Wednesday 29 March 2017

How to Support and Nurture Introverted Students

Our school system is designed for extroverts. Learning takes place in large groups, with participation and collaboration not just encouraged, but compulsory. Students who don't work well in groups, or who don't learn well as part of a collective, are at a disadvantage. Students who don't put up their hands are too often ignored. Quiet students are too often left to coast without being fully challenged.

Teaching extroverts is simple. They tend to respond quickly. They make fast decisions. They are comfortable with multi-tasking and risk-taking. They tell you when they don't understand something. They ask for help. They think out loud, so you can unpick their thinking and tackle misconceptions. They answer questions and contribute to class discussions. When you have students like this in your class, you will find yourself catering to their needs because they make their needs known. Extroverts dictate the pace of the lesson, because they are the ones giving you feedback.

In my year 11 class, for example, whenever the students are doing exercises from the textbook, there are certain students who will always call for me. Most of the time, they don't even need help. They ask me, "is this right?" (they could just look at the answer page in the back of the book) or they ask me questions they already know the answer to: "Am I supposed to differentiate it then substitute x = 2?" These are the extroverts. The introverts only call for me when they've already checked the answer in the back, seen that they've got it wrong, and tried to do it again and failed again. This could mean they end up working at a slower pace. That wouldn't be a problem at all, (in fact they will have gained a deeper understanding by doing this) except for the fact that the extroverts determine the pace of the lesson, and the class may move on before the introverts are really ready.

There's also the problem of teacher expectations. Studies have shown that people who talk more are viewed as more intelligent. Introverts may be labelled as slower, less confident, and weaker, and we all know that labelling students often has fatal consequences. Students also compare themselves to each other, and introverts may see extroverts as being more intelligent than them. This may make them feel inferior and this could lead to lower self-expectations, and hence lower achievement.

So what can we do to remedy this?

Encourage introverted students to email you when they are stuck on something. Emailing is a much easier method of communication for introverts because it does not involve physically being around people. It also allows them to read and absorb your reply at their own pace and internalise it (which is an awkward process when you're face to face with someone).

Similarly, ask students to write you questions or comments in their exercise books. When you take in their books to mark them, you can read and reply to these comments.

Using mini whiteboards with quickfire questions is a very effective method of gauging a class's understanding, and picking up on and dealing with misconceptions quickly. However, it is not well-suited to introverts. Introverts prefer to work at their own pace, without external pressure. They may panic at the idea of working something out so quickly and having to show the teacher immediately. In this panic, they may end up simply copying someone else's answer. Allow these students to complete questions in their book instead, and after that section of the lesson, go to those students and check their answers, and address misconceptions if necessary.

Provide hint cards for students to use when doing an activity. If they get stuck, introverts can look at the hint card and use this to get themselves unstuck. Or provide them with a website they can look at on their phone, or a page reference for their textbook.

When making seating plans, it's probably very tempting to put louder students next to quieter students in an attempt to make the louder students quieter, and keep the overall volume down. It may achieve this goal, but I'd argue it's detrimental to both types of student. Extroverts need to give and receive external stimulation (thinking out loud, talking through their reasoning) and introverts need to have as little external stimulation as possible. Therefore it makes most sense to sit introverts with introverts and extroverts with extroverts. You might say, "---- is so quiet, I should make ------ sit next to her to try and bring her out of her shell a bit". If you're thinking that, you don't understand introverts. If someone feels most comfortable inside their shell, that's where they should stay, because that's where they will learn most effectively.

Introverts are not necessarily shy, but many of them are, and many of them hate being made to answer questions in front of the class. If they haven't put their hand up to answer any questions, sometimes you may call on them just to check their understanding and to check they're actually listening. Do you have to do this? Could you wait until the class are busy with an activity, and approach these students individually and check their understanding one-to-one? If you really want them to participate in a class discussion, give them some advance warning that you are going to ask them to contribute, so that they have time to prepare what they're going to say. Extroverts are good at thinking out loud, so they can talk and think at the same time. Introverts find this really difficult, so they have to fully form their thoughts before they open their mouth.

Every so often, you'll have what you consider a "fun" lesson. This might involve a team competition, an active lesson like a relay, or something a bit different like role playing or drama. This sort of thing might be considered fun by extroverts, but not necessarily by introverts. For introverts, a fun lesson might be one where everyone is working very quietly, maybe listening to music through headphones (so that no one can talk to you), working on an individual task that involves no collaboration at all. It might involve not having to sit in their usual seats at desks, but being able to sit on the floor in the corner, or using the window sill as a desk so they can stare out of the window as they think. If you're going to have fun lessons for extroverts sometimes, you should also have fun lessons for introverts. Otherwise, you're not being fair.

The latest craze seems to be Walking, Talking Mocks. This is where the teacher talks through an exam paper and models answering every question, which the students then copy down. Doing it this way favours extroverts, who like to talk through problems and like to have teachers talking at them, as this is external. However, introverts find it difficult to think about things that are external. The teacher's model solution is external, and the introvert needs a few minutes to read it to themselves and internalise it. So an adaptation that is a good compromise is getting the students to spend a few minutes answering a question by themselves, then go through the model solution, then provide a few minutes for reflection, then repeat. Alternatively, record yourself doing an exam paper, and talk through your thought processes as you do it. Give this to the students to watch, either in a lesson (with individual devices and headphones) or at home. Introverts can pause the video whenever they need to stop and contemplate.

Please let me know if you have any other ideas. Also let me know if you agree or disagree with anything I've said here. I'd love to know your thoughts.

Emma x x x

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