For anyone who is an introvert, you may be familiar with the rush of terror that accompanies being called on by the teacher - the sudden heat in the face, the feeling that your stomach has been flushed and then forced back down your throat.
These physical reactions are part of the introverted body’s fight or flight response to a perceived stress. For an introvert like me, the solution to this discomfort is to sink into my desk and avoid eye contact with the teacher at all costs. However, in American high schools such as my own, a major part of demonstrating knowledge is through class participation, a veritable torture for me and other introverts - an estimated one third to one half of the US population. While the current education system is biased against introverted students, there are methods to ensure our success in the classroom.
Class participation, among other things, signals to the teacher that a student is learning and synthesizing information. In many of my classes, students are graded on both the frequency and quality with which they contribute. These grades have become the bane of my high school existence, because I hate the physical act of participating - the subtle hand raise, the throat clearing, the sight of twenty sets of eyeballs slowly swiveling towards me. Therefore, I tend to avoid volunteering information in class like a virus. My feelings are worsened when I receive the inevitably low scores, and realize that it is impossible for me to fix them.
There is no way to make up low participation scores; one can only try to improve in the next grading period. Besides that, zero guidance is given to people who struggle with consistently low participation grades. Never once has a teacher given me any encouragement or tips regarding my fear of class participation, but as many an introvert can attest, I accept full responsibility because I have been too fearful to inquire for any. My teachers’ silence may point to a larger issue - a lack of education among the educators themselves about how to make their classrooms comfortable for introverts.
My experiences in the classroom have damaged the way I view school on the whole - every day, I watch as more extroverted students excel in the teachers’ eyes, while I fall behind.
Teachers believe, and rightfully so, that their job is to help students advocate for themselves, thus necessitating class participation. However, the current education system that they so readily promote is itself unfair and damaging to introverted students because of its bias against them.
In the past, teachers have treated my quietness as something I need to fix. On a few occasions, I have been warned that participation will be graded. This leaves the burden to me to ensure that I get a high grade for something I find totally against my character. This is because, as many experts have explained, introversion is not a mental disorder that can be tweaked and treated - it is a personality trait. It also has physiological implications: introverts and extroverts behave the way they do because of different nervous systems. For example, introverts react better when the stimuli around them are calmer. Introverts, therefore, are born as introverts, and the same is true for extroverts. Little to nothing can be done to change a person’s introverted tendencies.
To me, it seems like the current culture of education promotes loudness - what many teachers write off as “leadership” in the classroom - and may go so far as to discriminate against introverts. Therefore, I believe that class participation should not be graded, and more steps should be taken to healthily incorporate introverts into mainstream discussion. Because frequent class participation is rewarded by teachers, it forces introverts to fit into a mold of extroversion, and in the long run functions to internalize shame about having a quieter nature.
However, it would be unfair to suggest that teachers and education professionals have not attempted to give introverts an avenue to prove their knowledge. In my experience, one teacher allowed students to opt out of speaking in class, as long as they submitted a written statement at the end of the period. This technique presents several shortfalls. First of all, it allows extroverted students to simply speak - what they find easy - to prove they have learned information. Although introverts don’t speak as much, they still have gained an equal amount of knowledge as extroverts but are uncomfortable saying it verbally. Therefore, submitting a written statement is simply extra work for students who are introverted.
Since Susan Cain’s groundbreaking book Quiet, which offered a new view on the state of introversion, was published in 2012, experts and parents have weighed in on the topic. Some have drawn the conclusion that class participation is a racket, meant to allow loud, gregarious children their fifteen minutes of fame approximately every two minutes. However, I reject much of this position. While grading class participation has harmed my confidence, I still believe that the act of contributing to class discussion is helpful to learning. Because it offers students the opportunity to clarify any of their questions, express their opinion or understanding, or change other student’s minds, it is essential to the learning process. Grading participation, therefore, is meant to simply be a method of ensuring disengaged students contribute.
However, simply because introverts are quiet does not mean they are not paying attention or learning - in fact, it is quite the opposite. Therefore, it is essential to identify better ways to embrace introverts without causing them emotional distress.
Current educational methods are geared towards the success of extroverts, but experts like Susan Cain offer methods to change the way introverts are included in the classroom. In a recent NPR interview, Cain proposed striking balance between pushing introverts out of their comfort zone while also ensuring that they are not emotionally harmed. One way to employ this is to use a scale from one to ten, thereby allowing students to recognize when they are in a six to seven zone of discomfort and stopping whatever activity pushes them into a nine to ten zone. I believe this technique is essential for teachers to apply in cases where introverted children are really struggling. Another tool she suggests is the Think/Pair/Share activity, in which students are partnered and synthesize learning into a statement that can be shared orally with the class. She mentions that introverted students can use partnered discussion as a “warm up” for wider sharing.
The observations I have collected of my own learning point in an entirely different direction - towards a wider use of technology and classroom engagement. One of the most positive experiences I have in class is playing online jeopardy with my peers, encouraged by teacher supervision. Although these games may not be realistic for everyday use and can in no way substitute the speed and efficiency of speaking aloud, it nevertheless represents a valuable resource for teachers. It gauges learning and provides an opportunity for review. For introverts, it does not require speaking or presenting, while still giving them the opportunity to show their teachers how much they have learned.
Of all these suggestions, one thing unites them all - a dedication to the needs of introverts, and a way to make classrooms more democratic and compatible to different learners. One of the most essential parts of developing class participation techniques is remembering the unique qualities introverts have, and drawing these thinkers back into the learning process where they have been marginalized for far too long.
Emma Auer is a student at Falmouth High School. She produced this piece as part of the 2017 Raise Your Voice Workshop in Portland, sponsored by Maine Public and the Maine Writing Project.
Outmoded Waltz by Podington Bear is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License.