One-third to one-half of our society is introverted, says Susan Cain.
Cain, a self-professed introvert, stepped out of her comfort zone last year to deliver a TED Talks speech on the power of solitude. She noted that America today is designed for extroverts. Our offices and schools reward the outspoken "people-person" more than the self-reflective soul.
"Nowadays, our typical classroom has pods of desks -- four or five or six or seven kids all facing each other," Cain says in her speech. "And kids are working on countless group assignments. Even in subjects like math and creative writing, which you think would depend on solo flights of thought, kids are now expected to act as committee members."
She just described my classroom. At the beginning of this school year, I broke from tradition and placed desks in groups of four to inspire the kinds of conversations that are all the rage in educational circles and to become more "guide on the side" than "sage on the stage."
For the most part, I've been happy with the results, although students are chattier at inopportune times, as is to be expected when they face one another. Just last week, after reading an article about the power of collaboration, I instituted two minutes of "talk time" before each day's journal writing. That, too, seems to work.
What I hadn't considered is that my new floor plan and emphasis on collaboration puts introverted students at a disadvantage. Now I must rethink an environment friendly both to those who thrive on interaction and stimulation and those who thrive on solitude.
It's an odd place for me to be, philosophically. Most of my life, I have considered myself introverted, more comfortable at home among books than out in public, awkwardly holding up my end of a conversation. It's only in later adult life that I've become more of an "ambivert," at home in both realms.
I credit the change with life experience. For 10 years I worked in outside sales, which forced me from the cocooning comfort of my car and into businesses, where I had to make presentations and be persuasive if I expected to make any money. (An April article in Forbes cites research indicating that ambivert salespeople sell 24 and 32 percent more than introverts and extroverts, respectively, so there you go.)
My teaching career also has helped. While I am always more at home creating lesson plans than delivering them, I find joy from a fresh crop of students each year, knowing I can recycle shopworn puns with impunity for a new audience. (Why is the book blushing? Because it's been read.)
Of course, writing is perfect ambivert training, as well. I write in seclusion, with only my dog to keep me company, but those private thoughts are published for an audience whose reactions range from indifference to annoyance.
Cain's point is that we marginalize introversion at society's peril. The greatest advances and insights in fields as diverse as religion and technology come from people who separate themselves from the herd to have breakthroughs that they then bring back to the rest of us to nurture, develop, implement or -- if nothing else -- appreciate.
Her talk, which I highly recommend (search "Susan Cain" and "The Power of Introverts" online) is a reminder that we need not always follow demagogues whose powers of persuasion are superior to the value of their ideas. The 20th century "Cult of Personality" (of which the band Living Colour once sang) must give way to a world where both introverts and extroverts can comfortably contribute and be valued.
At the very least, it means those student desks must go back into rows, at least part of the time.
Chris Schillig is an Alliance area educator and journalist. Contact him at email@example.com or cschillig on Twitter.