I was disappointed to miss out on Alastair Roy’s IATEFL talk this year, in which he described ways to help introverts in the classroom. Since I couldn’t attend his talk, I asked him to write a guest post for my blog. I’ll let him introduce himself…
All about me
I’d like to start this blog post by telling you a few things about myself. I enjoy going for walks alone with my dog (shout out to Oreo). I like reading books on my balcony. I hate noisy, crowded places like nightclubs. I don’t like to be the centre of attention, especially on my birthday. I like one-on-one conversations and prefer to take a back seat in group conversations. My mobile phone bill rarely exceeds nine euros per month because I prefer WhatsApp to my own voice. I find small talk tedious and, at times, painful. I enjoy eating out with a friend or two, not so much a big group. When the majority are at the beach soaking up the sun each summer, you’ll find me happily lost in a small town in Sweden, Portugal or Romania.
Put all this together and you’ll see that I have a rather introverted personality. Note that I don’t call myself an ‘introvert’, as I believe that introversion and extroversion lie on a spectrum, with each individual’s character falling somewhere on that line. Often when discussing my interest in introversion and its effect on language learning I’m told “but you aren’t introverted!”, or “you’re not shy – you like to talk too much!” It’s very simple: I’m chatty and outgoing if I feel comfortable with you and know you quite well. The great misunderstanding is that introversion is equal to shyness and inability to relate to others, a misconception that Cambridge even allude to in their online dictionary. To me, introversion and extroversion can easily be illustrated by something I encounter on my daily commute:
…two roads eventually leading to the same destination, each with its own particular set of obstacles. As teachers we need to be aware of where our students are on the introversion-extroversion spectrum and help them make the journey as smooth as possible so they can arrive at their destination.
Identifying introversion in students
I’m often asked after giving sessions on introversion how to identify students who may be more-introverted. I’d love to say it’s easy, but it’s not so easy to pin down.
I first became interested in the effects of introversion in language learning because of four students I had in a Cambridge: First preparation group. What drew my attention to these students was their lack of participation in class, and I automatically jumped to the conclusion that they were struggling with the content of the course. This was just before the Christmas break, so we soon parted ways for a week or two of obscene quantities of food and gifts. During that holiday, which I spent in my childhood home in Scotland with my family, my mum handed me a ‘memory box’ she had kept for me, stuffed to the brim with yellowing pieces of newspaper and other long-forgotten objects. As I made my way through the never-ending collection I happened upon an envelope full of school reports, meticulously kept since 1988 in true Mrs Roy style. What I read made me realise that I had misjudged those four students, and it would lead me change my whole approach to teaching:
- Alastair is often distracted – or bored – in class.
- Alastair needs to participate more if he is to succeed.
- Alastair must learn to work better in a group.
I thought back to all of those classes. Had I been such a bad student? I was no angel, but nor was I so detached from the learning process. Over the course of my festive break I analysed thirteen years of schooling. I had hated raising my hand in class. I had disliked group work because I preferred to navigate my own thought processes. I had written stories with an imagination you couldn’t believe. I had enjoyed practical subjects where I could experiment on my own.
These four students in my class were me.
They were avid readers, forever in the school library. They were conscious of their work and strived for 100%; 99% was not an option. They enjoyed speaking practice with their friends but were filled with terror when I drew names out of a hat at random.
The problem was that my classroom environment wasn’t meeting their needs as learners.
On my return to school, refreshed and carrying an extra two kilos of Christmas joy, I began investigating a bit further and stumbled across some of Susan Cain’s work online. After reading her book in one weekend I decided to adapt a questionnaire she devised and use it in class as a fun activity. I led in with a discussion on introversion and extroversion to find out how familiar the students were with the concepts: they were surprisingly knowledgeable about introversion and how it manifests itself. We then completed the questionnaire (me included), with students writing down their answers on a piece of paper as I dictated the questions. We then compared answers by revisiting the questions and having a chat about the results. Students were able to opt out of answering if they felt uncomfortable, which a few did on some questions. The feedback from this activity confirmed my suspicions that these students were not struggling academically, rather the classroom environment was not conducive to their learning needs.
Creating a more inclusive environment
Reflecting on my own experiences, I began to analyse my classroom practice with a view to making the learning environment more accessible for all. I realised that the language learning environment can be quite exclusive, favouring extroversion over introversion, with this being particularly true with the communicative approach. So I made a list of the factors that had a negative effect on more-introverted students in my classroom, including:
- lack of quiet time to think and reflect on what they have learned;
- stressful group situations;
- fear of speaking out in class – fear of ridicule;
- classroom layout;
- the typical teacher ‘worry’ about students who are on their own.
It was time to take action. Not wanting to make sudden changes to classroom procedures that had been established for some time, nor wanting to go too far and risk the exclusion of more-extroverted students, I introduced my new approach gradually.
First, and most importantly, I introduced what I like to call ‘the valley’. While this may conjure up images of breathtaking Welsh scenery, it was an important element in classroom activity which meant starting the class with noisier activity, perhaps vocabulary input or a video, followed by a quiet activity, such as reading, in the middle, before finishing with another interactive activity, perhaps speaking.
Taking this approach means that more-introverted students have the opportunity to work quietly and individually, giving them time to reflect on what they are learning, while more-extroverted students are not denied the opportunity to work in a more interactive way.
Working in groups
I often ask students to produce projects or presentations in groups. However, for someone who is more-introverted this can present a series of challenges: speaking out in front of a group, a heightened sense of ridicule, or simply just not being confident to challenge ideas. A nice way to solve this is to issue roles to each member of the group: the sense of order and clear expectations for every member of the group can go a long way to addressing our fears. Roles can include note-taker, chairperson, spokesperson; I even include a ‘language police’ role where the person monitors the group and ensures they are using the target language as much as possible.
Another key thing to bear in mind is this: is working in groups really the only option for the activity? Could an individual produce something equally as valid in the same amount of time? Let them choose whether they want to work individually, in a pair or in a small group and be flexible. Sometimes the team approach is not the most productive; letting the individual choose how they prefer to approach some tasks can lead to much more affective learning.
Speaking out in front of the class
It would be wrong to say that more-introverted people strongly dislike speaking in group situations, such as in class or in work meetings, with many equating this aversion to the aforementioned ‘shyness’. In reality this is not the case at all. Putting someone who is quite introverted on the spot is extremely stressful – our introversion means that we like to think our ideas through and plan an answer before we open our mouths to speak. Think back to the last class you taught: did you put any students on the spot to answer a question? Or perhaps you asked a question to the whole group and chose someone whose hand shot up into the air? The chances are that you didn’t speak to one of your more introverted students. Some ways you can make group discussion more accessible to more introverted students are:
- Give a few minutes for students to construct an answer on their own or with a partner before contributing to a group discussion.
- Allow students to make notes on cards in preparation for discussions – note-taking is a valuable skill to develop.
- Introduce a ‘question-pause-question-answer’ approach, whereby you ask, wait a few seconds, ask again, and then invite answers. The moment’s pause allows everyone the opportunity to construct an answer.
- Introduce a ‘pass’ option in quick-fire questioning. Although some students will abuse it at first, I have found that some of my introverted students have been thankful for the opportunity to step back from a question when they are not fully ready to answer. This doesn’t mean that you can’t return to them a few moments later for their input.
I’ll keep this part simple. Are your students in rows or groups with the teacher’s desk at the front? Move your desk to another part of the room so that students can approach you for support more discreetly. Consider creating a quiet area, if possible, where students can remove themselves from the group during individual activities and ‘recharge their batteries’. Have a mixture of group tables and individual tables and allow students to choose where they want to sit for different activities.
Worrying about ‘lonely’ students
This area is particularly relevant to me as I write this, as just today I had a lovely conversation with a student in the playground of our school. Every day I see him sitting alone on the same chair, swinging his legs and staring off into the distance. Our gut instinct as teachers is to nurture relationships between students; however, sometimes we need to recognise that we shouldn’t force students into being with others at all times during the day. Back to the student today, I asked him how we was, and he told me he was “fine”. A typical answer. I asked him if he wouldn’t prefer playing rather than sitting down during his break, since he’s sitting down all morning in class. And the reply was strikingly honest: “I like being on my own”.
Of course, the teacher in me discreetly checked that he truly did want to be on his own, as opposed to feeling excluded by his peers. But he assured me that he loved his classes and enjoyed being with his friends, but that his breaks were “his time”. Brother, I totally get you.
What could we do? First, try not to jump to conclusions. Try chatting with a student who is on their own and finding out a bit about them: if they are happy being alone then leave them be. Being on our own helps us recharge our batteries and face the next part of our day with renewed energy. Offer a quiet space, for example the library or the classroom, where they can relax during breaks. They will thank you.
“Introvert: someone who is shy, quiet and unable to make friends easily” is how Cambridge describe my personality type. I’m not particularly shy. My family and friends will tell you I’m far from quiet, especially when I get on my soapbox about something I feel strongly about. I don’t find it particularly difficult to make friends when I have things in common with people. But what I don’t enjoy are some of the situations I’ve described in this blog post. Introversion is a unique personality trait that fosters far more positives than negatives, but as education (especially in languages) is subconsciously directed towards the extroverted ideal, many who tend towards introversion don’t have that opportunity to shine as brightly as they should. Us teachers hold the power in our hands to make change this.
To close any workshop I present on this topic, I like to tell people a story that is attributed to Mark Twain that I believe sums up introversion:
Upon arriving at the pearly gates of Heaven, a man asks of Saint Peter, “Sir, I would dearly love to meet the greatest General the world has ever known”.
Saint Peter, smiling, points to a elderly gentleman sitting on a nearby cloud. “Why, there he is, sitting over there!”
“Rubbish!” answers the man, “He is not the greatest General! I knew him on Earth. He was nothing more than a common baker!”
“Ah, but that is where you are wrong,” said Saint Peter. “That man may not have been the greatest General the world has ever known, but if he had been given a chance, he jolly well would have been.”
If you’ve made this far, thank you! If you would like to learn a bit more about introversion and its affects on the learning process, I highly recommend you read Susan Cain’s book [affiliate link]. You can also find a very early version of what would become my session at IATEFL 2017 here and and some interviews with me about the topic at the British Council Madrid Conference 2015 and the TESOL Spain Conference 2016. You can also contact me on Twitter if you’d like to ask me anything: @air02.
Alastair Roy is Manager of the British Council teaching centre in Villaviciosa de Odón, a stone’s throw from Madrid, Spain. As well as being a regular conference speaker and teacher trainer, he is a Trinity TYLEC tutor. He is currently completing a Master’s degree at Lancaster University while attempting to rebuild his long-abandoned blog, Resourcefl – watch this space!
Cain, Susan. (2012) Quiet :the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking New York : Crown Publishers.
Cambridge Dictionary: Entry for ‘introvert’. http://dictionary.cambridge.org/es/diccionario/ingles/introvert?q=introversion Accessed on 16 July 2017.
Other posts about introversion (from Sandy)
If you’re interested in finding out more about helping introverts in the classroom, or if you’re an introvert yourself, Laura Patsko has written a series of posts you might be interested in. Anthony Schmidt has also collated some relevant research.