Honoring the Introvert in PBL and other Student-Centered Pedagogies

Jennifer D. Klein
“We don’t ask why God chose as his prophet a stutterer with a public speaking phobia. But we should. The book of Exodus is short on explication, but its stories suggest that introversion plays yin to the yang of extroversion; that the medium is not always the message; and that people followed Moses because his words were thoughtful, not because he spoke them well.”            --Susan Cain

For decades, parents and teachers have been asking how to ensure that the student-centered teaching and learning practices I embrace work for the introverts in our classrooms. And honestly, it’s a really good question, a challenge I’ve solved on an individual basis for years but haven’t tried to write about until now. How do we bring out the best in our introverts, without the moral of the story being that success in student-centered learning requires extroversion? Most introverts, myself included, had to train ourselves out of introversion to do well in school. Even in the alternative, student-centered schools I attended, anyone unwilling to speak up or jump into a given activity was sometimes perceived as less intelligent or less adventurous. If we want to see approaches like Project-Based Learning and Design Thinking put into use in more schools, we need to be clear about how we will adjust our plans to bring out the best in our introverts.

Susan Cain’s research, explored in her 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, looked closely at schools and universities as much as businesses, and her findings were enlightening. First, anywhere from one third to one half of all humans are introverts; if that’s not obvious, it’s because most of us had to train ourselves to be more extroverted at school and work in order to succeed. More recent studies have suggested that about one third of humans are true introverts, another third are true extroverts, and another third are referred to as “ambiverts,” people who fall in the middle of the spectrum and whose tendencies depend on the context they’re in. Second, Cain found that introverts are often our most valuable thinkers; while they may not voice their ideas as consistently or publicly, they generally come up with solutions and insights others don’t, often because they are closer listeners and deeper thinkers. And finally, humans in most cultures (though not all) grow up with advertising and other social messaging that develop an implicit bias toward extroversion over introversion. Whether we recognize it or not, a quick, assertive voice and style suggest leadership, confidence, and intelligence; while a slower, more thoughtful and rarely shared voice and style suggest uncertainty, hesitancy, and even lack of intelligence.

In my first year as head of school at Gimnasio Los Caobos (Colombia), the High School Principal asked me to speak with an individual student who had just exploded at his social studies teacher but wouldn’t communicate what was going on to any adults. Once I got him talking, it became clear that what others perceived as a reaction against authority was actually coming from deep pain over feeling unseen and unheard, unvalued for his ideas. He was what many educators call a “porcupine,” a young person who carried so much hurt that he had become prickly and defensive. A brilliant introvert, this student came to Caobos at the beginning of high school after intense bullying in middle school over everything that made him different, from his introversion to his most creative ideas. Inadvertently, the student’s peers had been doing the same thing by not listening to him, and the teacher had stifled his potential by putting him in large groups where his voice was never heard. The student and I made a few agreements on the spot: I would tell his teacher to let him work alone or with just one or two peers he knew appreciated his ideas, and he would step up to work in larger groups or even try to lead a team as he felt comfortable doing so. This happened when he was a sophomore; in both junior and senior years, this student won a variety of awards for his projects, and he also earned a significant scholarship for university, none of which would have happened had we not adjusted the norms of PBL to meet him where he was.

So, let’s assume that as many as half of your students are introverted by nature, to varying degrees; how might you bring out their best ideas and support their learning in a largely collaborative, participatory classroom setting? What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with introverts in online, hybrid, and in-person modalities? Following are a few strategies I believe can make school less terrifying for our introverts, and which can help ensure they demonstrate the best they have in them as learners and thinkers.

Use strategies like “Think, Pair, Share” or journaling before class discussions, to give introverts the time to think about what they want to say before they’re asked to talk. While Cain makes an important distinction between being shy and being introverted, pointing out that most shy people are introverts but not all introverts are shy, all students are well served by having time to think about what they want to express before they speak. Teachers know how easily our extroverted students can take over a discussion, sometimes without even taking it anywhere interesting. If the goal is to draw our introverts into discussions, having time to think through what they want to say—and how they want to say it—will make them much more likely to speak up during the discussion. Doing so will benefit our extroverted students as well, who are more likely to contribute something meaningful if asked to slow down and think more deeply before participating.

The same is true of individual practice and preparation. I remember being terrified I’d be forced to participate during physical education because I was awkward and uncoordinated, more likely to be found reading than participating in sports. But when my teachers let me know in advance that we’d be playing a given sport, I had the time to practice alone or with a parent until I felt comfortable doing it in front of my peers. In the world language classroom, fear of speaking without preparation is even higher; while we want to develop fluency and often use on-the-spot conversational strategies in class, offering at least some opportunities to prepare before speaking activities will still help our introverts to get to fluency by a different and more effective route, as we can slowly move them toward more spontaneous speech only if they become more comfortable speaking to begin with.

Use wait time more strategically and consistently, and become a ninja mind reader. I realized early in my career that I was hearing from the same students repeatedly during class discussions in part because I wasn’t waiting long enough for more hands to go up. Shortly after, I remember seeing a colleague use enough wait time that most hands were raised before she called on someone. Although it felt super awkward to wait that long, especially with teenagers, doing so allowed me to call on different students each time I posed a question, and soon I was calling on the more introverted first because, after all, the more extroverted could always be counted on to participate later. Most importantly, I realized that introverts don’t raise their hands boldly the way extroverts do; I had to turn myself into a ninja mind reader who noticed even the most subtle signals that my introverts wanted to speak. But noticing that made a huge difference, and responding with something like, “Anna, it looks like you might have something to say…?” kept the request to speak unthreatening. I’m still wrong occasionally, trying to invite into the conversation someone who was just stretching, but most of the time that’s easy enough to laugh off with everyone, including the introvert him or herself.

Use smaller groupings to ensure introverts are heard and centrally involved in group work (2-3 instead of 4-5). The rule of thumb for group size is usually 4, at least as it’s often addressed in Project-Based Learning workshops. When I worked for the Buck Institute for Education as a National Faculty member, we were encouraged to describe groups of 2-3 as too small (and easily paralyzed when a team member isn’t present). The optimal size as we taught it in workshops was 4, since 5 voices are a bit too much for the students to manage—and more time is needed if we want to guarantee everyone participates. I don’t disagree completely, but the reality as I’ve seen it play out in schools is slightly different, particularly for the introverts. It’s not about how long group work takes, either—it’s about how hard it is for any introvert to insert themselves into a conversation among three other people. Any time I'm in a meeting with three or more people and too many of them are extroverts, I find myself withdrawing and even going completely quiet for the same reason; it’s exhausting to try to be heard over the din.

When I teach workshops now, I talk about group size being a negotiation with students based on what we’re learning about, who has which talents (spread out those creatives!), and most importantly what the students feel they need to be successful (they’re not always right, but they'll always learn from their choices if we take the time for self evaluation and reflection). Some of the best groupings come from affinity mapping protocols, which help ensure groups have the same interests and will collaborate better toward common goals. But when we’re talking about the introverts, even a group of three can feel overwhelming, and our introverts can get completely lost in larger groups of dominant extroverts. I believe teachers should create space for groups of two, and for students to work independently sometimes, even in PBL, particularly if affinity mapping ends with a group of one passionate student who really wants to work on a given topic alone. What you might lose in collaborative experiences is more than balanced by the deeper, more authentic learning that will take place, and collaborative skills can be developed through peer reviews and other group activities.

Allow students to use alternative forms for sharing their insights, and leverage your skills with online and blended strategies. Introverts don’t stay quiet because they have nothing to say. In fact, most have a lot to express, but may not enjoy speaking in front of their peers. Some introverts will post a hundred private details on Instagram in a week, but won’t say a thing in class for months. So, it behooves us to vary the ways students might participate, and to offer flexible choice whenever possible (any time doing so doesn’t take us too far from our academic goals). That might mean allowing students to participate online instead of in person, or allowing for written responses as much as spoken or filmed ones. We've all seen how students we never heard from before have come out of the woodwork online during the pandemic. An introvert in my Creative Writing class years ago wrote a personal essay on how she would participate as far back as kindergarten by writing down her ideas and handing notes to the teacher, never saying a word out loud. An extraordinary writer (and clearly an early one), she wrote about how she always appreciated teachers who let her participate in an alternative form, never teasing or acting like it was unusual but instead celebrating her brilliant ideas however they were communicated. Over time, she became more willing to actually speak in class, but I found she was far more articulate in online discussions—and her writing was consistently unparalleled. If our goal is to see evidence of growth and thinking, it should matter less what form that thinking comes in, and much more how deeply and effectively students can communicate their learning.

When I taught an online book study on Quiet for the National Association of Independent Schools some years ago, I was caught off guard by a large cohort dominated by around 85% self proclaimed introverts and ambiverts, discovering quickly that most of my discussion strategies required a level of extroversion my participants didn’t have. During most sessions, small breakout rooms were my best option, and then full group share outs; if I went straight to full group conversations, there were often very long, very uncomfortable silences (although introverts are generally more comfortable with silence than extroverts, the folks who hired me found it concerning). The very public nature of the online forum was also daunting for many, but I found that some participants got involved live, while others got involved in the online discussions, and still others preferred to write and send me private reflections. Looking back now, I wish I’d known then what I’ve learned during the pandemic about collaborative facilitation on Zoom, as I could have leveraged many more strategies to draw out their thinking in comfortable ways—including asking them how they wanted to participate.

Create a classroom and schoolhouse culture that appreciates different thinking, and ensure that different ideas are celebrated. Many introverts are creative and/or divergent thinkers, and not all of their introversion stems from their basic nature; instead, some of it comes from learned experience. Even in the alternative, student-centered schools my parents chose to support my different thinking, I still got the occasional “That’s not the answer I was looking for” response from teachers. It happened enough times to solidify the danger of speaking up when my answer might be outside the expectations of the teacher—and most of my answers were. I learned to speak in classes with teachers who “got me,” and to stay quiet with teachers who didn’t. Even as an adult, I’ve been at conferences where facilitators do the same thing when I offer a totally different perspective than they were expecting. And that “porcupine” explosion I described in my introduction happened in part because the teacher told him that something he’d put hours of time, energy and effort into “Wasn’t what I was looking for.” By expecting him to produce something more like his peers, the teacher invalidated all of his time and thought, and robbed him of the right to think differently.  

Children learn from these experiences, and many become increasingly withdrawn over time if teachers don’t celebrate their ideas just as much as they celebrate the more “inside the box” insights of their peers. Teachers and leaders need to find ways to let themselves be surprised by the unusual answer, in a good way, or we lose all that innovation and creativity that comes from a different way of seeing things. 

Creating a classroom culture that’s inclusive of all thinkers is a whole other blog I should write someday, but I think it comes down to educators recognizing the potential power of different ideas, and recognizing an impressively innovative solution when it comes from any student. Elementary teachers might create spaces on the wall for the best unique idea of the week, not just the student who did the best job of meeting the teacher’s expectations. Middle and high school teachers have a particular challenge because early and later adolescence is when introverts “go underground,”especially the girls, as Carol Gilligan’s work discovered. With these age groups, it’s not just about classroom culture but grade level and schoolhouse culture, all of which need to spotlight divergent and creative thinkers—but in more subtle ways that suit how each student prefers to be celebrated (I found that The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace helped me better understand how to match my appreciation to meet the needs of the recipient). 

Better still, put some of those middle and upper school introverts in charge of solving the challenge of meeting their needs. Get them involved in planning activities and recognition strategies that they feel comfortable with, and you’ll have an empowered core of introverts—not with the goal of turning them into extroverts, but of empowering them to reshape school culture exactly as they are.

Strategize and make agreements with students around their participation. In the end, educators still need to ensure growth; as I used to tell the introverts in my English classes, at the same time that I honored their introversion, it would be irresponsible of me to not prepare them for participation in the discussions and  presentations they’d be expected to do in school and life. These were skills they would need their whole lives, and that would allow them to more powerfully influence the people around them because, in the end, we do still live in a world where extroversion wins. The key is for this to be a conversation with the student that leads to a set of strategies and agreements, much like the “challenge by choice” approach often used in outdoor education. When a student wasn’t speaking up in class discussions, for example, I would pull them aside for a private conversation about participation. The most successful approach was to agree to never put them on the spot by suddenly calling on them, so they could let go of that fear and relax during class, but in return I asked that they try to speak up early in the discussion, which I knew would help combat the feeling of not wanting to jump into the din or that everything had been said already, feelings most introverts have constantly in large-group conversations.

That student who wrote down ideas for her kindergarten teacher was part of a student group I took to Ghana between her junior and senior year. I was very focused on producing a documentary about our month in the country, and in the final days of the trip I asked each student to sit down and let me film them answering a series of questions about their experiences. I knew it was going to be hard for this particular student, but for some reason I don’t understand now, I stayed doggedly focused on filmed interviews. Within a day or two, I realized she was avoiding me completely, and not just in relation to the film. It took me 3-4 days to realize I had put this student into a state of complete and total panic that was counterproductive to the whole point of the trip. Knowing she was an exceptional writer, I finally chased her down and asked how she wanted to participate in the film. As soon as I asked, she opened right up: she wanted to write her reflections, to share some of the passages of her journal from the trip that she was particularly proud of. I asked about the viewer being able to see her, and she said she would collect some of her best photos from the trip, as well as photos her peers had taken of her. Together, we wove her words into the film as subtitles on top of the photos she collected, and together we found a way to ensure her participation in a way that worked for her—and which was quite beautiful in the end.

Example of a "restorative niche" for introverts to recharge at school

While some of these strategies might look different in the online or hybrid learning environments we’ve developed during COVID-19, all are applicable regardless of modality. The student who won’t turn their camera on probably shouldn’t be forced to do so, for example, but the teacher can build agreements with that student to encourage written participation in the chat. In a later blog, we'll look at how classroom and schoolhouse design can be shifted to better support introverts as well, such as the inclusion of "restorative niches" that allow introverts to recharge. I suspect we will see more and more introversion as students go back to in-person schooling in different parts of the world; in fact, after a year and a half of isolation (so far), I'm guessing that rates of introversion will rise all over the world.

Perhaps this is just a sign that the rest of the world has learned what introverts have always known: that in isolation there can be a quiet peace that allows us to recharge, to reflect and think, and to be our best selves.

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