When I was 16, my mother had a parent-teacher meeting with my favourite teacher, who taught English – we’ll call her Miss Apple. I held Miss Apple in high esteem and valued her opinion of me. I adored literature and creative writing and I found her quirky take on the curriculum challenging and exhilarating. She pushed me hard, routinely denying me top marks, tacitly urging me to work that little bit harder, and I excelled under her tutelage. When Miss Apple instigated class discussions, however, I often hung back, intellectually invigorated by the exchange of ideas going on around me but emotionally overstimulated by the hearty debate.
When my mum met with her, Miss Apple, wanting to communicate my tendency not to vocalise my opinions in class, described me as an “observer.”
The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking
I was a quiet student, you see. I felt wounded by Miss Apple’s description of me; to my teenage self, “observer” implied someone on the fringes, not experiencing life or contributing to the community, when in my own head I was as engaged in the class as another pupil. Even-handed as Miss Apple’s description was, I keenly felt her classification of me as yet another message from society that being quiet just doesn’t cut it.
I was reminded of this incident a couple of months ago when I read Susan Cain’s revelatory bestselling nonfiction book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. She makes a compelling claim that contemporary society privileges extroverted qualities over introverted ones to its own detriment, and particularly to that of more reserved kids who are commanded to renounce their naturally quieter tendencies. “I hear too many stories of children who are given the message by very well-meaning teachers that there’s something wrong with the way they are,” Cain says. “I think well-meaning teachers see their role as being to turn introverts into extroverts. We really need to understand that an introvert is a totally normal personality type.”
Collaborative Learning: The Balance Matters
According to research cited by Cain, as much as half the population can be considered introverts, but educational policies persist in promoting predominantly extroverted learning environments, such as collaborative learning. I am very much in favour of collaborative learning, which sees a move away from traditional lecture-style teaching to emphasise collective problem-solving among students, a shift that can only encourage self-driven learning and the development of teamwork skills. However, this needs to be tempered by an awareness that this is not always the optimal learning environment for all kids. Introversion should not be confused with misanthropy, but rather understood as a way of experiencing the world. For example, an introverted student might find working with their peers in a collaborative learning environment enjoyably invigorating, but find constant group work over-stimulating and exhausting; introverts often need time to reflect on events and recharge before launching into the fray once again. Collaborative learning is an exciting and innovative model, but it needs to be balanced by time and space in the classroom that allows quieter students to take stock and learn in a more individual way.
An Inviting and Encouraging Classroom
“Observers” count among the world’s great artists, journalists, scientists, novelists and photographers. Miss Apple’s description of me was in fact an insightful compliment, but in a broader cultural context that counts quiet contemplation as a second-rate quality, I took it as a slight.
We need to make sure that the classroom is an inviting and encouraging environment for all learning styles, one that nurtures the “observer” as much as his louder friend.
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