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The Power of Quiet

Roberta Tevlin, teacher Danforth CTI, editor OAPT Newsletter roberta.tevlin@tdsb.on.ca

Edited by Tim Langford, Chris Meyer

Physics Education Research has provided solid evidence that lectures may be good at transmitting knowledge but poor at developing understanding and so we should implement student-centred learning in our classrooms. However, Susan Cain, the author of the 2012 best-seller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking is very dismissive of the way group learning is replacing lectures. The book’s central premise is that our culture is too strongly slanted in favour of extroverts and they way they work and learn.

At first, the anti-group work message of the book just got my back up. I read it so that I could refute it. Further reflection has made me realise that it provides some important insights and even fits well with this year’s conference theme of Affective Physics.

How is an introvert different from an extrovert?
Distinguishing between these two personality types can be difficult — especially with adults — because many introverts learn to act like extroverts. Furthermore, most people contain aspects of both. A variety of definitions and tests to distinguish the types are mentioned in the book but the one that resonates most with me is to consider how you recharge your batteries. Do you go to a party or do you curl up with a book? Do you play basketball or go for a long run? Do you play Trivial Pursuit or chess?

It is easy to distinguish the extremes of the two types in a traditional teacher-centered classroom. The extroverts are the ones that put their hands up to answer questions. Some of them will even do so before you have finished asking the question! The introverts will rarely volunteer to answer a question; forcing them to speak up in front of the class is usually neither helpful nor kind.

What is the experience like for each personality type in a reformed physics classroom where the students are working in small groups? More students get a chance to speak up and most students feel less intimidated to do so in small groups. This structure should be better for introverts. Why then, is Cain so critical? I think that much of the criticisms in the book are directed at poorly implemented group learning and not group learning itself. The book challenged me to think about what it is like to be an introvert in my classroom and what I could do to improve things.

How can we make our classrooms more welcoming for introverts?
Provide time to think.
Students need to have time to think individually about the questions you pose before any discussion starts. Extroverts tend to start talking right away with very little thought. This forces the introverts to choose between thinking about the question or listening to the extroverts. To prevent this, I now ask the students to think and jot down some ideas first. I circulate around the classroom to encourage the students to make full use of the time provided for this.

Provide questions that are clear and scaffolded. If you don’t do this, the extroverts will dominate the discussion even more than usual. They are quite willing to talk even when they don’t know what they are talking about. To improve my questions, I make myself write the answers as I develop a work sheet. This process has helped me discover many examples of vague questions and insufficient scaffolding.
Provide quiet time. At the start of the year, I point out to my physics students that they need to match their in-class work with an equal amount of self-directed study outside of class. I thought that it made sense to have students interacting throughout the class while they were together and leave the individual quiet work for when they were at home. I now believe that part of each class should involve quiet individual work. This will provide a welcome break for the introverts, model the importance of individual study and help the extroverts develop their ability to learn this way.

Want to learn more?
I recommend reading the full book, but you might want to start with Cain’s Ted Talk or her 39-page collection of blog posts.
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