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Collaboration is Great, But Don’t Forget About the Introverts4 min read

If you likened my brain to a battery, the quickest way to charge it is to plug it into large groups of people. Whether its leading, presenting to, or conversing with, I relish the opportunity to tap into the energy generated from large groups. It’s why I gave the entire I Have a Dream Speech to 500 people from memory in 4th grade; it’s why I present to teaching professionals all over the world, and ultimately what led me to becoming a teacher. I get my energy from large groups of people.

When I started teaching and working with kids, I assumed everyone was energized the way I was. I imagined my students would be revitalized and thrive in constant community. This is why I had policies requiring students to stay in my classroom at all times unless it was to collaborate, and my class consisted of constant, face-to-face collaboration. I thought I was serving my students in the best way possible. These were practices I thrive best with, and I naturally figured they all would too.

However, I am an extrovert.

The truth is, many innovations in education favor us extroverts. From the calls to abolish industrial-styled classrooms and replace with flexible seating, to the rising prominence of project based learning and designing entire curricula centered on group work, “innovative schools” are becoming a place where extroverts thrive. As a result, too many students who charge their batteries apart from the group; students who are less likely to speak up first in discussion and often want to separate from the masses, do not fit in with the format of a class.

In fact, these students are often seen as problem-cases and needing intervention because of their lack of contribution. Before I realized that introverts were in my classroom, or at least before I recognized how much my class favored the extroverts, I’d call parents and say things like, “Kasey is a great kid and does really strong work, but I just can’t get her to talk enough in class.” Or I would say to Kasey-the-Introvert, “I hardly heard a word from you today, why aren’t you working with your group?”

For introverts, sharing aloud in class is draining; sitting in groups with people and talking for an hour can be exhausting, and for many, can even cause severe anxiety. Many of the aspects of a collaborative classroom will not come as easy for introverts, and yet half of all students (and people) are introverts.

Does this mean introverts should be excused from collaboration and be given the option to return to solely autonomous education?

Of course not! Because whether a person is an introvert or extrovert, gets their energy from being with others or alone, they need to learn the art of collaboration. This skill is too vital to make exceptions. However, this was my approach when I started teaching. I knew the vitality of teaching collaboration and did not care if it was out of students’ comfort zones as long as they were learning and practicing the skill.

Unfortunately, kids like Kasey and many others were not learning how to collaborate when I was ignoring their tendency towards introversion. The class was too draining for them. The skills and attributes that come from being an introvert (and there are many) were repressed and ignored because the class was not made for them.  So instead of becoming effective collaborators, they were distracted by my class that did not accommodate them.

A collaborative classroom, even though rooted in regular contact and group work, needs to be tailored to all students, including the introvert. When introverts are considered and accommodated, collaboration thrives in a whole new way.

This could mean making space for students to escape to or work alone for portions of class. It could mean ensuring there is always time for students to work individually, even if it’s just a small portion of the class. Your introverts would probably find it helpful to have advanced notice if there is extensive collaboration coming up so that they can mentally prepare for it.

And perhaps more than anything else, teachers need to realize that some of the best collaboration happens when students work alone while keeping others in mind. Students can meet about a task, consult each other about it, and sometimes brainstorming together, but then have the space to spread out and work alone. Collaboration does not mean being in constant contact with others. It means working together to solve a problem, and for introverts, but really all of us, that requires space so that the collaboration can thrive.

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Trevor Muir

I believe every student has the potential for greatness. And I believe every educator can be equipped to unlock that potential.