IntrovELT: Is CLT fair to introverts? or Why it’s OK to stay in one’s shell

I’ve noticed lately, whether as a student in a group or when observing others’ classes, I often seem to feel myself crying out internally, “just shut up and let me THINK!  can’t we get a minute’s peace, for the love of Headway?!!”

Introvertle

by @harrisonmike for #eltpics

Reading it back, that sounds a rather odd or else rather obnoxious way to start a blog post, so let me explain.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been aware that this scenario doesn’t seem to bother everyone else as much as it does me.  Not everybody seems to prefer silence or solitude the way I do, a preference that doesn’t stop when I come into a classroom.  And I’ve wondered if there wasn’t an explanation for why I react so strongly against the constant pairing, grouping, and–dare I say–speaking in the classrooms I spend much of my time in.

Then in March last year, I came across this article on the BBC website.  Many of the ideas in it really resonated with me.  I felt I’d hit on the explanation I’d been searching for: I’m just quite an introverted person.  This has never bothered me, and I’ve never felt the need to label myself as such, but the fact that I’d noticed similar reactions from some students I’d taught or observed over the years made me reflect that there are surely others in this industry who at times feel beleaguered, bewildered, even bemused by the communicative (read: extravert) nature of ELT today.

Or, to borrow a plea from the end of a terrific TED talk by Susan Cain (a self-reported introvert):

“Stop the madness for constant groupwork!”

This affinity I’ve noticed with some of the students, trainees and other teachers that I’ve met in the course of my job has led me to mull over the issue of extraversion/introversion in ELT a lot over the past few months.  And as it’s been so long since I blogged anything, it seemed like an interesting note to start 2013 on.

So first, some background.

Whereas a more extravert person may thrive in the company of others, energised by social stimulation and bored or unhappy when alone, those of us who are more introverted can find common social situations involving lots of other people and constant external demands on our attention very draining, even irritating.

As an introvert myself, I’m very conscious of the need for time and space on my own to calmly reflect and introspect.  Too much commotion around me and I just want to go sit somewhere on my own for a bit and clear my head, meaning no offense to anyone else.  But as a teacher and teacher trainer, I’m also increasingly conscious of how little room there is for this sort of work in the communicative classroom.  And for quite some time now, I’ve been wondering if we don’t do some of our learners a disadvantage in always expecting them to participate energetically, or at least audibly, in our classroom tasks, and being openly disappointed when they don’t.

Let me justify that with a few examples, drawn from my own experience but hopefully familiar to others.  Consider:

  • the teacher who comes and flops down resignedly in a chair in the staffroom after her lesson, lamenting the fact that her student(s), though apparently very nice, “just won’t talk”.
  • the abundance of ELT materials that emphasise groupwork, pairwork, discussion, and so on.
  • the teacher training courses and guides that insist on maximising STT (student talking time) at every opportunity and generally regard time spent listening to the teacher or working independently as inferior to student-student [spoken] interaction.
  • the many teachers I’ve met and/or observed who are uncomfortable with silence in their classroom (and who often willingly acknowledge this), feeling that the time drags, and/or concluding that the students must be bored or that quiet, individual work surely isn’t as effective for language learning as vocal, verbalised, visible communication.

And now let’s consider some other incidents or soundbites, things I’ve certainly heard or noticed more than occasionally, and maybe you have too:

  • the student who mutters “what, again?” when instructed to work in pairs.
  • the student who is quite capable of talking but prefers to take a backseat in groups of three or more students (sometimes to the annoyance of his/her peers, whom I would speculate don’t understand that he/she just wants to listen and participate quietly, and isn’t being lazy, unsociable or deliberately unhelpful).
  • the student who never offers an answer to questions the teacher poses to the whole class, despite the teacher’s certainty that he/she knows the answer (if there’s a right one) or would have something interesting to offer (if it’s an open question).

I’m not saying these students are necessarily introverts, or that it’s ever as black-and-white as saying ‘that one’s an extravert’ and ‘that one’s an introvert’ – these terms are ends of a continuum, not opposing sides of a coin.  But I think it’s worth considering as teachers what time we dedicate in class to student-student interaction and what time we allow for individual work, and that just because we allow more of the latter than we might have been initially trained to do doesn’t made us ‘bad teachers’ from a CLT perspective.

And in any case, I can’t speak for all students out there, and I can’t speak for all introverts.  I can only speak for myself.  But let me offer some tips and ideas from my own past experience as a language student and teacher trainee:

  • Just because someone rarely joins in group discussion doesn’t mean they aren’t paying attention, aren’t learning from it, aren’t interested, or don’t have anything to say.  It could mean one or more of these things, but not necessarily.  Some people just prefer to listen, or think things through before they speak.  There’s no reason why this preference would change when they’re in an L2 environment.
  • Some people take language courses in groups because they want input from a teacher and can’t afford 1-2-1 tuition, so don’t have much of an alternative.  This doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy interacting with others or won’t enjoy the lessons.  But they might feel that exchanging the preference for solitude or just one or two others’ company for access to a teacher and a classroom is a hard compromise to make.
  • Not everybody wants to do mingles, have debates or play games in class.  I’ll come back to this last one in another blog post, but suffice it to say here that this doesn’t mean they don’t see the learning value in such activities, merely that they often require them to offer personal opinions up to a group of people they don’t feel they know that well, or to socialise in a way they wouldn’t normally (though ironically, this is probably exactly what the teacher was intending – ‘real-life’ communication in the classroom, etc.).

In a nutshell, if we have students who are introverts, maybe the things we’re accustomed to encouraging in the CLT paradigm aren’t the most conducive to their learning–on the contrary, they may be discomforting and demotivating.

Don’t get me wrong–I don’t mean to imply that my own classroom is some kind of language learning paradise, that while my students and I are enjoying a blissful, meditative utopia, others in the classroom next door are enduring some hellish nightmare of mingles and board races.

Nor do I intend to suggest that most or any classrooms, for that matter, must be chock full of closet introverts mutely suffering and struggling against their over-excited teachers’ onslaught of communicative activities.

But I do think if those of us who really, genuinely believe in the power of reflection and introspection for learning and development in any skill area (just look at all the self-styled ‘reflective’ bloggers out there!), then we should apply the same principles in our classroom.  This means at the very least allowing more time and space for independent work and not, inadvertently or otherwise, stigmatising the quiet, unassuming students who may not always seem thrilled to find themselves in a ‘communicative’ classroom.

As Susan Cain pointed out in her TED talk, quiet, independent, reflective, introspective time is where some great learning, self-awareness and creativity can blossom.  And who among us couldn’t do with a bit more of that?

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About Laura Patsko

Senior ELT Research Manager for a major publisher. Alter egos: English language teacher, language learner, teacher trainer, linguist. Not necessarily in that order.

13 comments

  1. Thanks for posting about this topic. The concept of constant group work seems so much part of the DNA of our that it’s hardly questioned. Part of the problem, I think, is the fact that usually in a classroom setting the group work is imposed on the learners, so it just doesn’t feel natural.
    Susan Cain’s TED talk also inspired me to write a blogpost about the issue a few months ago. Maybe you want to check it out: http://mrschenk.wordpress.com/2012/03/30/more-wilderness-teaching-introverted-students/
    Cheers,
    Christian

  2. Hi Christian, thanks for your comments! I just read and enjoyed your post, too. I liked the idea of your sort of ‘quiet dogme’ lesson and might try something similar – when the weather’s a bit warmer! 🙂

  3. Hi Laura –
    Thanks for thinking and writing about this – and great to know how inspiring Susan Cain turns out to be!
    Two things that came to my mind immediately after reading this:
    1. We came across this issue in one of the #ELTChats on Learner-centred activities – you can read the summary here: http://bit.ly/MpySFh – granted, not too many answers, but lots of good questions to start with!
    2. You should talk to Liesbeth next: http://on.fb.me/16rAWSY – someone I met and admire for her work with learning introverts and coaching people who teach them.
    Big thank you again. I’ve had it up to here with people who think introverts should just “stop being like that.”
    WK

  4. Hi Wiktor, thanks for visiting and for sharing those links. I’ll be sure to check them out!

  5. Hi Laura,
    I’ve just come back to your post as something I want to reference in my Delta LSA4 🙂 and I wondered if you have another post up your sleeve with activities that introverts might prefer. I’ve got a student at the moment who doesn’t like mingles, and I’m not really sure how to help her, being the natural extrovert that I am!
    Thanks,
    Sandy

    • Hi Sandy,
      I’m flattered to have made it into your LSA4! 🙂 At the moment I don’t have specific activity ideas I’m afraid, but it is something I’ve been thinking about. I was considering making an action research project out of it, but that won’t be until June at least… maybe too late for your LSA4. I’ll keep you posted, though!
      In the meantime, you could have a look at the link Christian (“Mr Schenk”) left above. I thought the lesson he describes there sounded really nice. It involves sharing, getting up and walking about, but… quieter. Check it out!
      Good to see you at IATEFL the other week,
      Laura 🙂

  6. Hello Laura,
    Only seven months late! I came across this post today, only. But it articulates something that has always worried me in the ‘teaching unplugged’ discussion. Don’t antic! I am not about to launch into an anti-dogme rant.
    However, dogme teaching (if such a thing exists!!) says that the best learning comes about through conversation-driven interaction. Dialogic interaction, in other words. My concern – or at least question – is whether such an approach to classroom behaviour privileges those with (if you believe in this kind of thing) interpersonal intelligence (aka extroverts? Though that is a different term altogether) and discriminates against those with a more interpersonal (aka introverted) bent.
    That seems to be the question this (old now!) blogpost raises.
    I have no answers!!
    Jeremy

    • Hi Jeremy, nice to see you here! For the record, I don’t count myself as being in the Dogme camp (or any other, for that matter), so feel free to rant if you wish! 🙂

      I suppose while introverts are inadvertently marginalised in most communicative-focused classrooms, perhaps the conversation-driven nature of ‘teaching unplugged’ does risk this even more. In fairness to that approach, though, I imagine language work could be PROMPTED by conversation without necessarily requiring more conversation itself (e.g. students talking about problems with their landlords might lead to individual written work on letters of complaint, or whatever).

      Like you, I have no answers! But sometime in the near future, I hope to play with this idea a bit more in my own classroom and post some practical ideas here for balancing the interaction patterns a bit and allowing for more individual work. A while ago, I tried out something similar to the ‘silent dogme’ lesson that Christian suggested in his comment above, and my students said they’d really enjoyed it (including the ones who were usually the most talkative!). So hopefully I can come up with some more ideas in that vein.

      Thanks for your thoughts!
      Laura

  7. Hi Laura, thank you for this post! I recently saw Susan Cain’s TED talk and started researching the topic as I recently found out that I’m more an introvert than an extrovert – contrary to what I believed my whole life. I saw this article on facebook the other day (Ken Wilson shared it): http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/3721431 – that’s what got me interested. And during my research I found your fantastic post – my thoughts exactly!
    I have similar feelings to you about groupwork and pairwork. “Shush! I want to think”, “In pairs again? I want to do it on my own…” – things going through my head on some trainings.

    I spoke to some teachers, asking about what they do if they see a student not wanting to work in groups or pairs. One of my friends said: “if I know it’s because they prefere working on their own, not just because they are lazy, I don’t make a fuss, I let them.”

    I wonder what else can be done to provide for needs of introverts in the ELT classrooms? What sort of activities? And advocates of coversation driven learning may say that our students learn the language to COMMUNICATE, so that’s the most effective way… Is it?

    • Hi Ela,

      Thanks for your comments! I’ve had so many positive responses to this post, it’s been quite surprising.

      I agree with your last point/question – and I’m going to be perhaps a little controversial here and say that I don’t necessarily think making students communicate all the time is the most effective way to get better at doing it. The link between doing something a lot and learning to do it better is not necessarily direct or simple. It’s not enough to just ‘talk’; communicating effectively (fluently?) in a language needs input, guidance and structure at certain moments, and I don’t see why that should necessarily be talk-focused either.

      For example, I’m fairly fluent in French now, but a few years ago, when I was struggling to really get to grips with the language, I found it extremely useful to just observe others’ conversation and follow it in my head, noting frequently used phrases, paying attention to differences in their pronunciation, watching their body language, etc. I may have looked like a passive observer, but none of those mental processes were passive, I assure you! I just felt like I needed some time to familiarise myself with a French-speaking environment before trying to take part in it myself. I still don’t feel wholly comfortable speaking French in fast-paced, informal, loud environments (e.g. parties!) but somehow or other, I’ve managed to be complimented many times on my contributions to these conversations. And that ability started with keeping my mouth SHUT, not joining in.

      I’ve been super-busy finishing my master’s until very recently, but now I have a bit more free time to think about other things, I’m hoping to get working on some more practical ideas for classroom work which complements introverted learners better – as I think I promised in this original post (!). So watch this space… 🙂

      Laura

  8. Pingback: IntrovELT: responding to images | Lauraahaha

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