The extrovert and introvert in the collaborative classroom

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

I’ve been reading The Introverts Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World by Sophia Demblingwhose blog “The Introvert’s Corner” I have been reading for a couple of years now. I like the blog she writes, even when there are things I disagree with, like her article on how Halloween is an extroverted holiday. I, for one, am an extreme introvert (clinically) who adores Halloween, mainly because I love hearing and telling scary stories. But, for the most part, I can relate to the majority of what she discusses.

As I was reading her book, I started thinking about how we often educate our students. For instance, in the classroom, collaborative learning is all the rage. We want assignments to be collaborative, not only because it cuts down on our amount of grading as writing teachers (an added bonus, we must admit), but because so much of what one does in the “real world” is indeed collaborative. And I usually do have one assignment each semester that can be done collaboratively, or one that I purposely created to be collaborative, like the group marketing project for my English 320 class. I don’t think doing any of these things is problematic since it is important we teach students how to effectively work together in groups. What I do wonder about, however, is how much we push collaborative learning in the classroom. Are we leaving out the introverts? Are we stressing them out further? Are we causing them unnecessary anxiety?

I think back on how I used to, and still occasionally do, react to group work in the classroom. While I don’t mind it, I do dislike it when it becomes overdone. This happens if I come to a class and every class period involves a heavy dose of group work. When this happens, I begin to yearn for a lecture where I can sit quietly and take notes and think. I start to romanticize the lengthy lecture professors sometimes give, even though they typically do not constitute what many of us consider good pedagogy today. The point is, after too much group work, I become exhausted, slightly angry, and rarely, but occasionally, apathetic toward that specific classroom environment.

The problem with my feelings, however, is that I am guilty of doing similar things as a teacher. I have students do what I consider is quite a bit of small group work in my classroom. Sure, I often break this up with mini lectures and individual activities. I even often allow students to choose their own group members, and they usually have no problem with this, being juniors and seniors. They easily group themselves together. And I have noticed that when they get to choose their group members, they often are more engaged than when I choose their group members for them. But all the same, I can’t help but wonder if the quieter students are getting frustrated with the levels of group work, even though I do try to break it up with other activities. I know as a student I would feel this way from time to time, even in the way I structure my own classroom.

So as I was thinking of this I grew concerned that our present learning environment is problematic for introverts. I did some surface level research on this and found out the way we teach isn’t necessarily fantastic for extroverts, either. For example, most of our assignments are individual assignments. We also tell students they need to study, which is often a solitary activity, or  at least traditionally speaking it is a solitary activity. We also ask students to be quiet and work independently a fair amount of the time, even if our current pedagogy is collaborative in the classroom. Like I said, they still have to create most of those assignments alone and they still take tests independently.

To be fair, I did try to change a lot of my pedagogy this semester in consideration of the quiet kids. For example, I often emailed discussion questions for class a couple days before they were to be discussed. I had a couple of my introverted students tell me they appreciated me doing that for them, since they know they take more time to think than other students do. And this isn’t because they aren’t as smart, but there really is a biological difference in the brains of introverts and extroverts.  I also asked students to send me a professional email where they discussed how they participated in class, with a few examples, and articulate to me the grade they felt they earned because of that. Of course, most students claimed they earned an A, but from these emails I did learn a lot about my students and how they felt they had participated. The quieter students talked about writing a lot during free write activities or talking more in small groups or coming up with ideas during group work that were instrumental in the completion of the activity. They also talked about how they helped other classmates solve problems. These two changes I made, I feel, really did help the quieter students. It also allowed the introverted students to speak up more, so I wasn’t constantly hearing from the 3-5 overly social extroverts in the class.

Still, I feel there is more I could do. I still feel guilty about how we push collaboration so much in the classroom and in ways that are so directly collaborative. What I want to start thinking about are more ways we can be collaborative, and yet be a little more subtle about it or quieter about it. Perhaps doing some online discussion boards or using other forms of social media for discussion will help. That way, the quiet students can participate more freely and without having to speak up in a classroom of 22 students. They will still be doing this, only on their own terms and from the comfort of their laptop. I understand it is important to push collaborative work, but I think collaborative work is a more loaded term than we immediately consider.

So, here are some solutions that I thought of during this post:

  1. Simply ask students how they feel they learn, and politely ask them to forget what they know about learning. Make them think of a time where they had to learn something new. How did they do it? Why did it work for them?
  2. Ask students what they value in collaboration. Work from this and build a discussion from the responses. Incorporate the findings into pedagogy.
  3. Ask students for feedback during the course and collaborative work. Check in. Maybe this will help us with what I discuss above, for both personality types.
  4. Have some individual work included in the group work. As a teacher, we could make this information clearer and help with assigning certain tasks and have students give us some feedback regarding this. A big problem here would be making it seem as if we are micromanaging them in their group work, though.
  5. Have students work on something individually and then create something collaboratively from the individual work. This might be a really good exercise for everyone.
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