How Schools Try to Convert Introverts to Extroverts

In this series of posts on introverts, much of the information comes from a wonderful, thought-provoking book by Susan Cain called Quiet. Last time I discussed how you can tell whether your child is an introvert or an extrovert (I forgot to mention there’s a quiz in the book that gives general insight into identifying introverts), but I noted that it can be a bit harder to make that determination about adults.

That’s because many adults are what Ms. Cain calls “closet extroverts”; they’re introverts who have had to work so hard at fitting in that they appear to be extroverts. She notes that:

Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology…Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of feel we must conform.

Much of this oppressive standard is first impressed upon us in school, where extroverted behavior is expected and rewarded. How well I remember this from my own school experience. For example, we were regularly required to read aloud in front of the class. For some kids, this was no big deal. But for many, it was torture. While it did make me nervous, I was fortunate to have been an early reader, so I usually had no problem reading aloud well enough to avoid jeers. But some of my quieter classmates really suffered, and it breaks my heart even today to think of how often they were teased, how they must have dreaded it and how regularly it occurred.

According to Ms. Cain, today’s schools are more extrovert-oriented than ever. Many have done away with desks and individual study, seating children instead at “pods”: group tables that make it easier to do group activities. But group activities are the extrovert’s métier; how much is an introvert really going to learn in an atmosphere of noise and competitive behavior?

In a similar vein, there’s a huge emphasis on competitive sports and team-building, the thought being that today’s workers need to be team players, so why not start young by teaching kids to be team players. Whether working in teams is as productive as it’s cracked up to be is beside the point; the problem is that introverts tend not to be competitive and prefer to work on their own. It hardly seems fair to use these activities to force them to become someone they’re not.

As always, I’m going to take these observations and say that homeschooling wins again. A supportive home environment promotes learning; for the introverted child, it sounds like the ideal situation.

Next week: What of the Extroverted Child?

Is Your Child an Introvert?

How can you tell if your child is an introvert? There’s no definitive test you can give your child to make that determination. Your own knowledge of how your child thinks and acts is much more helpful. But scientists have found that studying babies can offer insight into which ones will be more introverted than extroverted.

In her book Quiet, author Susan Cain refers to a study that scientists performed on a group of four-month-old babies; they later followed up on these same children throughout childhood. Using visual observations as well as measurements of heart rate, blood pressure and other physical signs, they determined that how a baby reacts to new experiences can predict whether he will lean toward introversion or extroversion:

The infants heard tape-recorded voices and balloons popping, saw colorful mobiles dance before their eyes, and inhaled the scent of alcohol on cotton swabs. They had wildly varying reactions to the new stimuli. About 20 percent cried lustily and pumped their arms and legs. Kagan called this group “high-reactive.” About 40 percent stayed quiet and placid, moving their arms or legs occasionally, but without all the dramatic limb-pumping. This group Kagan called “low-reactive.” The remaining 40 percent fell between these two extremes. In a startlingly counterintuitive hypothesis, Kagan predicted that it was the infants in the high-reactive group—the lusty arm-pumpers—who were most likely to grow into quiet teenagers.

Later studies of these same babies, now older children, found that many turned out just as predicted:

The high-reactive infants, the 20 percent who’d hollered at the mobiles bobbing above their heads, were more likely to have developed serious, careful personalities. The low-reactive infants—the quiet ones—were more likely to have become relaxed and confident types.

As Ms. Cain said, the results seemed counter-intuitive. But when you consider that introverts tend to be more sensitive, while extroverts like noise and lots of stimuli, it makes sense.

What this means for our children is that they’re wired to be where they are on the introvert-extrovert scale. Trying to change them is not only pointless, but can be harmful. Letting them be who they are and providing them with an atmosphere where they can learn, how ever they prefer to learn, is optimal.

If you take this information and look at your own children, consider that whether a child is introverted or extroverted is not always a clear-cut issue. Most people lean in one direction but may have a few characteristics from the other side.

That’s especially true of adults, by the way; I’ll explain why in the next post.

Next week: How Schools Try to Convert Introverts to Extroverts

Introverts and Socialization

Many accomplished people are not famous, preferring to stay in the background while they excel at what they do. That’s often the sign of an introvert.

In Susan Cain’s book Quiet, she describes Darwin Smith, the former CEO of Kimberly-Clark who led that company to become the most successful paper company in the world, as “shy and mild-mannered” and very hard-working. She also refers to a study of high-performing CEOs that surprised many with its finding that top CEOs were “quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated.” So much for the stereotype of the loud, charismatic, self-promoting Trump-like CEO.

In her book, Ms. Cain mentions other famous introverts like Rosa Parks, Moses, Bill Gates, Mahatma Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt. These people were highly gifted and successful, though not extroverted. It appears that they excelled when they were allowed to do things in their own way instead of the popular way; it makes me wonder how many children are unable to develop their gifts and interests because they’re continually being forced into a mold of extroversion by the well-meaning adults in their lives (both teachers and parents).

This book also made me wonder: when people ask how homeschooled kids can be socialized, aren’t they really asking how they can be turned into extroverts? These questioners rarely seem satisfied when told that homeschooled kids meet and hang out with a variety of people of all ages in their daily lives. Perhaps what the questioners really mean (whether they know it or not) is, how can a homeschooled child be taught to stand up and speak in front of the class, lead the team, run for student council? And of course, all those activities are meant to encourage extroversion.

Ms. Cain makes it clear that many people aren’t comfortable with the idea of letting introverts be introverts, wanting instead to turn them into extroverts. Even some parents do this in a misguided attempt to make their children “turn out right.” But it seems to me that all children should spend their time in an atmosphere where they will thrive. Growing up in a home where they’re accepted for who they are, being given time to learn as much as they can in whatever way they prefer, and being allowed to mature without the constant pressure to perform publicly will help them thrive; all of those things point to homeschooling.

Next week: Is Your Child an Introvert?


Is Homeschooling Better for Introverts than Group Education?

Seldom does a nonfiction book grab my attention and hold it as well as Quiet just did.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking fascinated me because we have introverts in our family. And until I read this book I didn’t realize how many of us are introverts. It gave me new insight into my husband, though we’ve been married for almost 35 years, and also helped me understand more about my kids, which is always helpful. I even learned a few things about myself that made me feel a little better about some things that happened to me when I was young.

Author Susan Cain’s main point is that we live in a society where extroverted behavior is celebrated and expected, even though 1/3-1/2 of the population is made up of introverts. This cultural preference for extroverted behavior (which doesn’t exist in some other cultures, ex. Asian) is reflected not only in how employers choose workers, but more importantly (at least in my view) in how school personnel treat children.

That last point, which Ms. Cain covers in one chapter of her book, is very important, because children are so sensitive and affected by how the adults in their life act towards them. If an introverted child is treated like there’s something wrong with her, it can affect her negatively, with lifelong ramifications. When I read this, my brain started going “Ding! Ding! Ding!” because it made so much sense to me based on my own personal experience. In fact, as I thought about what I had just read, I realized that much of my own personal dislike for school had to do with the incessant pressure from teachers to be someone that I wasn’t.

Ms. Cain believes that we need to stop trying to change introverts into extroverts, and instead celebrate the gifts that introverts bring to the world. Many of the world’s creative geniuses have been introverts; this makes sense because introverts need a lot of thinking time, which usually translates into creative time.

When faced with hectic social situations, introverts often need recovery time afterwards. While extroverts are energized by being in large groups of people, introverts tend to find them exhausting. Just think of the ramifications of being in school all day, every day, for years, for the introverted child!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. There are several really interesting aspects of this book that I’d like to cover, so I think I’ll post about them in the coming weeks. For now, let’s just take a brief look at the common characteristics of introverts vs. extroverts:

  • Introverts tend to prefer talking with one or two people instead of being in a group activity, while extroverts find a big, loud party to be their idea of a great evening.
  • Introverts like to spend time delving into a subject, while extroverts tend to be better at multi-tasking.
  • Introverts usually prefer to avoid conflict, while extroverts enjoy the verbal back-and-forth of conflicting opinions.
  • Introverts hesitate before speaking, not because they’re shy but because they’re thinking first, while extroverts often speak before they think.
  • Introverts prefer working on their own to working in a group, and usually work best on their own (this has huge ramifications for how well they learn in school settings.)
  • Many introverts like to write, and are sometimes accused of “living in their heads.”

So, do the habits of introverts remind you of any of your children? Your spouse? You?? Stay tuned to learn more about introverts.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Next week: Introverts and Socialization

Flashback Friday: Our Tax Dollars Hard at Work

Just received one of the many puff pieces our local school district sends out in an effort to justify its existence. After spending years on our state’s financial and academic watchlists, it needs all the good P.R. it can buy. This particular quote is from the principal of one district school that recently “transformed itself”:

“Over the past few years, XXX School has transformed itself,” says Principal John Doe. “There is a palpable sense of the good things happening at XXX. We have embraced the philosophy, ‘If the horse is dead, get off of the horse.” (emphasis theirs)

(As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up. Hat tip to dd15, who encouraged me to put the quote on my blog.)

Originally posted 3/10/07