Quiet in the Classroom

Introverts are often pushed to be talkative and outgoing. Doing so devalues their identities.

Consider this report card comment. It is very common. If you are a teacher, perhaps you’ve written it yourself: “He’s a great student, but he’s quiet in class. I wish he’d speak up more often. When he speaks up, he has a lot to offer.”

Now, imagine if this comment were written about some other aspect of a student’s identity. I doubt it would be received as well. In fact, it might even cause an uproar.

I think back to my school days. I was, and still am, a quiet person. I am intelligent by the usual metrics (strong report cards and standardized test scores) and genuinely interested in learning. My grades were sometimes docked for lack of verbal class participation. I'd answer when called upon, but I didn't voluntarily raise my hand. I cringed at the thought of it. And, I regularly saw comments about being “quiet in class” and needing to “speak more often.” School was a painful dance.

In a later job working in a K-12 school system, I heard principals and administrators say that their goal was to make every student outgoing. The words of the head of the school system: "If a student isn't talkative, they won't make it as far in life." Administrators and teachers would gather at workshops saying there was a need for more class presentations and more group work and that these approaches should be especially targeted at the quiet students to make them more talkative. I heard one teacher say she seated quiet kids in her class with groups of talkative kids to get the quiet kids to “come out of their shells.” I thought about how those quiet students must dread going to school.

Here's the reality: I'm an introvert. Many people are introverts. And, we have a huge impact on the world. Four in 10 American CEOs are reportedly introverts. As introverts, we think through and solve problems (instead of taking swift action) and contribute to ideas in forums and on paper (and less so in group settings, particularly large groups). We effectively execute ideas without a desire to gain the “Look-at-me!” accolades—we’d rather just do the job and do it well. Yet, we are often pushed hard into a world where we are expected to be talkative, outgoing and so on. America celebrates, and favors, the extrovert.

For many introverts, our pain and discomfort with who we are started early, and quite often that feeling of being the “other” and flawed was due to the action of well-intentioned teachers. You may be a champion of diversity and tolerance, but to introverts—who place a high value on trust—insistence on forcing extroverted behavior feels like betrayal.

Don’t get me wrong. Being talkative is a valuable, lifelong skill. Introverts can and do benefit from verbal interactions, such as sharing ideas in meetings and making small talk about the weather. Likewise, extroverts can benefit from learning the quiet skills of attentive listening, contemplation and thoughtful written communication.

There is an important distinction to be made between learning a skill and being told to modify the core of your personality. The next time you encourage a kid to speak up in class, ask yourself this: Is hearing this student’s voice really necessary to assess learning? Or, am I projecting my values and, as a result, asking him to be something he fundamentally is not?