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The Rise of the Introvert

As I mentioned in my letter to parents earlier this week about our plans to reopen the school building after half term, there has been some interesting feedback in the last couple of weeks about how some of the children who are usually the quieter ones in school have been able to thrive during the period of remote learning.  The pattern will not be consistent or universal, but I have heard it enough times to believe that there is something going on. 

This has been reflected in some of the grades that will be published next week, which in places will reveal patterns of progress that are not the same as usual, with a significant number of pupils receiving the best ever grades of their school careers, while those who are usually able to shine in a group learning situation may be finding that the remote systems do not always play to their strengths. 

There is no need to get too excited.  We are not looking at a world turned upside down, when the first shall be last and the last shall be first, but we will need to give this further thought when the time comes to work out what happened and why.  While we may have established with some degree of certainty that schools are necessary as much, if not more, as social hubs as they are as pedagogical institutions, there are some interesting lessons to be learned about how we can shine the spotlight into different corners of the classrooms of the future.  

This development has usefully coincided with my reading of ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’ by Susan Cain, which I thought was a fascinating study of how our society has often become dominated by the loud and brash rather than allowing enough time and space for the quiet and self-deprecating. 

In the introduction, the author offers a twenty-question test to allow the reader to decide from the outset which camp they may be in.  Have a go yourself, if you don’t already know whether you are an introvert or an extrovert.  You need to count how many times you agree with the statement, but I do not think you have to be a rocket scientist to work out that the more times you do, the more of an introvert you are. 

  1. I prefer one-to-one conversations to group activities. 
  2. I often prefer to express myself in writing. 
  3. I enjoy solitude. 
  4. I seem to care less than my peers about wealth, fame and status. 
  5. I dislike small talk, but I enjoy talking in depth about topics that matter to me. 
  6. People tell me that I am a good listener. 
  7. I am not a big risk-taker. 
  8. I enjoy work that allows me to ‘dive in’ with few interruptions. 
  9. I like to celebrate birthdays on a small scale, with only one or two close friends or family members. 
  10. People describe me as ‘soft-spoken’ or ‘mellow’. 
  11. I prefer not to show or discuss my work with others until it is finished. 
  12. I dislike conflict. 
  13. I do my best work on my own. 
  14. I tend to think before I speak. 
  15. I feel drained after being out and about, even if I have enjoyed myself. 
  16. I often let calls go through to voicemail. 
  17. If I had to choose, I would prefer a weekend with absolutely nothing to do to one with too many things scheduled. 
  18. I do not enjoy multi-tasking. 
  19. I can concentrate easily. 
  20. In classroom situations, I prefer lectures to seminars. 

It may or may not surprise you to learn that I agreed with about sixteen or seventeen of the statements, as I knew I would before I started, because I am an introvert through and through.  Over the years I have found ways to force myself out of my shell, and I have managed to create an outward facing persona that I am pretty sure makes people think I am full of confidence, gregarious and extrovert.  But guess what?  It was all a bluff! 

Reading ‘Quiet’ was therefore one of those lovely experiences where you feel that someone actually understands you and how you tick.  As the American author Joseph Pine so eloquently put it: ‘The experience of being understood, versus interpreted, is so compelling you can charge admission.’ 

There are some lovely sections in ‘Quiet’, for example where Susan Cain pulls apart what she calls the ‘New Groupthink’, the trend in recent years to believe that the only way to make progress is through collaboration in open-plan offices, when she argues that such settings reduce productivity and impair memory because no one can work effectively with all the noise and interruptions that take place.  She even goes as far as to say that such workplaces make people ill, hostile, unmotivated and insecure. They are often subject to loud and uncontrollable noise, which raises heart rates, releases cortisol and makes people socially distant, quick to anger, aggressive and slow to help others. 

She does not stop there, going on to dismantle with aplomb the concept of multitasking.  It turns out that being interrupted is one of the biggest barriers to productivity, with scientists now knowing that the brain is incapable of paying attention to two things at the same time.  What looks like multitasking is really switching back and forth between multiple tasks, which reduces productivity and increases mistakes by up to fifty per cent.  Perhaps that is why Twitter has decided that it is absolutely fine for its staff to continue to work from home in the future. 

There is enough material in the book for several blogs and, I think, the foundation on which I can build a speech for the end of term Prize Giving, which we will find a way to do remotely while we are unable to gather as a group.  However, to return to where I started, how is this for an analysis of learning from Susan Cain?  ‘We tend to forget that there’s nothing sacrosanct about learning in large group classrooms, and that we organise pupils this way not because it’s the best way to learn but because it’s cost efficient, and what else would we do with our children while the grown-ups are at work?  The purpose of school should be to prepare children for the rest of their lives, but too often what children need to be prepared for is surviving the school day itself.’  Food for thought, indeed! 

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