Strategy Share: Introverts in the Classroom

Did you miss National Introverts Week last week? Learn more about introverts in the classroom with the blog piece written by Jenn Gilgan, a National Geographic Certified Educator and Secondary English Teacher from Tampa, Florida.

No one is fully introverted or fully extroverted, but most of us lean toward one side or the other of the spectrum. Of course, there are ambiverts in the middle, paradoxical social introverts, and shy extroverts, which seems like an oxymoron.

Fortunately, many of the myths about introverts disliking people and extroverts being aggressive have been discredited. The introvert-extrovert spectrum is a means to show how people recharge their energy. Extroverts draw on dynamic, external activities: attending a large social event, playing sports, or going to carnivals. Introverts, on the other hand, recharge through quiet, mostly internal activities: reading, meeting a small group of friends, or walking along the beach. Scientific research provides reasons for many of the differences between extroverts and introverts.

The Introvert’s Brain versus the Extrovert’s Brain

Part of the reason introverts feel overly stimulated at large social gatherings is because they require less dopamine, the “reward” hormone,  to feel happy or satisfied compared to extroverts*. In a way, they “peak” earlier than extroverts. Quieter activities such as meandering through a museum or researching at the library provide enough of a dopamine “hit” for an introvert to feel rewarded, while an extrovert often feels bored quickly with these activities.

In addition to the brain’s physiological response to dopamine, the brains of introverts and extroverts differ physically. In 2012, neuroscientist Randy Buckner discovered that the gray matter in an introvert’s prefrontal cortex is larger and thicker than that in an extrovert. Since this portion of the brain is associated with planning and decision-making, among other functions, it could explain why introverts are better known as “thinkers” and extroverts as “doers.”

Processing Information as an Introvert

The website The Quiet Revolution includes drawings representing six key differences between introverts and extroverts. One of my favorites shows the brain’s processing pathways. The extrovert’s is nearly a straight line. The introvert’s has loops and turns and pass through two sections of the brain: long-term memory and planning. Due to the complex path information travels, an introvert often takes longer to process information or to answer a question*. Learning new motor skills can create new neural pathways, as shown in the National Geographic Education video Learning Motor Skills. However, how we naturally process and store information seems to be inherent to our natural introvert-extrovert tendencies, so an introvert will, as a general rule, take more time to process information than an extrovert.

Extroverts and Introverts Communicate Differently, Too

Photo by Lori Epstein.

Communication is often influenced by the culture in which we learn, as shown in the National Geographic Education video On Communication Styles. In a way, introverts and extroverts are like the Americans and Moroccans in the video: They need to learn their counterparts’ communication patterns to better understand each other. Extroverts like to share. They enjoy getting to know others and sharing their interests with others. Small talk at parties doesn’t bother an extrovert, but introverts struggle with conversation starters.

Introverts are more selective. It’s not that they don’t want to participate in the conversation; they’d rather observe, think, and then contribute after processing all they’ve taken in. In a social situation, they don’t automatically assume you want to know about them, so they won’t automatically volunteer information about themselves. The same holds true in group work; they may have something incredible to contribute, but will often wait to be asked to share rather than boldly speak up.

The Introverted Student

It’s possible to have a shy, quiet extrovert or a chatty social introvert in your classroom. How do you determine their natural tendencies? There are several online surveys you can offer students, and the books such as Susan Cain’s Quiet Power: The Secret Strength of Introverted Kids or Marit Olsen Laney’s The Introvert Advantage provide in-depth information about recognizing introverted versus extroverted behaviors. One of my go-to online surveys, 16 Personalities, is based on the Myers Brigg test so provides additional interesting personality insights of your students.

If your school district is like mine, high participation rates are expected in each of your classes. To accurately measure my students’ participation rate, I had to know the ratio of introverts to extroverts in each class. Statistically, there tend to be more extroverts than introverts, especially in an American classroom, so I needed ways to either draw out the introverts or to provide alternative participation assessments for them. 

Group or team work can be overly stimulating, but because collaboration is a skill students are expected to learn, I would pair my introverts with more moderate extroverts, ambiverts, or more social introverts. I would also purposely ask introverts their thoughts when meeting with each team. Some groups needed to use “talking chips” to ensure each member had a chance to contribute to the conversation. I distribute 4 plastic tokens (like game pieces) to each student. When students contribute to the group discussion, they put one of their chips in the center of the table. If a student “spends” all her chips, she has to wait for the other team members to speak, spending their chips, until all are out of chips. If there’s still time in the activity, the team reclaim their chips and continue the discussion.

During whole-class discussions, I would check in with introverts nonverbally, either with eye contact, hand gestures, or little notes to be sure they were engaged, even if they weren’t verbally contributing. At the end of the school day, I knew to give my introverts some breathing room. Remember, introverts are more sensitive to dopamine, so after several hours of note-taking, group work, cafeteria noise, and the like, an introvert is more ready for quiet time at home than an extrovert.

*Source: The Introvert Advantage: How Quiet People Can Thrive in an Extrovert World, by Marti Olsen Laney. Chapter III, pgs 101 and 105

Jenn Gilgan is a National Geographic Certified Educator and taught English/Language Arts and AP classes for seven years. She is an introvert and the founder of A Teacher Travels, a website dedicated to bringing the world to students through photographs, videos, and blogs featuring literary places, events, and fictional characters. To complement this article, you can read her analysis of a few fictional characters based on the introvert-extrovert spectrum.

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