Author of ‘Quiet’ Talks About How to Engage Introverts in the Classroom

introverts in the classroomDon’t be too quick to assume that the quiet student gazing out the window is lost in a daydream, says best-selling author Susan Cain. It could be that the student is listening to every word, processing what you’ve said, and developing insights she’ll later share in an essay. It could be that the student is an introvert.

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking, Cain argues that we dramatically undervalue the gifts of introverts. From the classroom to the boardroom, we celebrate and reward the gregarious extroverts who relish the spotlight while ignoring the ability of introverts to create and innovate behind the scenes.

A lot of educators admit trying to coax introverts “out of their shells” to participate in classroom discussions, but Cain suggests that there is a better way to engage quiet students. NEA Today asked Cain about her book and her ideas on how to involve introverts in the classroom.

Many educators believe they should help quiet or shy students overcome being introverted. What should they do instead?

If we start from a vantage point of turning introverts into extroverts, it has far reaching implications. Children will often feel that their teacher expects them to be someone other than who they are, and they can carry that mark of shame with them into adulthood. I’ve had many people tell me they carried some shame associated with being an introvert with them into their 40s and 50s.

Instead of trying to change introverts, we should cultivate their natural gifts. Introverts have great ideas inside their heads and it benefits everyone else when they express them.

How can educators help introverts express their ideas in the classroom?

One technique they can use is called “Think, Pair, Share.”

Throw out a question, like, “Why were Romeo and Juliet ‘star-crossed lovers’”? Ask the students to think about it, to pair with another student, and to share their idea with that student. The teacher could then ask which student would like to share the idea with the rest of the class. The introverted students may raise their hands because they’ve already expressed their idea and have sort of “broken the ice,” but even if they don’t, they’ve still participated in the discussion.

Another idea is to wait five or ten beats after asking the class a question. Your impulse might be to call on the students whose hands shoot up right away, but if you wait a few seconds, its gives introverted students a chance to think through their ideas and process them.

Social media is another tool that allows introverts to express their ideas. Twitter is a great example. If you hold a discussion on Twitter, students who might not raise their hand will type their answers instead, and the rest of the class can see what they’re thinking. Often this will prompt engagement in “real life.”

Why is today’s educational system more difficult for introverts to navigate?

Susan Cain, author of “Quiet”

Introverts like to work autonomously, but the trend in education over the past twenty years has been focused on group learning. To an introvert, the experience of always having to learn in a group can be anywhere from annoying to even painful. They want to think through their ideas on their own. That’s not to say that group projects and collaboration aren’t extremely valuable. But it’s gone too far overboard – education has so become lopsided that most lessons are now done in groups. There should be more of a mix between independent and group work, not only for introverts but for everyone in the class. Bringing back solitary and autonomous work is just as important for extroverted children. Research shows that people excel in a given field through deliberate practice. They spends hours and hours practicing a craft in order to master it, and the most effective way is to do so is alone. Introverted students naturally know how to do this, but extroverts don’t have as much experience sitting by themselves and learning on their own.

What unique strengths do introverts bring to the classroom?

Introverts are deep, reflective thinkers. They’re careful thinkers. They come up with insights that others don’t just by sitting and thinking things through rather than verbalizing ideas right away. They’re very conscientious and tend to be close, loyal friends — the kinds of friends extroverts, or anyone for that matter, would like to have. Also, it’s important to remember that groups function best when there’s a mix of personalities. In the company of introverts, extroverts feel permission to be themselves and to talk more deeply, while introverts find that extroverts bring them into a more carefree and lighthearted zone.

How can educators play to the strengths of introverts?

Really pay attention to who the child is, and call on them to speak in situations you know they’re comfortable with or jazzed about. Schools focus on leadership, but introverted children don’t prize leadership for its own sake. They will become leaders if they’re doing so in service to something they actually care about. Help them find their passions and then let then grow into leadership positions around those passions.

Why have we marginalized introverts in the past, and how is that changing?

The roots of this are in big business. Until the turn of 20th century, we lived in a culture of character. It didn’t matter if you were an introvert or an extrovert. What people cared about was whether you were a good person or not, or a person of character or not. Then people started moving to the big cities and small town values began to change. Suddenly people started to be judged by more superficial qualities. The culture of character became the culture of personality – what mattered was whether you were charismatic, dominant, and assertive. We’re still living with that heritage today and a lot of teachers I’ve spoken to feel that they need to prepare their students for the world of big business. But the world is changing – we’re no longer living in the corporate 1950s world. Business is more fragmented, more and more people are working for themselves and working from home.

Now more than ever, innovation is what really counts, and we all benefit when people go off by themselves and think original thoughts. The economy increasingly depends on people who can create independent thoughts. Social skills are, of course, essential, but people no longer do their jobs in a huddle. We need look no further than Silicon Valley – the leaders of technology certainly don’t meet the model of the traditional gregarious extrovert. The reality of the human condition is that we’re not all show people.

We’re now sitting on one of the great diversity issues of our time. We know how racial diversity and inclusion and gender diversity benefit everyone, and the same is true of personality diversity. We need the talents of kids who are quiet. Introverts should be cultivated and not stamped out.

  • It is also good for educators to learn about Selective Mutism. SM is a severe social anxiety disorder in which a child is virtually mute, shows no facial expressions and does not make eye contact in school or other social settings – but is not mute at home. Children with SM are sometimes seen as ‘shy’ or ‘introverted’ when in reality it is much more severe. My 10 year old son has Selective Mutism. To learn more: or google ‘selective mutism’. Thank you!

  • Cait

    This is a very serious matter many children with SM are teased and tormented because they just need someone who wants a friend that will listen but is quiet. So try.

  • Felak

    As an introvert and an educator, I’m so glad to see this article. One of the things I struggled with most during my school years was the feeling that I was somehow flawed for being “quiet and shy.” I hated group work and frequently saw my grade drop because so much hinged on participation, and I wasn’t one to raise my hand in class. Free-for-all discussions were even worse, because the extra beats of “think time” that I needed–or even what I saw as a brief, polite pause so as not to talk over the speaker before me–were jumped on by the extroverts in class, and I never got a word in edgewise.

    Extroversion, which is a personality trait that is not likely to change, has been unfairly made into a virtue by a society that often prefers loud and flashy over something unassuming but with thought behind it. I try to remember, as a teacher, that every child has something to say. My responsibility is to provide them with a way to say it.

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  • Rachel

    I see the point you are trying to make and I agree, we need to be sensitive and help to cultivate the introverted child’s success. However, in the process of bringing attention to the needs of the introverted child you also bashed the workings of extroverts.

    “Now more than ever, innovation is what really counts, and we all benefit when people go off by themselves and think original thoughts. The economy increasingly depends on people who can create independent thoughts. Social skills are, of course, essential, but people no longer do their jobs in a huddle. We need look no further than Silicon Valley – the leaders of technology certainly don’t meet the model of the traditional gregarious extrovert. The reality of the human condition is that we’re not all show people.”

    So what your saying is extroverted people (particularly in the business world) are shallow, vain, can only work in groups, are incapable of independent thought, and are only show people? What would you say about Winston Churchill, a known extrovert? He was not only a great leader but also won the Nobel Prize for literature. Was he incapable of original thoughts? Don’t get me wrong, I agree, some of our most brilliant innovators were, as you’ve mentioned, introverts. I believe that’s beautiful and I want to be the teacher that encourages that in my students but I want to encourage all my students to do great things regardless.

    People are people, both are important and worth value. As an educator the best thing you can do is be aware of your students needs, adjust to them accordingly, and encourage them with love and support. Thank you for helping to shed light on the workings of an introverted child, your suggestions for adjusting to their needs were very helpful, I will be mindful of these things in my classroom.

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