Valuing the Introverts

I just recently finished reading Susan Cain’s wonderful book: Quiet: The power of Introverts in a World that can’t Stop Talking

I found it a superb book, really thought-provoking and lived up to the introduction that I’d had to Susan Cain’s ideas from her TED talk. Inevitably, as I was reading I couldn’t help looking at the ideas in the book from the perspective of an educator and the ways in which the education system treats introverts, the shy and the quiet. Educators and parents tend, all too often, to join in a conspiracy to force introverts to ‘pretend’ they’re something different. We see elementary school parents and teachers exhorting the child to ‘join in’, to see going off in a corner quietly alone to play with a toy or read a book as somehow deviant behavior that should be eradicated.

This is the point where I have to put my hand up and say that I perceive myself as someone with ambivert tendencies, oscillating at times between the tendencies of extroverts and introverts. When in public I probably tend to behave as a classic extrovert (including frequently talking too much and not always with enough pre-thought to marshal all of my ideas). That said, at times I’m conscious that some of that flows from learned behavior, that somewhere along the way I figured as a child that the game was stacked towards the talkers more than the listeners and so modeled myself accordingly.

However, I’m also aware of my own need for ‘down time’, time to get away from the rush, to bury my head in a good book (like Quiet) and to think, contemplate and recharge batteries. Sometimes, in fact, I can be downright unsociable!
So maybe that’s the side of me that really gets concerned that if we have education systems that seek to force every child to be a joiner, talker, participator – all thrusting forward for the limelight, we’re potentially contributing to a society that will become ever more superficial and lacking the breakthrough benefits and insights that emanate most often from the shy, the quiet, the introverts. I believe that we need to provide children in schools with the space and time to have quiet time, down time and also opportunities to be part of low intensity, thoughtful discussion. Something is missing if we just simply encourage the million miles an hour, frenetic pace of the extrovert gabblers and force the quieter students to shape up and play along, even if this is unnatural and uncomfortable for them.

It is for these reasons that I felt uncomfortable with this article from The Atlantic, by Jessica Lahey suggesting that introvert children should be cajoled in to fitting in to the noisy world using assessment to make them fit in with the predominant trend for noise and speaking up. I was surprised to find Lahey seeking to take justification for her actions from Susan Cain’s book; The Atlantic – Article: Introverted Kids Need to Learn to Speak Up at School

She uses the example from the book of Rosa Parks and the impact she had on black civil liberties when she defied the segregation rules on a bus. However, the book stresses how parks did all this without grand speeches or noisiness, but through quiet dignified disobedience when she reached the point where she had had enough. She left all the ra-ra and noise to the likes of Martin Luther King. Hers’ was the classic way of the introvert and I believe fails to offer a case for schools to push and reinforce the model of noisy, impulsive talk for talk sake and students competing to be noticed, talking so as to gain from good assessments. The many comments that follow the article reflect especially the discomfort felt quite deeply by many introverts about the way such approaches in education fail to balance the needs of all children or acknowledge this key aspect of their differentness.


3 Responses

  1. An insightful post. Recently, I was tagged by an old friend to this article she came across somewhere…I copy the link here- I agree when you talk about the undue importance (that turns into an undue advantage later) given to the ‘talkers’ by educators at every stage of student life, at the cost of the deserving, equally (if not more) talented ‘listeners’. The biggest losers in all of this are the value of real, solid content of a conversation & authenticity of ideas- which essentially need quiet introspection, something inherent to introverts! I agree that this could be contributing to the ever increasing superficiality around us. The key could be encouraging thoughtful, low intensity discussion amongst students, making them realize the benefits of quiet time, as you mentioned..and somewhere down the line, making them learn to include and respond to the ‘quiet’ ones, not just as a token gesture of congeniality but for their own benefit too because they might be missing out on someone worth knowing.Date: Thu, 25 Apr 2013 16:48:26 +0000 To:

  2. This is a very interesting topic. I am personally an extrovert and so is my son. But I so many times want to be quiet myself but cannot as i am naturally a talker. But even then I do see the way both parents and teachers naturally tend to encourage the talkers. So many times fellow parents would meet me in the park or at school and comment that how wonderful that your child is not shy or can speak his mind. I on the other hand seem to think, if only I could speak less, I could conserve so much energy and put it into good solid use. My son who is in Form 1 is the same. He so many times thoughtlessly rants off and I really wish he could have some down time or quiet time and really focus on something constructive. I think parents of introverts should really appreciate and think that their children can achieve a lot more and actually focus and take advantage of their listening skills.

  3. Thank you Mark, for making the implicit explicit. As an introvert-ish parent to an introvert-ish child, I have always implicitly understood the value of this trait. As you grow you do indeed learn to play along which is fine as long it is not forced, We can do with some quiet at least in Gurgaon. We hope to find a school that will let our daughter stay true to herself.

    I will surely add the book to my reading list.

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