How Schools Are Failing Their Quietest Students

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Photo: Ron Koeberer/Getty Images

In 2013, educator and writer Jessica Lahey wrote a convincing piece for The Atlantic in which she argued that her introverted students needed to learn to speak up in class. In it, she defended her decision to keep class participation as a small but significant portion of her students’ grades. The quieter kids in the class simply needed to learn how to speak up in “a world where most people won’t stop talking,” she wrote.

Two years later, she changed her mind.

Last summer, Lahey wrote about her new, more nuanced take on class participation in a post for Quiet Revolution, a site launched last year by Susan Cain, the author of the 2012 mega best seller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. “There are ways to encourage participation other than asking students to speak up in class,” Lahey wrote in that follow-up piece, “and silence is an incredibly important tool for promoting learning and teaching patience.”

This is essentially the heart of the idea behind the Quiet Schools Network, a new initiative Cain is readying to launch this summer with her for-profit company, Quiet Revolution. Led by former teacher Heidi Kasevich, the network will be a group of 50 educators — including teachers and administrators — who will meet this summer for a workshop that will, Kasevich and Cain hope, help both public and private schools pay more attention to their quietest students. (Schools will pay a fee to join the network, though there is limited financial assistance available, Kasevich said.)

One of their central arguments is that introverts are different from extroverts not just on a behavioral level — their physiology is distinct, too, in a real, measurable way. Research in psychology dating back to the 1960s backs this notion up: In a classic, often-cited study, for example, researchers placed four drops of lemon juice onto the tongues of 100 volunteers. Those who scored higher in introversion had a markedly different reaction to the sour taste, with an increased production of saliva. In his 2013 book, Me, Myself and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being, University of Cambridge psychologist Brian Little touches on that in a section on introversion and extroversion:

One biological model of this dimension postulates that the differences in extraversion reflect differences in the arousal level of certain neocortical areas of the brain: those high in extraversion have low levels of arousal, whereas introverts have high levels. Given that effective performance on daily tasks requires an optimal level of arousal, extraverts are typically seeking to increase their levels of arousal, whereas introverts are trying to lower theirs.

As Cain explained to Science of Us, “The big insight, really, is all human beings have nervous systems that respond differently to stimulation, so we all have different needs to be at our sweet spot and be at our best and most ready to learn.”

Back to the matter of class participation: Part of the mission of the Quiet Schools Network will be to encourage teachers to reframe “classroom participation” as “classroom engagement,” the idea being that there are other, quieter ways to measure students’ understanding of the material than how quickly and loudly they can talk about it. A lot of kids — and not just introverts — need a “longer runway,” Kasevich said, meaning more time to prep before they’re ready to make a useful contribution to the discussion. “A lot of these kids prefer to learn by thinking and processing deeply,” Cain told Science of Us. “They might want to contribute when they have something they really want to say, but they resent that feeling that they should be piping up throughout.” Lahey, for example, now requires a brief moment of thoughtful silence after she poses a question to her classroom. “I noticed that the most extroverted students would jump right in there before knowing what they wanted to say,” she said. “The extroverted kids also needed to think about what they wanted to say [before they blurted it out].”

Some educators Cain has spoken with are already moving away from traditional classroom participation models by using social media in the classroom. Students can respond to ideas discussed in class on Twitter, or Facebook, or a classroom blog. “You very often find that the students who are more reticent to raise their hands are much more vocal when they’re typing into an online forum,” she said.

Beyond the classroom, Cain and Kasevich would love for schools to reconsider the structure of their physical spaces as well. For instance, the entire point of recess for little kids — and breaks for older kids — is to allow them time to refresh themselves, so that afterward they’ll be ready again to learn. But think of your typical school: It’s loud, it’s noisy, it’s brightly lit. If a kid wants to get away from that, there usually aren’t many options beyond the library or the bathroom. “Recess is loud, the cafeteria is loud, the lights tend to be bright,” Kasevich said. “An abundance of social interactions and really bright lights can feel like fingernails grating on a chalkboard for the introverted students. And this is where I think it’s an unconscious bias.” In her dream scenario, those quiet spaces are “something really cozy by a window overlooking trees — just a place for silence.”

Importantly, Kasevich is not advocating to shield the shy kids from their fears of public speaking. Rather, the changes she and Cain are proposing are just a way of helping the quiet students feel more comfortable with speaking up. Another class-participation method Cain and Kasevich are excited about is something they call “think/pair/share”: a period of quiet thought, followed by a discussion with another student, followed by the two presenting their thoughts to the classroom. Similarly, Lahey has instituted something she calls “peer-to-peer teaching,” where she enlists individual students — both the loud ones and the quieter ones — to teach a section of material for the day. “It’s interesting — I think one of the big helpful parts for them is in the preparation,” she told Science of Us. “I give them the answers, and I offer to sit down with them and talk about how they might present the information … Just having more time to process and think about it is very helpful.

“And most teachers know that you don’t fully understand something until you’ve taught it,” she continued. “So the students have found that their learning is much deeper.” None of this, incidentally, is about excluding the loud kids, who will still be able to talk through their thoughts. It’s about helping the quiet kids recognize that their thoughts are worth sharing, too.