiety.

      The difference in root cause is what makes the distinction very real and very important. Behavior driven by preference and by fear demand two different approaches to address. Heck, I’m of the opinion that the introvert who’s shown he can speak well when he wants to should be left alone.

      Shyness, like any other fear-driven behavior, can become debilitating beyond a certain point. Moreover, with shyness, it’s a terrible idea to address the symptom. There’s no better way to reinforce the fear and make matters worse.

  12. “Or I can ask them to open their mouths, turn on their brains, and share their ideas with the rest of the class.”

    Spoken like a true extrovert. One need not speak to think. A student who is not speaking could very well be paying rapt attention, thinking about the topic under discussion. Speech does not prove thought.

    If Ms. Lahey wants her introverted students to participate in classroom discussions, she should establish classroom rules which encourage all students to take turns in discussion. Often thoughtless extroverts dominate class discussion. Formalized class debates could go a long way in equalizing students’ opportunities to share their thoughts with the class, without faulting introverts for not being extroverts.

    In her essay, I am deeply troubled by the implication that introverts are somehow damaged extroverts, i.e., that they need to “find their voice,” and that they should mimic extroverts as much as possible. Perhaps she should reread the books.

  13. Trying to “teach” introverts not to be introverted is pretty consistently destructive. Yes, there are advantages in our culture to being extraverted. This does not quite make up for telling people that who they are is unacceptable and damaging them in order to make them “fit in” better.

    I’m autistic. In many cases, I will tend towards patterns of behavior which are at least approximately “introverted”. You cannot make me be a healthy person who isn’t like that; you have to choose whether you want me to be healthy or act extraverted in those circumstances, but cannot have both. Me, I’d rather be healthy.

    Part of the freedom to participate is the freedom to refrain from participating. Take away the choice, and you’ve replaced a possibly-enjoyable social activity with a consistently unpleasant chore.

  14. Lahey couldn’t have done much research if she doesn’t understand the difference between introversion and shyness, and it’s clear she has not. I don’t usually mind her, but that was an ignorant article and should be listed as Exhibit A on why teachers should not grade on classroom participation, as they are clearly incapable of even beginning to understand the reasons students might not have for participating. (Among other possibilities, they might simply think their teacher is a moron who thinks they’re shy.)

  15. “I have experimented with many different grading strategies over the years, but class participation remains a constant in my grade book. It counts for a lot because we spend a large percentage of our of class time in dialogue. ”

    Introverts are quite likely to have introverts for parents. It is unusual for introverts to seek out conflict. That some, perhaps many, parents of introverts complain about a grading policy (and only that?) may be a clue that the grading policy is causing severe distress.

    I’m introverted, but never had a problem speaking in class. Cocktail parties are a dead loss, of course. My children are all extroverted, so I’m not replaying my own battles.

    “However, I also teach introverts, who live in fear of being asked these sorts of questions. ”

    That’s shyness, not introversion.

    Grading introverts harshly for not mimicking extroverts is like subtracting points from extroverts’ grades for talking too much.

    ” A student who is unwilling to stand up for herself and tell me that she does not understand the difference between an adverb and a verb is also less likely to stand up for herself if she is being harassed or pressured in other areas of her life.”

    Gosh, why would a student have any reluctance to trust a teacher who sees her as flawed, resistant, recalcitrant, and a guaranteed failure at life? If the student stood up and swore at her purblind teacher, would that count as “standing up for herself?”

  16. Richard Aubrey says:

    Looks as if a mold is at issue. Thou shalt speak up–or I’ll make you.
    Tests are how you find out if the student knows the material, presuming it’s a good test.
    Speech class is where you get kids to speak up.
    I loved classroom discussion. Among other things, if I knew anything about the subject, or not, I enjoyed making my point. If I didn’t, or was in a bad mood, I knew I could sit there doping off.
    If you want kids to speak up in class to some useful end, assign a topic and have them explain it without notes. That way–this is tricky–you know if they know the material. Wait. That sounds like speech class. I took a speech class my last semester in HS. That was after I had had the lead in one school play and a bit part in the second–the director had learned her lesson, apparently. One kid, a wannabe punk, having asked me how I had the guts to stand up there in front of a packed house, was in the class. When it was his turn, he could not have been extracted from his seat without having brought in an orthopedic guy. It was a 7-12 HS, so he’d known all his classmates for at least four years, except for his el ed buddies which would have been ten. No “class” was going to help him.
    Having kids jumping up and making enthusiastic observations pumps up the teacher–been there–but its instructional value is minimal. I speak as an ex-student.

  17. Well, first of all, I find Cain’s book a bit limited in its classification of introverts and extroverts. Not only do we contain mixtures of attributes, but different situations will bring out different characteristics in us. (Cain acknowledges this but still clings to the idea that introverts and extroverts have different mindsets.) In class, a student with introvert tendencies may be quite talkative–because he or she is interested in the subject and enjoys the chance to discuss it with the teacher and with interested peers.

    Do all students need to learn to speak up? Well, it’s good practice for them to try, but I don’t think they have to talk every day in every class. Being quiet can build a student’s confidence, too. There’s a lot of strength in it.

    There’s strength in thinking something through and saying it well. I’m all for making tentative comments in class, but I also respect the student who takes time to put thoughts together. Then the challenge is to get the other students to quiet down enough to listen to such a student. One problem with the “talk, talk, talk” environment in schools is that kids don’t develop tolerance for pauses, low voices, slow speech. All the more reason why it’s as important for kids to learn how to listen and hold back as it is for them to learn to speak up.

    Beyond that, such skills take a backseat to the substance of the discussion, in my view. If the discussion is about something challenging and interesting, it will inspire both speech and silence. Yes, students still have to learn both, but to a great extent they will come naturally. When the emphasis is on the actual topic of discussion, then two problems become less prominent than they otherwise might be: the.problem of talk for the sake of talk, and the problem of extreme inhibition against talking. A challenging problem has this double virtue: it gets students to pause and think, and it also takes their mind off their own performance (or can).

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Reminds me of something I’ll bet every teacher was told in ed school: when you ask a question, don’t immediately call on the first student who raises his or her hand. Wait for every student to have time to think and try to come up with an answer. At first, this will seem agonizingly slow to the teacher.