Schools Often Fail To Recognize Introverts -- Here's Why It Matters

by A. Rochaun
Schools Often Fail To Recognize Introverts
MachineHeadz via Getty

The education system, and teachers, in particular, have a lot asked of them. They are tasked with preparing our children for an ever-changing world. And in a climate where metrics and standardized tests determine everything, it’s hard to be impactful. Most of us would agree, the intentions of our education system are admirable and well-intended, but many new learning models often fail to recognize introverts and their needs by forcing students into social situations.

Believe it or not, whether someone is an introvert or an extrovert is related to chemicals in the brain. An introvert is someone who has a lower threshold for dopamine — the reward and feel-good chemical. The lower threshold leaves these individuals easily overstimulated in social situations. The results of overstimulation can be anything from moderate discomfort to distress.

Much of the world around us already works against introverts’ biological need to decompress by spending time alone. Increasing the number of collaborative activities in the classroom might leave them feeling even more uncomfortable. What’s more, these well-meaning shifts from traditional learning are leaving behind individuals who thrive with time to themselves — and if we’re not careful, it might impact their ability to perform in school.

Introverts typically need to process information internally before answering. They are more likely to say things like “I need time to think about it” when making decisions. But collaborative models can require quick responses with short reflection time. As a result, introverts might be seen as avoiding participation instead of working according to their learning style.

Similarly, group activities come with a lot of noise. High levels of sound can make it difficult for introverts to “hear themselves think” and can leave them feeling frustrated.

According to educator Michael Godsey, who wrote about introverts and education for The Atlantic, “The way in which certain instructional trends—education buzzwords like ‘collaborative learning’ and ‘project-based learning’ and ‘flipped classrooms’—are applied often neglect the needs of introverts. In fact, these trends could mean that classroom environments that embrace extroverted behavior—through dynamic and social learning activities—are being promoted now more than ever.”

In other words, if we glamorize methods that encourage extroversion, we can end up sending messages to introverted children that they need to change or be ashamed of their unique social needs. Imagine being in a position where every aspect of education overlooked your needs. That could definitely lead to short-term discomfort and possibly even long-term academic issues.

Godsey addresses many of the ways our schools encourage students and faculty to break out of their comfort zones. I’m all for personal growth, but I believe it should be personalized and tailored to the needs of the individual. I’m hesitant to embrace any blanket learning solutions.

As an ambivert, this analysis of education trends — and the way they impact introverts — resonated with me. Many of our innovative new teaching methods thrust students into a more interactive role. And while there isn’t anything wrong with encouraging students to be more hands-on in their educational experience, too much can create problems for some learners.

I like to think most of those changes are attempts towards creating a more representative world. And none of this seems possible without science, empirical evidence, and of course technology. An increase in technology has changed the way we experience the world, and schools are doing what they can to prepare students for a reduction of geographical limitations and the demands of an interconnectedness.

But for some reason, we’ve translated interconnected into more social and collaborative learning. Many parents talk of the way classrooms are shifting to encourage communication and partner-based tasks. Teachers are working tirelessly to adapt their curricula and promote a more equitable learning environment. The classroom focuses on more group interactions and increases students abilities to interact with other students.

This open and collaborative learning format works wonderfully for extroverts and some ambiverts. But what about the long-term impact of mandatory social learning on introverts?

When I was about to graduate from college, my school was debating whether to employ the new slogan “learning by doing.” At the time, the meaning behind the slogan wasn’t an interest of mine, but looking back, the new motto foreshadowed the pending educational shift.

Since then, not even online classes seem to be above the dreaded “group project.” While many individuals are exhilarated by the chance to engage with new people, others face extreme anxiety over forced participation in social learning.

Not only do some students not learn in a collaborative setting, we also risk sending the message to those who learn differently, like introverts, that something is wrong with them because they feel overstimulated and unproductive in school. I’ve seen the way this discomfort is expressed in my husband — who is an introvert — and you can almost see the discomfort running from his pores when he is trapped in social situations. Witnessing that pain hurts me and he is an adult with good emotional regulation. The image of a child being put in that situation day after day while trying to learn is heartbreaking.

There isn’t anything wrong with educational strategies that increase communication, but it’s crucial that we work to provide balanced curricula. I understand that it’s impossible to meet the needs of each and every student. Educators are already underpaid and responsible for a wide range of tasks. But considering that a large percentage of the population identifies as introverts, is embracing strategies that don’t work from them any better than the old methods?

The irony of the situation is that we made the shift from instruction-based learning to accommodate the needs of students who had to be engaged in order to thrive. We have to stay mindful that shifting too far in one direction neglects a whole other group of students. If we want an equitable school system, there needs to be support for the wide variety of learning methods — not to mention personality traits and behaviors — held by students in the classroom.