How can we enable the quieter learners in the classroom?

Wayne Eaves, teacher of Geography and advocate of coaching, looks at the importance of recognising the significant value of the quieter learner and the opportunities they offer to the wider classroom. In a world of constant stimulation and talk, where verbal contribution is too often used as a means of assessing pupil progress, it is vital that teachers reflect on their own classroom practice and ensure that ‘quiet’ is a positive and valued attribute.

The Power of Introversion

Much debate among educationalists followed the publication of Susan Cain’s book ‘Quiet-The Power of Introversion in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’ and her call to move away from the cultural bias towards extroverts in schools by creating introvert-friendly learning environments and recognising the ‘invisible’ student. Counter arguments, championed by Jessica Lahey in Atlantic magazine, maintained that to achieve success in today’s world, it is imperative that students are coerced through grades, based on verbal participation and teacher expectations, to take an active and vocal part in class.

Western culture certainly appears to present and value extroversion as an asset while disparaging introversion as an affliction or flaw. However, in other cultures silence is a sign of deep respect and is more highly valued than talk/discussion. The stereotypical description of the extrovert as Act-Think-Act, and the introvert as Think-Act-Think is rarely helpful since in reality (especially the classroom) a whole spectrum of introversion and extroversion exists. The aim must surely be to incorporate and celebrate the approaches of all learners.

To me, Lahey’s advocacy for grading classroom participation ignores the ‘value of quiet’ and the myriad of other ways that students take part in lessons. These might include the silent assent they give to ideas in their body language and eye contact or the way they make thoughtful and insightful notes for a future essay. The absence of talk must not be assumed to indicate an absence of engagement with learning nor undervalue the student’s role in the classroom.


“The absence of talk must not be assumed to indicate an absence of engagement with learning”

The modern classroom with its focus on active and collaborative learning, exciting technology, group work and discussion can all too often ignore the needs of the quiet learner and indeed actively hinder their learning. As Cain points out, the extrovert draws energy from social interaction while the introvert draws energy from internal reflection and quiet time and may easily become drained by non-stop interaction with others.

The Inclusive Classroom

How can the classroom teacher adapt their teaching to meet the needs of all their learners? A variety of strategies can help the confidence of all students:

  • Offer the discussion questions in advance by pre-circulating the issues that you plan to talk about in the next lesson.
  • Ensure that sufficient waiting or thinking time is always given before an answer is expected, giving both the reflective student and the ‘instant responder’ time to think their answers through.
  • Think-Pair-Share – gives the quiet learner the chance to reflect on their answer, discuss it with one peer which may well then encourage them to share with the rest of the class.
  • Ensure that every lesson contains some time for deep thinking and quiet study. It has been noted that in US schools where verbal confidence is valued at least as highly as quiet work that achievement in many schools is falling behind their international peers. A short session of silent, meaningful work, also allows the extroverts in a class to develop and hone new and valuable skills.
  • Social media, used well by the teacher can give the quieter learner a boost. A discussion blog allows them to become involved in the conversation and get their ideas validated by others, thus building confidence.
  • Be creative with the classroom, if space allows have both group work zones and individual desks. At break time designate a semi-quiet space for the quiet learners where they can recharge after time spent with lots of other people.

Introverts Dilemma
Introverts Dilemma

Figure 1: ‘How to care for Introverts/Extroverts’– The Introvert’s Dilemma (blog)

Although quieter students may need some adjustments to be made in the learning environment, the benefits that they contribute to the classroom are considerable. They naturally bring an element of mindfulness to a lesson and, given the opportunity, present new ideas and perspectives which enrich the learning and experience of others. It is their fellow students and their teachers’ duty to listen to them. When she was asked what inspired her to write her book Cain likened introverts today to women at the dawn of the feminist movement—second-class citizens with gigantic amounts of untapped talent. As her book concludes, ‘our culture rightly admires risk-takers but in today’s world we need the heed-takers more than ever’.

Further reading

Cain, S. Quiet : The Power of Introversion in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’. Crown Publishing Group, 2012

Cain, S. The Power of Introverts, podcast, TED talks Feb 2012

Lahey J.  ‘Introverted Kids need to Learn to Speak up at School‘, The Atlantic, Feb 2013

Schultz, K. Rethinking Classroom Participation: Listening to Silent Voices. Teachers College Press. 2009

Author- unattributed ‘Introverts – Extroverts: ‘It’s not about shyness, It’s about honouring and making ways to participate’ TILT, (web blog) 2012-13