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?!!”

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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