Introverts and Classroom Participation

[This post is inspired by and written in response to an article entitled Teachers, Quit Telling Introverts They Should Participate More’ I read on Introvert, Dear.]

The author of the post is a school teacher, and so was I. She identifies herself as an introvert, and so do I. Perhaps I was too much of a goody-two-shoes in primary and secondary schools, but I do share a lot of her anxiety as a student in the university classroom myself, and agree with much of her advice for teachers.

During my undergraduate studies, as English majors, we often had to discuss in tutorials, but it usually took me minutes to formulate my opinion in my mind, carefully rehearsing it, and waiting for the right timing, perhaps waiting for that girl sitting opposite me to finish her point first, before I could anxiously make my comment. After making the comment, please gosh don’t stare at me. Don’t come back to me – I’ve made my contribution. Not that I’m not interested in the topic. I’d love to hear different people’s opinions in tutorial discussion, but please don’t pick on me and ask me to say something when I’m not ready.

Then I did my MPhil. All research students in my university have to be teaching assistants. I actually like teaching and I enjoyed being a TA. I was then the one holding tutorial discussions, having to ask my students to express their thoughts. Perhaps I should have been more compassionate about those who was anxious as I was as an undergraduate, but I seemed to have internalised the notion that verbal communication and participation are essential for students to make the most out of their literary studies. The most important (and inconvenient) reason was that, since I was not the assessed but the assessor, I did not feel the same anxiety.

But then we also had research student polemics where we got together and discussed scholarly articles with a professor, and I shrank back into the nervous anxious student. We actually had a debate in one of the polemics over whether polemics are constructive in academic training. I tend to stand on the negative side with a few of my peers, believing that carefully constructed and researched arguments are probably more valuable than on-the-spot debates, though we all have to acknowledge that verbal exchanges are a necessary part in scholarly activities in reality… conferences and viva!!!

After that I became a secondary school English teacher. The PGDE training tells us to increase classroom interaction and encourage student participation. Of course I’d agree that if it’s all chalk-and-talk, quite a lot of students will just drift off and not learn much in class, but we must also acknowledge that there are introverts in the classroom who would just be discouraged from learning if constantly required to speak in front of the class, or even just have their work displayed. It doesn’t mean they aren’t attentive or interested in the lesson, but the mode of learning doesn’t suit them.

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The boy is well liked by teachers because he is actively participating in class, but look at the anxious face of the girl… She probably isn’t disinterested in learning, but just feels uncomfotable about the way teachers recognise students’ effort in class.

The author of the article has given some good suggestions for teachers: trying to get them talk in small groups where they feel a bit more at ease, and allowing writing as an alternative way to share their ideas. I’d add that multi-modal assessments should be encouraged especially in the secondary school classroom, where the diversity in learning needs can be large. A mix of written assessments, oral presentations, creative assignments, or even video production, if the students are tech-savvy enough (with tablets and apps this shouldn’t be difficult), would probably make learning more stimulating and at the same time help develop the different skills which will be really useful in the future too. This is also fairer because I supppose no one is good at everything, and where they aren’t good at, they should be given the opportunities to hone those skills.

It might actually be the teachers who aren’t very comfortable initiating such changes due to their unfamiliarity with the various modes of teaching and learning. This is understandable. Schools should allow more room – not only the freedom, but actually releasing their workload (instead of asking teachers to add new things to the plate while keeping up with everything already there – for experimentation. At the end of the day, we just want our students to love, instead of fear or hate, learning, and schools should help teachers achieve this mission.