Engaging the Quiet Kids

Fall 2015

By Susan Cain, Emily Klein

ISMfall2015page64.jpgWhy do so many introverts look back on high school as the worst time of their lives - and why do we accept this reality as normal and "OK"? 

This question raises a corollary: Do professional educators have a full understanding of how tough a place an American school can be for introverts? Do we realize what an extroverted act it is, in the first place, to go to school all day long in a classroom full of people, with constant stimulation, precious few breaks, and almost no quiet or alone time? Even for introverted kids who like school, it's still an over-stimulating environment - not unlike an all-day cocktail party for an introverted adult (but without the alcohol). 

As adults, we choose the careers, spouses, and social circles that suit us. Bill Gates and Bill Clinton thrive in very different work environments. But for schoolchildren, it's one size fits all - and the size is usually extroverted. 

The saving grace, of course, is those teachers who get it - those who connect with the quiet kid in the back row, the kid who thinks amazing thoughts but is too uncomfortable to share them aloud with classmates. We've both spent countless hours observing classrooms and have met many sensitive and thoughtful teachers. One of us (Emily) is an associate professor of secondary and special education and knows firsthand how big a challenge it is to direct and engage a classroom when students are reluctant to participate (and how heavy the pressure for cooperative learning as a primary pedagogical strategy). 

But it's obvious that too many of our classrooms fail to accommodate the one-third to one-half of our students who are introverts. Studies show that the vast majority of teachers believe that the "ideal student" is an extrovert1 - which is extraordinary, when you consider how many of our greatest thinkers and creators were introverts. Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, George Orwell, Steven Spielberg, Larry Page, Steve Wozniak, J.K. Rowling: None of them would have made "ideal" extroverted students. 

The bias against introverted students is embedded in our educational system: years of unrelenting focus on cooperative learning, thinking aloud, and talking-as-learning, with grades for class participation, required public speaking (often now as a disproportionate pedagogical focus displacing more traditional forms of scholarship and substantive mastery), and a pervasive, almost normative, value placed on being social and well liked, particularly in a large-group context. In sum, the classroom focus is now too often on "doing," in sacrifice to "thinking." 

But the pendulum has begun to swing back (just google "introversion" and "school") toward accommodating a more balanced and differentiated approach to temperament. If we had one wish for a positive result from the conversations that the publication of Susan's book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, and Susan's subsequent TED talk ignited, it would be to reverse the stigma of introversion for schoolchildren, so that the next generation of introverted students won't grow up with the secret self-loathing that plagues so many introverted adults today. 


While we are glad that the discussion of introversion and extroversion in the classroom has entered the public consciousness recently (as another example, see the explosion of commentary around writer and teacher Jessica Lahey's recent piece, "Introverted Kids Need to Learn to Speak Up at School," in The Atlantic), one area that has not been introduced nearly enough into the classroom discussion is the brain science behind temperament. Emerging brain research suggests that physiological differences profoundly influence temperament - and therefore the classroom experiences of students. 

While some of the qualities associated with introversion are less biologically based than others, introverts and extroverts clearly differ in the activity levels of their dopamine-based reward networks. Dopamine is often referred to as the brain's "reward chemical," and these reward networks become activated in response to the prospect of something pleasing - from applause to a winning lottery ticket. For extroverts, the brain's reward networks tend to be stronger than those of introverts. 

Specifically, extroverts show greater activity in brain areas associated with processing potential rewards in the environment, including the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), amygdala, nucleus accumbens, and ventral striatum. Although extroverts and introverts both have the same amount of dopamine, the brain of an extrovert will release more dopamine in response to external rewards (such as money, status, high-profile projects, etc.). As psychologist and writer Scott Barry Kaufman points out, "this probably explains why many introverts notice that they often need to be alone to recharge their batteries after vigorous social interactions, whereas extroverts appear to gain energy from social interactions." Because introverts have a less active reward system, according to Kaufman, situations that would be energizing to extroverts are exhausting for introverts - these experiences are, quite literally, "unrewarding" to them from a brain physiology point of view. And while extroverts and introverts are equally warm and loving (dispelling the myth that introverts are somehow antisocial), extroverts are more likely to respond to the reward value of a social situation. As a consequence, they tend to seek positive social attention. 

Now think about schools and classrooms. Schools are governed by external rewards (grades, social status), and positive social attention is often a key to objective assessments, as well as the subjective experiences of "success." The more positive social rewards extroverts receive, the more they are energized. So, school often fits this temperament comfortably and well. 

In contrast, contemporary American schools are poorly suited to introverts' learning needs. This is why rethinking the classroom based on this personality trait (as opposed to the other "Big Five" personality traits: agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience) is so urgent. From grading students for participation (almost exclusively defined as raising one's hand and speaking, rather than engaging quietly with the material), to an emphasis on cooperative learning and group discussion, to subtle and informal but powerful incentives for being well liked and socially active, schools reward outgoing students and penalize quiet ones. Since many schools are already structured around this one trait - extroversion - it's time to think about how to reorganize schools for a more balanced experience for all learners. 

What would a more balanced classroom look like - one that serves the needs and experiences of both introverts and extroverts? At Greenwich Academy, an all-girls pre-K-12 school in Connecticut, a group of students read Quiet and launched an initiative encouraging their peers and teachers to do the same. The teachers then came together to reflect on some of the classroom changes they made as a result of this work, including in surveys they shared with us. Some interesting themes emerged. 

Grading for participation

Many Greenwich Academy teachers wrote about the importance of rethinking the practice of grading for participation. "I became much less inclined to write, 'A goal is for ________ to participate more consistently during lessons,' " wrote one teacher. Another wrote, "I became more aware of just how many introverts I had in my classes and that the extroverts will take over unless I make an effort to change up the activities in order to give the introverts different channels to participate." Others said they were revising their policies of grading in a manner that privileges extroverts over introverts. 

As Emily and her colleague Meg Riordan observe in "Participation Penalizes Quiet Learners" on Quiet Revolution's website, quietrev.com, "When class participation becomes mixed into one grade with academic achievement, overall academic grades no longer communicate what we believe they should communicate: evidence of learning. Instead, participation becomes a motivator for a portion of expressive, extroverted students and a roadblock for less verbally communicative, but no less knowledgeable or interested, learners."2Klein and Riordan suggest that including participation in a grade intended to reflect evidence of learning results in a murky understanding of a student's achievement - and reinforces classroom participation that supports superficial conversation. Students are encouraged to talk for the sake of "earning points," while introverted students who might be listening are penalized. Meanwhile, space for thinking and reflection is lost. 

We encourage teachers to separate grades for learning from grades for participation. Why not give one grade for mastery of the material and a separate grade for character? These character-based grades would reward students who contribute meaningfully to class discussion (not just those who speak up to hear themselves talk). They would also value other personal characteristics such as empathy, courage, persistence, listening skills, and respect for others. Grades should assess a child's proficiency at math or science or history, not his or her ability to speak in front of a large group. Knowledge matters. Deep thought matters. Mastery of a subject matters - even in a world that can't stop talking. 

Rethinking participation

But changing assessment policies is not enough to shift the extrovert paradigm in schools. A number of Greenwich Academy teachers began to broaden their notion of what kinds of participation count. Many said that they altered course policies to read "class engagement" rather than "class participation" because the latter seemed to reward frequency of speaking and the former addressed how absorbed in the various tasks of the class a student was. Others mentioned changes in the kinds of activities they relied on in the classroom. Instead of large-group discussions, teachers used the "think, pair, share" technique in which students would reflect or write an answer to a question, then discuss it with a single partner, before one of the two would share with the whole class. This method provides a forum for sharing ideas with peers without engaging in a full class discussion. This is also important for extroverts, who are more likely to speak in public without reflection, and may be better served by being "pushed" periodically to slow down their thinking process and engage in a deeper, more substantial dialogue one to one with a peer. Creating a more balanced classroom requires pushing both the introverts and the extroverts out of their comfort zones while ensuring that some assignments also play to their strengths. 

One consequence of the recent push to implement literacy-based strategies across the curriculum has been an increase in reading and writing in all subject areas, something that we believe can be extended further so more students have opportunities for quiet learning. One example of a content area literacy strategy for rethinking participation is a "silent dialogue" or "silent conversation" in which students participate in the form of written communication. A variation on this for an English classroom (although we have seen it in math and science classrooms as well) is for the teacher to post a number of quotes or prompts on large poster paper around the room. Students rotate from sheet to sheet, responding both to the prompt and then to their peers' responses on posters along the wall. In this way they are "conversing" and engaging in a way that supports reflection and quiet learners. 

Rethinking introverts as individuals

Finally, a number of teachers at Greenwich Academy began to reframe their ideas of who their introverted students actually were - finding ways to connect individually with those students. One teacher wrote, "I was more intentional to make warm eye contact with them, smiles that let them know that I know they are with me, even if they are not sharing as much. [I tried to] give them space and acknowledge them more." Another wrote, "The issue definitely stayed with me through the year, making me more conscious of quiet students in the class, quiet colleagues, and quiet students outside class - how we encourage [different] voices, how we create safe spaces, and what qualities quiet leaders add to groups." 

We know that connecting individually with students is one of the most powerful ways to support all students emotionally, socially, and academically.3 


Beyond the revolutionary work leaders at Greenwich Academy have been doing in regard to being more "intentional" in encouraging the quieter half of their kids to participate in class, we would add the following four additional ideas for more skillfully engaging quiet students. 

1. Wait before calling on students.

After posing a question to the class, wait five or ten seconds before calling on students for an answer. This gives reflective kids a chance to think and shy ones time to gather their courage. Research has shown that this method increases participation substantially. 

2. Use social media in the classroom as bridge to participation.

Quiet kids may feel more comfortable advancing their ideas in the form of an online response or blog entry. Once their written thoughts have been validated by the class or the teacher, they may gain the confidence to discuss them in a group setting. 

3. Strategize with the student.

Teachers can work with a student one on one to offer strategies for participation - such as planning to make a comment early in class, before anticipatory anxiety grows too strong, or to come to class prepared with a specific question memorized or written out in advance, to help break the participation ice. 

Especially for younger students, informed parents can play a pivotal role in advocating with teachers on behalf of their quieter kids, creating a productive collaboration between parents and school that can work wonders. (We have created an e-course, Parenting Quiet Kids, in order to encourage this kind of parent-teacher teamwork. A preview is available at quietrev.com/parenting-course). 

4. Create groups for students who are anxious about public speaking

In a classroom swirling with social and, in the later grades, sexual politics, practicing public speaking can be so frightening that it becomes counter-productive. Desensitizing the fear in small, supportive settings is crucial for students who are afraid of the spotlight. 


Rethinking class participation is the theme that consistently provokes the most passionate cri de coeur from quieter students, and those teachers and administrators thinking hardest about how to better nurture their talents in the classroom. But class participation is only one major obstacle to accommodating quiet kids in school. 

For example, we think recess should be reformed. For many kids, it's a highlight of the day, but for others, it's poorly constructed. It's unnecessarily chaotic, and uninteresting. Students should be permitted to play board games in small groups or recharge by reading alone. The notion that all students should restore themselves, each and every day, by running out into a big noisy yard is very limiting, and frankly unimaginative. 

Another example is the cafeteria. Most are arranged with rows of long tables, a design which clearly expects all students to be comfortable eating in a large group of 10 or 12 kids. But we know that approximately half those kids would much rather socialize in smaller, more intimate and, yes, quieter groups of two or three. We don't expect adults to lunch in such a cacophonous setting (nor do we expect our own faculty to socialize this way in our own school lounges). So why can't student cafeterias be rearranged to accommodate such an obvious and human preference - and, in fact, need

Recess and cafeterias are relatively easy to reconsider and reconfigure. A more fundamental, and perhaps insoluble, problem from introverts' perspective - but nevertheless worth pondering - is that, as currently structured, school itself may not be the best forum for a large percentage of kids to learn in the first place. Research shows that learners often perform better in settings that are more solitary than American schools can typically accommodate - by working on their own on problems just out of their (unique, individual) reach. According to research psychologist Anders Ericsson, who has famously studied expert performers in a variety of fields to understand how people get to be great at what they do, "serious study alone" is a key predictor of talent and expertise. 

When Susan interviewed Ericsson for Quiet, he explained why. It's only when you're alone that you can engage in something called "deliberate practice." During deliberate practice, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly. Deliberate practice is best conducted on one's own because it involves working on the task that's most challenging to you personally. Only when you are alone, Ericsson told Susan, can you "go directly to that part that's challenging to you. If you want to improve what you're doing, you have to be the one who generated the move. Imagine a group class - you're the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time." 

Cooperative learning has its place in education, of course. That's where and how students learn to share, explore, and debate ideas together, which, indeed, for better or worse, they will be forced to do continuously later in life. But we also know that as expensive, time consuming, and just downright hard as this is to administer in a classroom, the more time alone for deliberate practice motivated learners can be given - especially the quieter half - the more they will learn. 

Finally: noise itself. In a remarkable piece of research, the psychologist Russell Geen gave learning tasks to people together with varying levels of ambient background noise. He found that extroverts did best when the noise was louder, and the introverts did better when the noise was softer. This research clearly illuminates the idea that a one-size-fits-all classroom is a mistake. In order to flourish, quiet students need to have the ability, for at least part of the day, to have some control over the amount of stimulation that is right for them to optimally learn. 

So we'll end with a rather uncomplicated plea: some quiet, please! 


1. Charles Meisgeier, et al., "Implications and Applications of Psychological Type to Educational Reform and Renewal," Proceedings of the First Biennial International Conference on Education of the Center for Applications of Psychological Type, Center for Applications of Psychological Type, Gainesville, Florida, 1994.

2. Complete article is available at www.quietrev.com/participation-penalizes-quiet-learners/

3. See, for example, Sara Rimm-Kaufman and Lia Sandilos, "Improving Students' Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Supports for Learning," American Psychological Association, www.apa.org/education/k12/relationships.aspx
Susan Cain

Susan Cain is the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (2013).

Emily Klein

Emily Klein is an associate professor of secondary and special education at Montclair State University, New Jersey. Some of the material in this article first appeared in Susan Cain's blog, quietrev.com, and on theatlantic.com.