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

Kagan structures: creating an engaging environment to promote effective learning

Beth Ashton, teacher of Year 5 and 6 English in WHS Junior School, investigates Kagan structures and how this methodology helps to create an engaging classroom atmosphere focused on promoting effective learning.

“When teachers use Kagan structures they dramatically increase both the amount of active engagement and the equality of active engagement among students.”

Kagan, S. Structures Optimize Engagement. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Spring/Summer 2005

There is no doubt that creating a climate of active learning in the classroom contributes directly to the success and lasting impact on children’s development educationally.

As children progress through the key stages, the curriculum shifts in balance from skills to a more content-based approach. This can result in diminishing opportunities for lessons to be delivered with practical content. As a result, ensuring an active learning climate can be challenging.

Passive learning places focus on the teacher to dictate the learning environment, acting as the locus of control and knowledge within the classroom. Research has demonstrated that this approach results in poor knowledge retention and lasting issues for students in terms of taking ownership over their learning.

In terms of personal growth and the development of a lasting relationship with learning, this can result in pupils lacking the autonomy and independence to sustain their own studies.

With a whole-class ‘hands-up’ approach, pupils’ perception of their own ability can also be damaged.

“If the teacher has students raise their hands and calls on the students one at a time, students learn to compete for teacher’s attention. They are happy if a classmate misses, because it increases their own opportunity to receive recognition and approval”

Kagan, S. Kagan Structures for Emotional Intelligence

However, when time is of the essence and teachers are required to deliver a dense and complex curriculum, finding practical solutions to avoiding passive learning and ensuring active engagement in lessons can be difficult.

“The first critical question we ask is if the task we have set before our students results in a positive correlation among outcomes. Does the success of one benefit others?”

Kagan, S. Structures Optimize Engagement. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Spring/Summer 2005

In order to combat passive learning in the classroom, Years 5 and 6 in WHS Juniors have been using Kagan interactive learning structures in English lessons to promote inclusive and engaged dialogue when engaging with texts. Over the course of the year, girls have demonstrated an improved ability to move between social groups easily within lessons. Focussing on social awareness and the ability to converse with their peer group effectively has meant that teachers have been able to reward a multitude of different skills, rather than just praising those girls who put their hand up.

Kagan is a system of cooperative learning structures, based on using peer support to engage pupils. Using a series of variety of different interactive structures, pupils are placed in mixed ability groups of four. Constructing these groups with an awareness of social dynamics and learning styles is vitally important.

Kagan structures require every student to participate frequently and approximately equally

By encouraging students to work as a team, teachers are able to remove the elements of competition and insecurity within the classroom, replacing them with a culture of collaboration and mutual support. The ‘hands-up’, whole-class approach to lessons is removed and replaced with pupils learning and discussing questions as a group, and feeding back to other groups around the classroom. This is achieved by swapping different numbers and using strategies such as ‘round robin’ and ‘numbered heads together’.

For example, when analysing a poem in English, girls would work in mixed ability groups, trying to identify the use of symbolism and looking at its effect. After thinking time, each number would be given an allocated time to share their thinking. This could be organised with the most able student sharing last, so that they don’t automatically lead the conversation. In order to ensure the lower ability pupil remains engaged, they could be pre-warned that their number would be responsible for reporting the outcome of the group discussion to the rest of the class.

The round robin structure described above ensures that each pupil:

  • has a role
  • is given allocated and structured time to share their views
  • is listened to by their peers

Importantly, the conversation is not dominated by one particular student. The option to opt out is also managed effectively by the teacher, by ensuring that pupils are aware of the high expectations around their engagement and contribution to class discussion.

“Group work usually produces very unequal participation and often does not include individual accountability, a dimension proven to be essential for producing consistent achievement gains for all students.”

Kagan, S. Structures Optimize Engagement. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Spring/Summer 2005

By using the Kagan interactive models, unstructured group discussions are removed from the classroom environment. Strategies such as ‘Timed Pair Share’ give discussion a scaffold. This means that pupils who usually demonstrate a dominant approach and tend to speak first, are able to develop the capacity to listen. Equally, students who tend to take a back-seat are guided through the process of sharing their thinking more readily.

The teacher is also able to allocate roles within groups with ease and adaptability according to the pupil’s number within the group. This ensures that dominant pupils are not able to control team discussions and feedback time, and less engaged pupils are drawn into participation through interaction with peers.

“If students in small groups discuss a topic with no ‘interaction rules’, in an unstructured way, often one or two students dominate the interaction. If, however, students are told they must take turns as they speak, more equal participation is ensured”

Kagan, S. A Brief History of Kagan structures.

As well as academic participation, Kagan can be a vital tool in improving social awareness and skills. The format of structured discussion time within class, results in clear social strategies being delivered to pupils through lesson content. Providing discussion in class with a framework also increases confidence and promotes risk-taking. These skills translate to the playground and, ultimately, the students’ life outside school and into the world of work.

Research shows that there is a strong correlation between social interaction and exchange of information. Generally, higher achieving students tend to form sub-groups within a cohort, creating enclaves where information is rapidly exchanged, and excluding those students they perceive as ‘lower ability’. This can result in those students who struggle feeling isolated and excluded, and ultimately disengaging from their studies. By using Kagan to scaffold and structure the sharing of information between children of different abilities, we can ensure that pupils of all abilities are gaining access to the social interactions which will ensure they make excellent progress.

A whole-class approach to questioning is proven to disengage a significant proportion of the class, whilst placing strain on the teacher. By passing ownership of the lesson to the students, through posing questions and allowing them to answer collaboratively, the teacher is able to take a step back and observe the learning process, taking feedback from each child through listening to their discussion.

By providing the teacher with the time and mental space to observe the lesson as it progresses, changes are able to be made over the course of the lesson, adapting to pupils needs. By using Kagan structures when tackling new learning, students are guided through the stages of learning through peer support. In the first stage of learning, pupils are able to work as a larger group, obtaining a significant amount of team support. Following this, pupils are then able to take on the problem in pairs, and finally, individually.

Using this format provides the more able pupils with the challenge of articulating their thinking to support their peers and provides those with barriers to learning with support of multiple different kinds within a lesson. Using established interactive structures means that the structures themselves are transferable across subjects, allowing them to be applied to all lessons. Having a readily available, student-led body of cooperative learning strategies embedded in the curriculum means that differentiation through discussion and peer support avoids a system of creating worksheets and allows pupils to ensure they are constantly being challenged, stretched and supported.

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