One of the items on my summer reading list was Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, and I managed to find enough quiet myself over the last week or so to read it. In it, Cain cautions against the “extrovert ideal” and tries to show how introverts see the world. Since I consider myself an introvert (and have tested as such on the Myers-Briggs scale), I thought it might provide some insight and advice.
I’m still processing what I think about the book. I’m sensitive to Cain’s tendency to attribute many of the world’s woes to extrovert tendencies (e.g. the Wall Street debacle, wrong-headed leadership), and claiming much of its creativity and beauty for the introverted team (e.g. technological inventions, art). That’s a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but Quiet is clearly, and proudly, a book celebrating the gifts of the introverted. Overall, Cain makes some interesting observations and connections, and she reports on a wide range of studies that can certainly help us to discern – and explain – our varying gifts and foibles.
The introverted learner
As a learning professional, I would have liked to see more advice about how to support learning for people with different temperaments. Cain cautions us about the over-use of group work and collaboration, which can be somewhat toxic for introverted students, and she provides nearly a chapter’s worth of advice on raising introverted children.
But I’ll spend the rest of this post thinking-out-loud about how we – as learning professionals – can be more sensitive to the needs of our learners and still provide the kind of stimulating environment that we know promotes learning. Cain’s research summaries provide a lot of food for thought in terms of how people with different temperaments respond to various stimuli, and the kinds of activities they might enjoy.
What should a social constructivist do for introverts?
I have social constructivist tendencies in my approach to design – I hold myself accountable for ensuring that there are opportunities for personal interaction in my designs, and that there is group reflection (not just individual reflection), lots of practice with developmental feedback, and other techniques that engage a group or have a lot of stimulating characteristics. Even in online learning, which could be designed to be guided self-study, I push myself to devise activities that require learners to engage with one another, or with others in the world outside of the online learning platform.
It strikes me that some of these strategies may be painful for my introverted learners. I may need to better balance public and private learning activities in my work.
Engaging with others is critical to learning – and despite Susan Cain’s argument to the contrary – I think it is critical to creativity and innovative thinking as well. But there are approaches to engaging others that are more suited to the extroverted, and other approaches more suited to the introverted, and having that variety is important when we don’t know the temperament of our audience.
For introverted learners, here are some of the strategies that come to mind:
- Provide time for private reflection before jumping into group discussion. In a classroom, have students jot down their ideas before talking, and initiate turn-taking strategies that give the quieter ones a chance to contribute their ideas. Introverts should be fine in online learning and e-learning courses, although providing direction on how much online interaction is required may be helpful.
- Ensure that the directions for complicated activities are well spelled out before groups begin to engage – the noise of a classroom shuffle or the confusing opening chatter of an online discussion can be overwhelming otherwise.
- Vary the size of the groups, ensuring that some groups are pairs and triplets to balance those that need to be larger. Try to ensure that the environment for discussion isn’t “noisy” – separate groups into breakout rooms (live or online), provide separate online discussion forums; and limit potential distractions.
- Manage the intensity of practice activities by making them less public where possible. Be attentive to learners who seem to be extremely uncomfortable and adjust approaches if appropriate. Try not to put them on the spot if that isn’t necessary – let learners plan their contributions or think about how they want to approach the role play before having to engage in front of others.
- Provide written support resources and allow learners an opportunity to review them before they have to engage on the material… this may be especially important with case studies and background reading that lays the groundwork for group work.
- Provide articles and books as learning resources, and provide reflection guides as well. Encourage learners to pair up to share insights rather than bringing them together for a larger discussion.
- Encourage webinar participants to limit chat conversations to on-topic points and questions. Avoid having subject matter experts post complex side conversations in the chat box when the presenter is speaking (quick answers and references probably okay). When asking everyone to post answers at once, ask them to wait to “send” until you cue them to go ahead, and provide time for learners to scroll the chat box for themselves before commenting and summarizing.
- In situations where participation is graded, do not hold the vocal people up as the only ones “engaged.” Look for clues that the introverted learners are engaged and be sure to deliberately (and subtly) offer them opportunity to speak.
- In an environment where mentoring or peer learning is important, deliberately pair learners with partners so that they don’t have the pressure to initiate that relationship on their own.
- Work with introverted learners on a plan for engaging in conferences. I can share my experiences with the conference environment and give them tips so they are not surprised. I can help them plan some networking strategies that are more one-on-one in nature rather than the loud cocktail-party type. I can encourage them (or give them “permission”) to go back to their rooms afterwards rather than engage with the crowds in receptions and dinners.
- Provide activity choices with varying degrees of intensity and engagement with others so learners can choose what is most comfortable and appealing.
Did I get any of that wrong, do you think? What additional items would you add?
I often advocate for a range of different kinds of learning activities within a formal learning design, and for an even larger variety of resources in a well-designed learning environment intended to support specific needs. Looking at options through an introvert/extrovert lens might be another way to help ensure I have the right mix for all learners.