Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Contribution, Not Participation--Helping Introverted Kids

            Recently The Atlantic published “Introverted Kids Need to Learn to Speak Up at School.” The author is Jessica Lahey, a teacher from New Hampshire who also writes about education and parenting for The New York Times. I don’t question that Ms. Lahey wants the best for her students. She writes,
Thankfully, there's more information on introverts out there than ever before. I tapped into my amazing personal learning network of educators and gathered a towering pile of books on my nightstand, topped by Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking. In her book, Cain champions the often-overlooked talents and gifts of introverts, and offers parents and educators strategies for communication and evaluation. This year, I drew on this advice and made a number of changes to my classroom in order to improve learning opportunities for my introverted students.
Bravo! We want all teachers engaging in such growth activities. Unfortunately, I think she also missed the point because she has done all this research but explains,
In the end, I have decided to retain my class participation requirement. 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.
Her premise is valid, but I can’t support with her decision because I can’t believe it’s going to help those students. It also smacks of teacher power and even hypocrisy, something for which George Couros took her to task in his post “Do unto students…” I want to look at why it’s simply bad educational practice.
            Before I begin, I have to acknowledge that I write from the viewpoint of a raring introvert (one of my favorite oxymorons). On my Meyers-Briggs profile, I am pretty much evenly split on all the categories—except for introversion-extroversion, where I am totally to the former. But I’ve learned to engage in what Cain labels fake extroversion when necessary, which I believe is similar to Lahey’s point. Her tactics, however, would not have worked on me.
            I recall one of my former advisees, who was extremely introverted. She was a bright, engaged, insightful young woman; she wrote beautifully and had much to offer in many ways. Every set of report card comments chided her for being too quiet and not participating. Usually she simply nodded when I would talk with her and during parent-student-teacher conferences. Until the end of junior year. Then, during a conference, she finally broke down. As the tears flowed, she talked about how for years teachers’ efforts had led her to withdraw even more because she so strongly felt their disapproval of her natural persona. None of their carrots or whips were going to overturn that.
            That’s where my basic problem with Lahey’s approach lies. Much like a physician, a teacher must strive to do no harm. If Lahey had really taken the points of Cain’s book to heart, she would have realized her methods would not work. Instead, she has to make students feel safe and valued. Instead, an introvert in her class would feel trapped by the teacher’s expectations. I can imagine the anxiety building before each class, leading to paralysis rather than the desired action.
            I must admit, earlier in my career I included a participation grade. It seemed very natural, and many of my teachers had done so. I suppose I did so also because I knew how much I eventually gained from becoming more participatory, which finally happened towards the end of college. I had visions of helping the quiet students make that same discovery. My measure was the usual—times speaking, quality of comments. Surely it was nothing scientific. Later I loosened on my notion of participation, putting quality over quantity and even taking into apparent engagement, i.e. physical reaction to points. Less precise, but I felt more comfortable.
            During my last few years in the classroom, I no longer had a participation grade. Instead, I had a contribution grade. Here is the thinking. In my class I tried to create as collaborative an environment as possible, with multiple ways for people to engage and share their understanding. At different times I’ve utilized full class discussions, small group work, various types of projects, presentations, blog posting and commenting, tweeting, discussion threads, index cards with opening questions submitted by the students. In other words, each student should have been able to find some way in which to make a contribution to the class. Ideally, that could happen in a comfortable way that encouraged taking the risk to jump in in some other ways.
            That’s really my larger point. I’m focusing on introverts here because I was prompted by the article and because of my personal bias. Yet I could be writing about extroversion…or just about any other way in which we categorize and assess. One key trait of a great school is that, rather than force too much conformity, it recognizes and honors and nurtures each student’s unique qualities. Then the student grows in confidence and becomes not someone else, but an even better version of him- or herself.

1 comment:

Donna Sands said...

Mark,
In a classroom setting each student should feel recognized and valued for who he or she is, as a person. Setting up a classroom where each child can contribute in meaningful ways and feel valued is the essence of good teaching. During the years I have worked with many introverts. Their contributions have been invaluable. Often these students have clarity of thought and creative ideas. When encouraged to share in ways they feel comfortable sharing they teach the rest of us new ways to think, share, and learn.