School & District Management

Teaching Introverted Students: How a ‘Quiet Revolution’ Is Changing Classroom Practice

By Brenda Iasevoli — December 27, 2017 7 min read
Susan Cain, author of Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking.

At the end of each lesson, when 2nd grade teacher Erin Pawlak asked her students at P.S. 11 in New York City to reflect on their reading or share a successful strategy, the same hands would shoot up.

“Ideas came quick to these students so they were always doing the talking,” said Pawlak.

But what about the quiet students? Pawlak and fellow teacher Dawn Rosevear set out to answer that question at a teacher training conference in their city that was given by a group called Quiet Revolution in June of 2016. The aim of the two-week Quiet Summer Institute was to coach teachers on how to develop leadership qualities in introverted students—presumably, the students who were not raising their hand in Pawlak’s class.

The suspicion that they may be holding quiet and otherwise bright students to an unfair standard is driving some teachers to change their conception of class participation, which can count for up to half of a student’s overall grade in some classrooms and shape the teacher’s perception of student success. For Pawlak and Rosevear, the emphasis on teaching to personality types promoted by the New York City-based Quiet Revolution seemed like a way of clearing away some longstanding notions that were getting in the way of acknowledging, and rewarding, their quiet students’ unique contributions. Quiet Revolution is the brainchild of writer Susan Cain, whose 2012 book, Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, became a bestseller, and whose talk on making the workplace more inclusive of different personality styles became a TED Talk phenomenon. Since then, Cain has set her sights on changing the classroom, where she says teachers unconsciously reward the extroverts who dive headfirst into discussions, sometimes without much forethought.

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Becoming ‘Quiet Ambassadors’

Over the course of the paid workshops that summer, Pawlak and Rosevear, along with 61 other like-minded teachers from the 19 network schools across the country, learned how to change the format of class discussion and group work in order to help the introverts—and even the extroverts—to succeed. The two became what the organization calls “Quiet Ambassadors.” Upon returning to their school, the teachers set to work training their teaching colleagues on how to measure students’ engagement, as opposed to their participation.

One of their first orders of business was to redesign the rubric that P.S. 11 teachers were using to grade class participation. Pawlak and Rosevear made one notable change: They removed hand-raising as an indicator of student engagement. “It’s archaic to think that kids are going to constantly raise their hands, and that’s how we know they’re engaged,” Rosevear said. “In our training of teachers we shared examples of traditional comments, like ‘so and so is really great, but he needs to raise his hand more.’ These are things we’ve all said, but when we hear them now we have these cringe-worthy moments where it’s like ‘I can’t believe I said that to a child.’ ”

Pawlak and Rosevear’s guide, which now bears the trademark of Quiet Revolution and is available to educators in the network, suggests comments aimed at shifting teachers’ views of quiet kids, like “while Chloe doesn’t always offer answers to questions in class, I can see that she is engaged and understanding concepts through her body language and written responses.”

The tricky part is how to evaluate body language and determine that a student is listening intently. Teachers should look for eye contact, “facial feedback,” and movements like leaning forward toward the speaker, said Rosevear. But it’s also telling to simply look at the projects that students complete.

“If you are engaged in the lesson, then the product you create is going to show that you’re putting thought and effort into your work every day,” Pawlak added.

Class Participation Reconsidered

For Heidi Kasevich, the director of education at Quiet Revolution, rethinking participation is key to the success of introverts. She said some of the schools in the organization’s network set class participation at 50 percent of a student’s grade. Kasevich, who taught history in middle and high school classrooms in New York City for 25 years, said she has seen school cultures that were one-size-fits-all, geared more for the extroverts than for the introverts.

“It’s important to open up lots of different avenues to participation,” Kasevich said. “We need to shift our thinking from class participation is 20, 30 or 50 percent of your grade to ‘here are a lot of different ways that students can be engaged in your class,’ from body language to short written check-ins to electronic communication, to quietize the thinking process”—or, in other words, create an introvert-friendly learning environment.

In the year after the Quiet Summer Institute, Pawlak and Rosevear, along with other P.S. 11 teachers, tested out the strategies with their students. First, the teachers gave students a personality survey that Pawlak and Rosevear designed, borrowing from a survey that Quiet Revolution designed for older students and translating the text into pictures. Students could choose, for instance, between a picture of a kid at a desk by himself and a kid sitting at a table with other students. Their choices revealed their preferences for working alone or in groups.

Once teachers had a sense of whether students were introverts, extroverts, or a combination, they each chose two students they identified as introverts to track their engagement during different activities throughout the school year using a scale ranging from highest (talking to the whole class and critiquing) to lowest (no engagement, not talking, no eye contact).

‘Think-Pair-Share’

Students shouldn’t always have to show what they know out loud, according to Pawlak. That’s a crucial shift in the way teachers think about class participation. Why shouldn’t students be able to respond to discussion or debate questions in writing? At the very least, they should be able to write down their thoughts and discuss their ideas with another student before entering a whole-class discussion, Pawlak added. This strategy, called “think–pair–share,” is highly touted by Quiet Revolution. And Pawlak said her students give her daily proof that it works.

Kathy Schultz, the dean of the education school at the University of Colorado and the author of Rethinking Classroom Participation: Listening to Silent Voices, said the emphasis on giving students extra time to think before articulating their ideas in a whole-class setting is just good all-around teaching. But she’s skeptical of the organization’s emphasis on personality. Schultz thinks teachers should be able to recognize the ways quiet students think and participate, and she’s not just talking about head nodding or eye contact.

“This is about more than just teaching kids the cues that are going to make them successful in a white, middle-class classroom,” she said. “There are cultures where listening is more important than talking. We have to get to know who students are.”

Schultz suggests teachers learn to “listen to the silence.” Students are quiet for a whole range of reasons, she said, and labeling them introverts just ends up hindering them in the end. “They may just be thoughtful in a different kind of way,” she said. Schultz’s own daughter was graded poorly in class participation, but it turned out she didn’t feel the need to speak when another student already voiced a similar idea that she had brewing in her own head. “She felt that she didn’t have a unique perspective to add to the discussion,” Schultz said. “That’s valuable. If she’s aiming for a unique perspective then it wouldn’t be productive to push her to talk more.”

For her part, Pawlak sees her role as helping students to explore their preferences for the way they best learn, and the changes she made in her classroom helped move students from the lowest engagement end of the scale to the highest. One 2nd grader in particular never seemed to be paying attention. More often than not, he would be gazing out the window. The survey helped Pawlak identify him as introverted. From then on, instead of jumping right into a class discussion she allowed students time to be with their own thoughts. They could write or draw to develop their ideas, then share their thoughts with one other student, and finally test their ideas out with the entire class.

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“Anytime he was able to voice his opinion in writing he thrived,” Pawlak said. “By the end of the year, he was a completely different student, taking a leadership role in group activities, even presenting the group’s work to the class. He began participating in group discussions, saying ‘I agree with you’ or ‘I disagree.’ ”

The student became a model of class participation, just by having a chance to process his ideas in his journal before he spoke. Said Pawlak, “That seemed to make all the difference for him.”

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