Respecting Solitude and How Students Work

I finished Susan Cain’s Quiet this week and came away with several notes. Of course, my interest in this book on all things introverts was personal. I’m the introvert’s introvert. Yes, I stand in front of students and teachers every day. And I have given more in-person talks than I can remember, but I pay a price for that work.

I’m more comfortable at home. I curl up with a good book or build something in Minecraft. Both are more comfortable for me than being in front of people. I’m more expressive in my writing than I am while talking. I have time to collect my thoughts, and even now, I still worry about sounding like an idiot when I’m in front of people.

I’m much better in public now than when I was a kid, but I still have to put on my super-suit to make it through the day. And I often come home and collapse from the weight of being around people.

Reacting to the World

Turns out, there’s a reason why introverts like me respond to the world in the way we do. Cain presents research on people who have low- and high-reactive nervous systems. At first glance, you’d think that introverts are low-reactive and extroverts are high-reactive.

My friend, it’s the opposite. Introverts have high-reactive nervous systems. We have visceral reactions to the smallest events. Extroverts are extroverts because they’re looking for external stimulation. They need the excitement.

Introverts? We have plenty of excitement walking out the door in the morning, thank you very much. We don’t need anything else.

Now, put yourself in the place of one of your introverted students. How often do we do things in our schools that will throw this student’s nervous system into chaos?

I often think about why we do so many things in education the same way for every student. Yes, we provide interventions when students aren’t meeting achievement standards. But why do we make them sit in overfilled classrooms when we know some of them would rather be alone or in a small group?

We’re stifling great students by putting them in situations that wreck their world. And sometimes, we keep them from learning all they can.

Photo by Robynne Hu on Unsplash

Group Work isn’t Always the Right Choice

Teachers ask students to collaborate all the time. We’re trained that collaboration makes for great student experiences. And that “we’re better together than we are apart.” I’m the first to admit that I follow that motto when working with students and teachers. Many times we’re right to put folks in groups.

But sometimes we’re not.

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Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, Inc., created the first Apple computer alone. He worked early mornings and late evenings around his job at HP. No workgroup, team, or other souls to talk with about his ideas. But he created the computer that began a revolution.

Musicians, especially professional musicians, know what makes or breaks their careers. It’s not the time they spend practicing with their ensemble. It’s how much time they spend in solitary practice. Great musicians practice around 4 hours a day alone, then practice more with their group.

Students sometimes don’t want to work in groups because they don’t want to do the work. Sometimes, it’s because they know they work well alone.

Flexible Collaboration

What if we allowed students to collaborate as they see the need? How could we design our classrooms and schools to facilitate this option?

We can use tools like instant messaging or chat tools. These tools create spaces where students can share ideas as needed. Jason Fried from 37Signals tells his employees to practice “passive collaboration.” Don’t meet unless you have to do so.

As a matter of fact, Jason tells people to cancel meetings. If you attend the same meetings I do as an educator; you know this is a good idea.

Microsoft has offices that offer sliding doors and removable walls. When appropriate, people can chat with their peers on a project. But then, they have the control to retreat into solitude and work.

closeup photo of body of water in timelapse photo
Photo by Dave Hoefler on Unsplash

Getting Into a Flow

Cain speaks about the “flow state” that people enter when they can concentrate and work. I experience this myself often when I’m working. It isn’t easy to get there without planning to do so, but when I can, oh my.

For me, I put on my headphones and crank up a playlist of techno, lo-fi, or some other repetitive music. It’s always in the background but never in the front of my mind. Sometimes I’m like Tim Ferris, and I’ll repeat a movie or TV episode repeatedly.

When do we allow students to get into a flow state? Do we ever? Introverts love to get into this flow state of uninterrupted work. They hate distractions.

Yet, we break it up every 50-60 minutes of every school day. Imagine how frustrating this is for some of your students.

Finding Your Restorative Niche

Your restorative niche is the place you go to rebuild your strength. This holds true for introverts and extroverts alike; their restorative niches look different. It doesn’t have to be a physical place; it can be a mental state of being.

Regardless of what it looks like, our students have restorative niches they need to visit. Many times per day. Likely, you have a restorative niche yourself that you need to visit.

What Now?

I don’t have answers for what I’ve talked about, but I know that we need to be more aware of how we take care of our introverts. Because I’m one of them, I know how terrible my school experience was all those years ago.

Is there a place for collaboration and group work among students and teachers? Yes. Is there also a place for solitude and quiet focus? Yes, and yes.

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