I value opportunities to share my thinking with colleagues in support of work and/or learning. Writing response groups, committees committed to a specific task, collegial conversations in a class, and a book group have sustained, nudged, and even changed my thinking.
But as an introvert, my preferred work setting is one of autonomy, solitude, and quiet. So I often find group work challenging, frustrating, and at times, downright maddening. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, proposed in a TED talk that we “stop the group work madness in our schools. Just stop it.”
So how do I reconcile my recognition that group work has its place and has its value with Cain’s admonition that we “stop the group work madness”? How do I work with my fellow educators to support the introverts, like me, in our classrooms?
First, we need to educate ourselves as teachers about introverts. As a student, I was frequently critiqued and even penalized for being “quiet.” I lost class participation points; I scored poorly in graded discussions; during my K-12 years, my parents were told I needed to “talk more” at every school conference. As a parent, I have witnessed the same reality for my daughter. During one school conference, she corrected her teacher’s characterization by noting, “I am not shy. I am quiet. And I want to know why being quiet is not okay. Do you ask the talkative students to talk less?”
Quiet needs to be “okay” in our classrooms! As educators, we need to create classroom structures and routines that provide students—all students—with time for solitude to ponder, reread, question, engage individually with ideas, and reflect. There is research to support quiet work time. In a study of more than 600 computer programmers by DeMarco and Lister, what distinguished top performers was not greater experience or pay, but how much privacy, personal workspace, and freedom from interruption they enjoyed.
I recognize we cannot promise students in our K-12 classrooms private, personal workspace. But we can explore seating options. We can reconsider pushing students desks together to form permanent work groups and allow some time when students work at individual desks. We could create a designated “quiet work area.” We can stop using seating charts that place quiet students between talkative students as human buffers. We can also rethink our classroom routines and structures in support of literacy. The following routines can be used to foster solitude in support of learning.
Before a class discussion, students craft a question to be used in the discussion. I sometimes give students time to answer their own question, and then we share both question and answer. More typically, we base our classroom discussion on student-generated questions, so each student’s question is honored. The goal is for students to develop and share their questions.
This strategy gives students the opportunity to respond to questions in writing. In some cases I generate the questions and prompts; I have also used student-generated questions/prompts. Using large sheets of butcher paper with the question or prompt at the top, each student circulates silently and writes a response. They are also invited to circle or underline sections of responses by their peers with which they agree or that they want to know more about. After they have been given time to respond, they circulate again and note patterns they see in the responses. I sometimes invite students to summarize these patterns for the whole group, particularly if the student crafted the question/prompt. The goal is for students to visually share their thinking.
I use this strategy in support of one-on-one conversations with students. I ask students to write to me about questions they have, aha moments from class, follow-up comments to something that happened in class, or any issue they would like to discuss in a one-on-one conversation with me. I determine the format and frequency of these exchanges based on the number of students with whom I work. Typically I use a once-a-week format in which students write on half of a page and I respond on the other half. Using smaller paper for this journal is one way I managed large numbers of students. Middle school teacher Shannon Wasson created a hand-drawn format with two rows and five columns, one for each day of the week. Students write in the top row each day, and she responds in the bottom row. Emily Keller, who works with high school students, also uses a hand-drawn format, but for once-a-week entries. She creates a two-row, two-column sheet that students use every two weeks. They staple these sheets into a file folder so that they have a record of their written exchanges. Although these written conversations are time consuming, the goal is correspondence with each student on a regular basis.
Reading Over Students' Shoulders
During quiet working sessions, I make time to model what I am asking students to do. But I have also found it valuable to circulate and read over students’ shoulders. I will make a note of student contributions I want to hear during a whole-group share. And I find it helpful to have brief conversations with students, letting them know I would like them to share their response. When we come together for a whole-group share session, some of the invitees will volunteer. In other cases I will call on students and invite them to share. The goal is to point out to students the thinking I want them to share with their peers.
We need to create classrooms where there is more than way to “participate.” This does not mean no group work, but it does mean thinking carefully about the purpose of group work and how it is structured. Susan Cain suggests being attentive to group size—using pairs or threesomes—and being clear about the role of each group member. The goal is not to “fix” introverts; it is to create classrooms where privacy and autonomy are valued and evident in addition to collaborative group work.