Introverts and class discussion

Thanks to @Liz_B over on twitter, I became aware of an article written by an extroverted middle school teacher titled, “Introverted Kids Need to Learn to Speak Up In School“. @professornana, @katsok, and @libbabray quickly commented on the problematic nature of some of her points, and I agree. I am an extrovert – hands down, no doubt. However, I am married to an extreme introvert who also happens to be a teacher.  I say this to acknowledge my familiarity with the concepts in very close personal ways.

This is a topic that I am constantly thinking about as a teacher in a discussion-based course. In addition, I primarily teach pre-service teachers who are going to need to stand in front of a class (some day) and express themselves. I teach from a common syllabus which means that across 7 sections of children’s literature we have the same grading structure and assignments – delivery and book choice varies. Participation is a significant chunk of their final grade. Over the course of 5 years, I have struggled with ways to not only encourage the introverts in my classes, but also to help the extroverts learn to stop talking and listen. Because ultimately it is JUST as important for the extroverted, talkative students to learn to stop talking and listen to others as it is for the quiet students to take a deep breath and share something.

Ultimately what it comes down to for me is that it is my responsibility as the teacher to create multiple ways for students to respond so that one is not privileged over another when it comes to determining a grade. At the beginning of the semester, I ask students to tell me about themselves as learners and how they tend to participate. I let them know that there will be times when I will ask the talkative people to stop talking and invite others to join in – however I don’t do this immediately. I use a combination of small group, partner, and whole class discussion. It is not uncommon that people are comfortable in smaller groups but not in the whole class.

I do things like have students write down their thoughts on post-it notes and hand them to me or exchange with each other. Writing down questions or thinking allows time for those who need it, and forces those who only want to talk to slow down and be aware of word choice. I create discussion boards for people to post their thinking and also use twitter. If discussion is about engaging with other people’s thinking, this does not always have to be done through talking. And I also don’t think it always needs to be done in real time in order for it to “count” the same. Ultimately it comes down to me as the teacher and what I privilege in the class. It would be far easier for me to require that everyone talk in whole class discussion. And could I “teach them” how to look at people and say ideas – yes.

I do ask them to look at each other (not me) when they are discussing books. However, I will also stop and ask those who have been talking to take a break. I will say things like, “If you have shared something in the last 10 minutes, I ask you to not share for the next 10 minutes and to concentrate on listening to other’s ideas.” I sometimes have students that are desperate to talk, if that is the case, I encourage them to write things down when they feel the need to talk.

All of this means that I need to be very conscientious and meta-cognitive not only about what I am doing during a discussion, but what other outlets I am setting up. If I were to only focus on helping everyone be more extroverted, it would be easier – because that is how I am and also because it is blatantly obvious when someone participates what they are thinking. But to me participation is about their thinking, how it develops, and how they engage with other ideas.

Is it easier to do this when everyone talks – yes. Is it the only way – no.


3 thoughts on “Introverts and class discussion

  1. as an introvert, who is also a teacher, I make heavy use of small-group discussion in my class. I find that students, both introverts and extroverts, seem to make friends at their tables and become more comfortable sharing as the semester continues. it’s hard to bridge that to full-class discussions, but I’m okay with that disconnect because I can see and encourage the small-group discussions and I know the students are getting something out of those times– more than they’d get if only one person was talking.

    I love that you make a note of the importance of having extroverts listen– sometimes I need a lot of wait time before I’ll talk in class, especially if it’s a subject I’m unsure of… whereas in my young-adult lit classes, I’m the girl who won’t stop talking! I definitely find that writing my thoughts down helps– but I especially like it when teachers collect those written papers. I feel like my writing/thoughts are validated as opposed to just being written down for the sake of being quiet?

    • Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts Mary. I have a similar experience with small and large group discussion. I don’t push the whole group discussions at the beginning, but after we have had a couple of book discussions in small groups – I start to nudge them more in the large group. I do things like record what people say on the white board but I won’t talk myself. So they have to look at each other to negotiate who talks when.
      I explain that I am writing on the board for two reasons. 1 – to help them keep track of the discussion and as a way to refer back to things other people have said. 2 – to help me not talk.

      I collect the writing sometimes, and other times not. I want them to have experiences where they can feel like they won’t be judged or evaluated on their writing. I’ve had a number of my more quiet students make similar comments about how helpful it is for them to write things out.

  2. I came across your post when thinking again about the discussion part of my classes–thanks for sharing! I too constantly think about about how to facilitate effective discussions, drawing out the quiet and encouraging the talkative to listen. I thought you might be interested in this as an option–it’s working pretty well for me. and the older

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