This week I finished reading a book that had been in the queue for some time now: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I can't remember who recommended this book to me, but I am grateful that they did, because it was an eye-opening read that spawned a lot of good dinner-table conversation around my house and cast new light on many of the ways I think, act, and interact with others.

The book is a wide-ranging exploration of introversion and extroversion, touching on both personal and professional topics. Cain defines these two ideas, and discusses them in the book, in terms of preference for stimulation: introverts are those who prefer a less stimulating environment and extroverts a more stimulating environment. Introverts think before they speak, listen more than they talk, and need time to themselves to recharge. Extroverts on the other hand are assertive, forceful, and need time with others to recharge.

The main point of the book is that our culture is built on the "extrovert ideal" -- the notion that extroversion is preferable to introversion and that, in fact, introversion is a kind of mental disorder -- and that this ideal is wrong. Introversion is not the same thing as shyness or antisocial behavior; it's merely a preference, or a style. Not only is there nothing inherently wrong with introversion, introverts are necessary to bring balance and provide the kinds of thoughtful approaches to life and work that the extrovert ideal has forced out.

This book taught me a lot about my personal relationships, particularly about parenting, since I have three kids who are in quite different places along the introvert-extrovert continuum. I obviously also read it with my professor hat on because I think Susan Cain has a lot to say about education. Here are four of the big takeaways I had from her book:

  1. There are a lot of introverts out there, and it explains a lot about some of my students. Cain argues in the book that about 1/3 to 1/2 of all Americans are introverts. That suggests that roughly the same percentage of my students will be introverts. If this is indeed the case then it explains why students don't often come to office hours; or why they may feel insanely uncomfortable putting work on the board; or why I don't always get responses when I ask questions. Just because a student doesn't talk, doesn't mean they don't know anything or are unprepared. In fact, they may be thinking more deeply than anybody else in the class and are waiting for the right venue to share an idea.
  2. I am one of those introverts, and it explains a lot about me. It might surprise you to know that I fall on the far introvert-side of the spectrum, given how much I teach, speak, and give workshops. I enjoy doing all those things -- but they take a lot out of me, and they always have. When I give a talk, do a 3-hour workshop, or teach for 2 or more hours in a row, I have to take at least an hour to rest before I'm really capable of functioning properly again. And by far, my preferred way to spend time is doing something absorbing in relative isolation -- writing code in a coffee shop, doing a 15-mile hike on a remote stretch of trail, and so on. What I learned from this book is that this is not a disorder. It's just who I am, and knowing this, I can make better choices about how to plan my life and work schedule. For example last fall, I scheduled my classes so I taught from 9am to noon every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday without a break, because I wanted Tuesday and Thursday open. That turned out to be a terrible idea because I had zero energy left for the rest of the day. So from here on out, I know it will be better if I spread my classes around so I have down time.
  3. The introversion/extroversion discussion raises a lot of questions about pedagogy. Possibly as a result of that extrovert ideal -- maybe even as a partial cause of it -- I realized that much of the pedagogy used in higher education is heavily biased toward extroverts. The lecture doesn't seem particularly this way at first look, since lecture is considered passive. But the way we tag students as "good" or "bad" in the lecture approach depends on how they respond to lecture -- by asking questions with a raised hand, or by responding to questions posed in front of a group -- and that requires extroversion. Active learning techniques aren't immune to that bias; in fact they seem particularly suspect since active learning involves, well, activity. Introverts can do good active work, but they way they work is by thinking first and then acting, and if they are in groups with strong extroverts then they may never get a chance to show what they know. As I read the book, it dawned on me that much of our approaches to active learning do not make much room for introverts.
  4. It makes me wonder which pedagogical strategies are best suited for a balance of introversion and extroversion. Susan Cain has called the introvert/extrovert issue the next great diversity issue of our time. It certainly makes me think about how to make my group spaces as welcoming to introverts as they are to extroverts. The simple think/pair/share idea seems like a good starting point, since it encourages students to think first, then respond to a single person, then to the whole group -- this allows introverts to ramp up to sharing with the large group, or perhaps leaning on a more extroverted partner to share with the large group once they (the introvert) has shared invididually first. The POGIL approach of working in groups of four with tightly-scripted group roles allows everyone, introvert or otherwise, to take on roles in active learning that don't necessarily involve exposing oneself to a crowd; importantly, too, in POGIL every student has to cycle through group roles that involve sometimes more interaction with large groups and sometimes less. But the pedagogical approach that to me seems the most introvert friendly, especially in a large class, is peer instruction, which is in some ways a souped-up version of think/pair/share. In peer instruction, each student has to think carefully and deeply about a conceptual question first, then give their response via a clicker -- so their voice is heard but privately and only after careful thought. Then there's sharing involved, but only with one other person and with a particular purpose -- convince the other person that your response is correct. Peer instruction intersperses just enough instructor-led teaching (through the minilectures that set up the clicker questions and then the debriefing of those questions) that the level of stimulation ebbs and flows; it's not constant stimulation from one end of class to the other.

It even turns out that this book plays a part in my upcoming sabbatical. After reading this article about Steelcase's new approach to designing office space to accomodate people who need downtime when working -- if only to get a break from an open office setup -- I was talking about this with some Steelcase people and how this might influence classroom design. It turns out that this and a few other similar design ideas were the result of a direct collaboration between Susan Cain and Steelcase to bring Susan's ideas about introverts to life. Here's a video where she talks about this:

So I learned a lot from this book and I am still thinking about it each day. What thoughts do you have to share about these ideas?

BONUS: Here's Susan Cain's TED talk on "The Power of Introverts":