You’ve probably heard about introversion and extraversion: the idea that social interactions and tendencies are influenced by individual personality traits. Although introverts are often seen as shy and extroverts as outgoing, these generalizations do not tell the whole story.
An important factor in determining introversion or extraversion is where one feels the most energized. An extrovert might feel mentally recharged after a social interaction, while introverts recharge with solitary activities. This difference is due to how stimulating someone finds other people; introverts are often overstimulated while extroverts are less sensitive to social interaction.
As a society, we tend to subconsciously favor more extroverted people. This is what Susan Cain, author of, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” refers to as the “Extrovert Ideal.” This bias has tangible effects on everyday life; introverts tend to have smaller salaries and hold lower positions than their extroverted counterparts in the workplace.
Although it’s easier to like people who exhibit the common extroverted stereotype of being outgoing and friendly, introverts have these skills as well. So where does the gap come from?
The societal bias is at least in part caused by common activities in school that favor more extroverted students. A good example is socratic seminars, where students must verbally share their ideas on a given topic in an unstructured class format, often fighting to get their words in before time is up. Since introverts are more high-reactive, they need time to process ideas and prefer to be more careful with their words. Although a valuable teaching tool, many teachers base grades on how often a student speaks, unconsciously favoring extroverts who have no trouble speaking in large quantities.
Other common classroom activities such as taking tests and writing essays are not extrovert-oriented, yet do not necessarily favor introverts. While assessments try to measure learning, something that introverts and extroverts can do equally, socratic seminars and participation grades merely gauge a student’s willingness to speak often.
Although these activities can affect introverts’ grades (socratic seminars are usually the equivalent of a large project), they can also have a deeper impact on students’ views of themselves. There is a common assumption that students who are less willing to speak in class must not understand the material. This impression can leave a lasting imprint in introverts’ minds, who might believe they are not good students or even not intelligent simply because speaking up in class is difficult for them.
It is true that part of a teacher’s job as an educator is to push students out of their comfort zones, especially since society does favor those who can exhibit extroverted behaviors. However, there is a difference between willful shyness and introversion, and many students may also suffer from conditions such as anxiety that make extremely extrovert-oriented activities terrifying.
Western Civilization teacher Jenny Uhalde believes it is important to find a balance between challenging students and respecting their dispositions. “I think everyone should have a chance to move outside of their comfort zone in a classroom, but for each person, how far outside their comfort zone they can go really varies.”
For Uhalde, the best solution is speaking with students individually about their preferences, so her students can grow in class without being overwhelmed.
Class participation is ultimately meant to gauge a student’s understanding and presence in a classroom, a definition that educators can expand past speaking in class. In Uhalde’s class, “participation isn’t just raising your hand, participation is writing a thoughtful answer in your warm-up journal as well. I see so frequently students who are very quiet in class, but then when you read what they write, it’s very clear they’re paying attention and that they are engaged. I don’t think I should penalize them simply because they’re not comfortable speaking up.”
By taking an individualized approach and assessing class engagement rather than verbal participation, we can move closer to changing perceptions of introverts. It is important to understand that quietness does not equal ignorance or confusion, and introverts should not be penalized for their personalities.