Monday, February 18, 2013

Do Introverts Need to Learn to Speak Up in the Classroom?

This article by New Hampshire teacher Jessica Lahey has been making the rounds on the Internet. In it, she talks about how she has debated her class participation grade but decided that it's important to keep it because:
As a teacher, it is my job to teach grammar, vocabulary, and literature, but I must also teach my students how to succeed in the world we live in -- a world where most people won't stop talking. If anything, I feel even more strongly that my introverted students must learn how to self-advocate by communicating with parents, educators, and the world at large.
She continues, saying that introverts need to learn to speak up and articulate their needs, concerns and thoughts to succeed in life.

I am not challenging Ms. Lahey's decision to keep class participation as a part of her grade. I'm an introvert who is passionate about education and I absolutely support including class participation. I do think there is one aspect that needs to be considered in the introvert vs. extrovert participation debate, though, and one that was not addressed in this article.

Many introverts hate speaking up at all, but I have found that they overwhelmingly hate impromptu or spontaneous speaking up. The difference between these two is vast. I am comfortable articulating my thoughts and I am comfortable with my knowledge of most subjects, but if you suddenly turn to me in the middle of a lecture and ask me a question about what I've just heard, it catches me so off-guard and makes me so uncomfortable that, even if I absolutely know the answer, it takes me a few seconds of awkward filler words until I get back on my footing and can respond intelligently.

As an introvert, I have found that the times where I need to answer something instantly and unexpectedly are actually very seldom. Times when I need to speak up nearly always fit one of the following categories:

  • It's at a time when I know I am going to be expected to speak and have some idea of what I'm going to be asked about. (Job interviews, jobs I've had)
  • It's a casual enough situation that I can openly say, "That caught me off guard. I didn't know you were going to ask me something. Give me a second, let me think," and then I can get my bearings. (Social interactions with friends)
  • I have the time to craft what I want to say and can tackle it in a one-on-one situation. (Questions/answers that are sent via email, concerns or thoughts that don't need to be dealt with immediately. I was the person who approached professors after class to quietly ask them a question I hadn't figured out how to say publicly in class yet)

Introverts being quiet is not always a matter of not being willing to speak up. Sometimes it's a matter of not having anything to say yet. We take time to think things over. We process things slowly. If you tell me I need to find something to say quickly, I can do it, but it won't be interesting or important or, probably, representative of whether I've actually learned or not.

So how do you encourage classroom participation for people like this?

Well, it's simple. You give them an idea of what they'll need to say. I was always grateful for teachers who said things like, "Do the reading and come to class with at least 2 thoughts or questions. If I call on you, you will share one of them with the class." This lets classroom introverts plan ahead. If they are called on, there may be a momentary panic of "they need me to talk," but they have something to fall back on.

Another possibility is to structure classroom participation so that it lets the introverts some control over when that happens. "I expect you to ask at least ten questions this quarter." "You need to offer constructive criticism on at least one student's project throughout the semester." This makes it much more likely that they will speak up when they do have something on their minds, as they know they have to speak up at some point anyway, but they don't have to do it on command.

Learning to articulate your thoughts is absolutely an important skill. Learning to spontaneously reveal your unformed opinions and unprocessed thoughts in front of a crowd of your peers is less vital.

I'd be especially interested to hear from any of my education major friends who disagree with me on this or are much stronger on the "you must speak up in class!" idea than I am. What do you see as the essential value of pushing students to speak up publicly? Do you think any of that is undercut by encouraging speaking up preparedness? Do you agree that the way I'm phrasing these questions is awkward and terrible?


  1. Disclaimer: I'm not sure I have a point anywhere here, but anyway...

    I'm very introverted, and almost never spoke up in class in high school unless I was directly asked. I got a little better in my last couple of years, but that was mostly because the class sizes were a lot smaller, and even then it was only really if I thought something the teacher had said was wrong enough to warrant correcting. (Okay, this happened fairly frequently.)

    But at uni, I was rather forced into speaking up by the system. I went to Oxford, and for those unfamiliar, rather than classes, we had tutorials, which were sessions with one tutor and usually 2 or 3 students. With groups this small, you pretty much had to speak up, and the tutors were good about making sure everybody did. It was pretty tough at first, but I found myself getting used to it. And you say stupid stuff a lot, but it doesn't matter so much 'cos the others do it all the time too and often don't have any better idea than you, and after a while you get better at marshalling your thoughts and being ready to say things.

    Now I'm done in education and working full time in a technical job, I've found that training I hadn't even really noticed was happening in being able and willing to speak up in discussions is coming in very useful. I'm also more aware when I do actually have something useful to say, and that others may not necessarily have thought of it.

    I don't know how applicable any of this is to school, of course; class sizes are much bigger and the environment is generally much less friendly about saying silly things, but I do really appreciate being forced to learn to speak up in a fairly non-threatening environment.

    1. I think that makes sense. The non-threatening environment being the key to some of this, of course. I find it interesting because the sort of tutorial you describe would both make it easier *and* more necessary for me to speak up as an introvert. For you, did it translate to large groups as well? I am very comfortable voicing my opinion (when warranted) in groups of 5-6, but am much less likely to speak up in an employee meeting of, say, 25-30 people.

    2. Well, the largest meetings I've been in probably only go up to about 20 people at most - we tend to work in fairly small teams - but I've not had any problems speaking in those. And I've also been fine asking questions in somewhat bigger presentations (maybe up to 30-40 people), but that's a slightly different dynamic than speaking in a meeting.

      I'm probably more talkative in smaller meetings, but that's as much a result of it being more likely that I have something to say if I've ended up in a given small meeting, plus fewer other people with things to say, than any particular confidence issues in bigger ones.

    3. Gotcha. That makes sense. I still think it's fascinating that the system that pushed you to speak up was one that seems a more introverted than extroverted set up (in the sense of it being a small group rather than a large one). That's a very different dynamic than a large classroom, and one that you kind of hit on in your last paragraph. If I'm in a group of 30 people and it is expected that I say *something* at some point, I am either going to have to be quicker to speak than the other 29, have a wholly original thought the other 29 have not had during the meeting (nice when it happens but not guaranteed), or "babble" a bit by offering unhelpful or uninteresting information just for the purpose of having spoken. In a smaller, more focused group, of course you're going to be expected to speak more, because you're expected to have more things to say and less competition to say them first.

      Not sure how to absorb all this into my thought process yet but it's an interesting take.

    4. Yeah, it was definitely the process of being prodded into, and learning to be okay with, speaking up in a pretty introvert-friendly environment that helped - but I was pretty surprised when I'd been at work a while and suddenly realised I'd been happily saying stuff in fairly large groups without it even occurring to me to be stressed about it. I had a slightly unsettling moment of "er, okay, that's weird, when did THAT happen?" before I understood.

      I don't think there's any particular reason to race to say obvious (in that it's going to occur to more than one person) things, or say things of little value, just to have spoken in a meeting... but then, I'm not really in an environment where it's expected of me to just say something in big meetings. Most of our important meetings are quite a lot smaller (my structural team is usually only around ten people, and temporary teams formed for particular projects tend to be anywhere between two and ten people), and my skillset is unusual enough I usually have things to contribute anyway. And our managers are pretty good at organising regular 1-on-1 meetings with team members as well.

    5. Re: no particular race to say obvious things, I agree. That's part of the reason I don't support many of the more generic class participation models, because *I* often would have very little to say in a class. If it's successful, it implies that saying something dumb that you didn't really have to say is better than not saying anything at all because it shows you're involved, and while there's certainly a time and a place to speak up and show your solidarity and involvement and whatnot, that's not what we want to be teaching people. The way we teach communication in American schools is frequently not actually modeling the way we want them to communicate in the real world.

    6. Part, I think, of what helped encourage speaking up in my tutorials was that the problems were *difficult*. Problems in school tend to be much easier, which makes it a lot harder to generate the sort of discussion that everyone can contribute to with approximately equal levels of usefulness (or uselessness, as the case may be). This is somewhat biased towards mathematical subjects because of my background, of course, but there's probably some sort of comparison in terms of depth of discussion in other subjects. And, of course, with the large class size you run into the issue again of people near the end having all their points articulated already by other people.

      For comparison purposes to your criticism of American teaching, I saw almost no effort at all in my school to get the quieter ones to speak up. All I got was the occasional half-hearted "needs to contribute more in class" comment on end-of-term reports.

    7. No, there's absolutely similar depth of discussion in other subjects. And that makes sense. It's also a bit different in higher education because then you're generally pursuing something you have an interest in. I'd still not be likely to speak up in a math class (well, unless I was lost...which would probably be a lot) but I'd be very likely to jump into a discussion on the meaning and intent of a character in a play.

      Whether there's a push to speak up in American teaching depends on the teacher, but when I took education classes there was a lot of discussion about how to stimulate class participation, and it always ended up encouraging extra group projects and public presentations and pushing people to say things instantly. It was kind of frustrating, because I know that as a child or teenager I would *not* have done well in that environment. I feel like there must be some sort of middle ground. I just don't know exactly what it would be yet.