The Quiet Learner

We live in an increasingly noisy, busy world, a world that seems to favour the confident and the brash, a world that seems to favour the extrovert more than it does the quiet, introspective and introverted personality type.

What has interested me over the last few years is how we ensure that introverted learners are understood and valued in our modern school environment, which are, like the rest of our world, large, noisy and stimulating environments.

The first step in making sure that we are providing inclusive learning environments for extroverted learners as well as introverted ones is to understand what being an introvert means. An introvert is not necessarily shy, depressed, withdrawn or socially awkward. Far from it. An introvert basically finds energy from within, they ‘self charge’ whereas an extrovert is charged and energised by being in group environments and stimulating situations.

An introvert is drained through social stimulation and needs ‘time out’ to recharge unlike an extrovert who thrives in stimulating situations.

Most of us utilize elements of introversion and extroversion in our daily lives and balance the two personality types easily, some of us though exist at more extreme ends of the introvert/extrovert continuum.

The need to respond to the needs of the introverted learner is a comparatively modern one. There was a time when academic learning favoured the introvert. Learning was seen as a quiet pursuit, often a solitary one. The image of a secluded and isolated academic was one that dominated learning for many years. We used to value the quiet learner, for example Libraries were places where silence reigned, now they have become laboratories of learning where interaction, collaboration, activity and noise are all accepted. The learning focus has shifted from the reflective to the active.

The emphasis now is on collaboration, cooperation, discussion, debate, brainstorming and action rather than reflection and contemplation. This is not a value statement rather an indication of how the world has changed.

It is not a case of one personality type being preferable or ‘better’ than the other as much as a need to recognise that the two types do exist and that we have moved to a world that is nosier, busier and more stimulating than it has been in the past and so we have to be aware that we are not marginalising the significant percentage of our population that is introverted by nature. They do not need ‘curing’ as there is nothing wrong with them. They don’t need to be encouraged to be more social or more confident because there is often nothing wrong with their self confidence. They just prefer a quieter world where reflection and thought are important.

Lisa Petrilli provides a good check list to helping educators understand introverted learners,

Ten Things Educators Should Know About Introverted Students

In a similar way Jill D. Burruss and Lisa Kaenzig provide a good list of the features of each personality type;

Some Characteristics of Introverts

  • Are territorial – desire private space and time
  • Are happy to be alone – they can be lonely in a crowd
  • Become drained around large groups of people; dislike attending parties
  • Need time alone to recharge
  • Prefer to work on own rather than do group work
  • Act cautiously in meeting people
  • Are reserved, quiet and deliberate
  • Do not enjoy being the center of attention
  • Do not share private thoughts with just anyone
  • Form a few deep attachments
  • Think carefully before speaking (practice in my head before I speak)
  • See reflection as very important
  • Concentrate well and deeply
  • Become absorbed in thoughts and ideas
  • Limit their interests but explore deeply
  • Communicate best one-on-one
  • Get agitated and irritated without enough time alone or undisturbed
  • Select activities carefully and thoughtfully

Some Characteristics of Extroverts

  • Are social – they need other people
  • Demonstrate high energy and noise
  • Communicate with excitement and enthusiasm with almost anyone in the vicinity
  • Draw energy from people; love parties
  • Are lonely and restless when not with people
  • Establish multiple fluid relationships
  • Engage in lots of activities and have many interest areas
  • Have many best friends and talk to them for long periods of time
  • Are interested in external events not internal ones
  • Prefer face-to-face verbal communication rather than written communication
  • Share personal information easily
  • Respond quickly

Introverts get energy from within their own heads, extroverts get it from people, introverts create their own energy whereas extroverts gain energy from others.

These are of course fairly general comments but they are useful when we look at defining the two different types of personality.

As educators we do have to be aware that there is a danger that introverted personality types could be disadvantaged and seen as somehow inferior or not coping unless we are aware of their needs and realise that they are often highly intelligent, extremely capable leaders, very sensitive and deep thinkers. It would be easy to underestimate them or ignore them.

We don’t need to make introverts more extroverted because there is nothing abnormal about being an introvert, they don’t need curing but they do need to be given opportunities to flourish.

To fully harness and include the introverted learner we need to ensure that there are opportunities for quiet reflective learning, individual learning time where a learner can work as a self contained individual.This is not necessarily a problem as it just requires us to be aware that personalising learning does mean incorporating the needs of the introverted learner alongside other personality types.

I see this as a school actively providing opportunities for project based learning, co-operative learning, group work and other related activities but also providing opportunities for quiet learning and solo work.

It is my belief that the design of Rolleston College will enable this to take place in a new, exciting but also natural way. It has a variety of spaces, some small and some large,  that will provide opportunities for a variety of learning environments from  the quiet to  the more active to be incorporated and accessed according to the needs of the learner. I am not advocating that some introverted learners are isolated and shut away in small dark spaces but that there are opportunities for a variety of environments to meet the personal needs of learners who operate at the more extreme ends of the introvert/extrovert continuum.

When you think about it even attending school is an extroverted act. Schools have always been busy and active places with large numbers of people grouped together. The opportunity for quiet time has always been limited and so introverted learners have tended to find ‘safe’ areas such as the library or the art room where they can ‘hang out.’ It is my hope that the design of Rolleston College will enable this to occur at a level that does not naturally exist in a more traditional environment.

On a personal level it has been interesting to compare memories of my university education with the more recent experiences  of my two children. Mine was dominated by essays and exams and hours of reading and library based study. It suited my learning style but was fairly repetitive. My two children on the other hand have also had the essays/ exams and endless hours of study but they have also presented seminars, worked on group assessments, been involved in real life learning experiences beyond the lecture hall and been assessed in written, oral and creative formats. They have had to work with others and collaborate in a way that I never had to. Again, I am not making a value judgement just reflecting on how much the word of tertiary learning has changed and how it has moved to a more active world away from the more traditional reflective and contemplative one.

It is important that we understand the learning needs of the introvert as they can find school loud/ crowded/ superficial/boring/ over stimulating and focussed on action not reflection. It is all about providing a variety of ways to learn and show understanding. It is all about balance and choice. Low key environments suit some learners, group and active  environments suit others, most of us require both and all of us require elements of both if we are to be fully engaged in the world around us.

The video below does, in many ways, visually show what I am referring to here. The actual song is not important [but Frightened Rabbit are an excellent Scottish band] what is important is the responses of the children as they enter this very stimulating environment. All of the young children are being presented with the same stimulation but what I found interesting is how they respond. Some are energised and energetic, they seem to thrive on the noise, activity and music, others are far more reflective, they watch the musicians or their classmates with a real intensity. Some seem to be deep in thought, some seem nervous. Some just want to jump around others are focussed on the musicians, they are all given the same stimulus but they individualise and personalise their reactions and responses.

All of these children will take from this experience, all will learn and all will value the visit of the band but they will respond and react in very different ways. I find their varied responses quite beautiful, I believe they are all engaging but in their own way.

On reflection I find it interesting that one of the few ‘strategies’ that I have found always works in any class is the cooperative learning activity called ‘Think- Pair-Share,’ or versions of it. I believe the reason for this is that it allows all learning types to share their ideas in a non threatening way.

Put simply the strategy asks learners to think as individuals first and then share their ideas with a partner. They then formulate a joint answer that they share with another pair [making a group of four] and again refine their response which one of the group can then present to the class. This strategy allows a quiet learner to be involved in group work without having to necessarily speak publicly. It captures all of the important aspects of group work but eliminates the stress. The extrovert in the group will, most likely, be the individual who presents the groups findings at then end of the process.

What all this means is that, as educators, we need to be aware of the different learning types that we face every day. Could it be that when a learner puts in their ear buds to listen to music that this may not be an indication of their lack of engagement but an attempt to cut out external distractions so that they can concentrate on their personal learning process?

Yes we need risk takers but we also need heed makers.

The link below offers some very useful and informative guidelines regarding the educating of introverted or quiet learners.

How to teach a young introvert

Possibly the most informative material regarding introverted personality types comes from Susan Cain’s book,  “Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.”

I have pasted her excellent Ted Talk below.


I couldn’t complete this blog without mentioning the sad passing of David Bowie. A huge and important artist. For those of us growing up in the 70’s and 80’s Bowie showed us that it was OK to be a misfit, as Guillermo del Toro said, “Bowie existed so all of us misfits learned that an oddity is a precious thing.” I have pasted a video of my all time favourite Bowie song below.


3 thoughts on “The Quiet Learner

  1. Agree that Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet’ book is incredibly informative, recognising a balance of opportunities in work and classroom environments for introverts and extroverts. We’ve tried some classroom differentiation, with some success, based upon self assessment on the introvert-extrovert scale.
    I’ve used extracts from the book in staff professional development and with some students to help develop their understanding of what makes others tick.


  2. Some interesting points Steve and I agree that some people require quiet time and will get stressed with extended periods of large group activity, but….

    You have made one or two broad generalisations that are not backed up any actual evidence. The suggestion that the world has become a far less reflective or contemplative place is one example – this may be your own opinion, but it is far from fact. Secondly, you refer to individual’s learning styles. We don’t have learning styles. The brain is a malleable thing and we are able to learn (and should be challenged to learn) in multiple ways. However, we do develop preferences that often change over time as we become more exposed to new ways of doing things. When we aren’t they often stay fixed.

    There is also the completely erroneous view that introverts pefer to work as individuals. Yes there are people that prefer to work alone, but many introverts are highly collaborative people. I can think of a colleague who would class herself as highly introverted, but loves collaborating. I would place myself in a similar boat. All through school and university I worked as an individual. It wasn’t until I began working that I realised how important collaboration was and this changed my own outlook and approach. it is just that we need quiet time at various points – as you have recognised.

    There are students out there who do not want to work with anyone at all. That needs to be challenged – the world needs them to learn these skills. As long as it is done in a safe environment where the students are supported there shouldn’t be a problem with that.

    I do agree that it isn’t all about working with other people all the time. Time to think and develop ideas / work on your own is important, but it would be preferable if this work is still somehow ‘connected’ to a project or common theme. Individual time is absolutely imperative. Isolated time is not.


  3. As the parent of a gifted introvert (who is not shy or socially awkward), your blog has filled me with hope for her future learning. Currently in year 7, she hasn’t been immersed in the full MLE yet, but still finds the constant group structure of her classrooms irritating and counter productive. Each year as she heads off to a new classroom she says “I hope I can have a desk”. She just craves more time for deep reflective thought and personal space at school and while I have known this for some time, the extrovert culture of the classroom is often so strongly encouraged by teachers that I’m left wondering if maybe they are right and my daughter should try harder to learn like everyone else. Your words resonate with me and reassure me she has a place at her future high school just the way she is. And they have helped define for me ways I can be advocating for her learning needs with her current school.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s