In which I review ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain

Between a third and half of us are introverts. While there is no one single definition of introversion, Cain opens her book by outlining some characteristics that most definitions have in common: introverts (compared to extroverts) prefer to work more slowly and deliberately, being more able to concentrate for extended periods of time; they tend to listen more than talk, and express themselves more clearly in writing than in conversation; when they do speak, their preference is for deeper discussions over small talk; they tend to have a smaller circle of closer friends rather than a wider circle of acquaintances [1].

Cain goes on to offer some suggestions for how teachers should adapt their practice in order to include introverts. ‘Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured,’ she writes; instead, ‘celebrate these kids for who they are’ [2]. Specific suggestions include:

  • Using a fair balance of “extrovert” (‘movement, stimulation, collaborative work’) and “introvert” (‘lectures, downtime, and independent project’) teaching strategies [3];
  • Make it easy for introverted students to participate in whole-class discussions, but don’t force them to participate (and don’t write on their reports that they need to participate more in whole-class activities) as this will cause increased apprehension and reduced self-esteem;
  • This is not to say that introversion is a kind of “get-out clause”. ‘Some collaborative work is fine for introverts, even beneficial,’ writes Cain. ‘But it should take place in small groups – pairs or threesomes – and be carefully structured so that each child knows her role’ [4];
  • Don’t make students with ‘single-minded enthusiasms for chemistry sets or parrot taxonomy or nineteenth-century art’ feel freakish. ‘They are the artists, engineers, and thinkers of tomorrow’ [5].

This might be easier said than done. One of the central arguments of Cain’s book is that “Western” educational and business culture is characterised by an extrovert ideal – what she terms ‘the New Groupthink’ – that ‘elevates teamwork above all else’ and ‘insists that creativity and intellectual achievement come from a gregarious place’ [6]. In the British educational context, this would accord with what Andrew Old identifies as “the OFSTED teaching style” (despite the Secretary of State for Education and the head of OFSTED’s joint protestations that there is no preferred teaching style) [7]. This ideal has its roots in the politically progressive educational theory ‘that students take ownership of their education when they learn from one another’; ironically, though, ‘it also trains kids to express themselves in the team culture of corporate America’ [8]. Cain goes on to consider research into this extrovert ideal, and asks what, if anything, extroverts can learn from introverts.

Since the first empirical study into group brainstorming, for example,

‘some forty years of research has reached the same startling conclusion. Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases: groups of nine generate fewer and poorer ideas compared to groups of six, which do worse than groups of four. The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” writes the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority’ [9].

This is not to say that group brainstorming is entirely without merit. ‘Participants in brainstorming sessions usually believe that their group performed much better than it actually did, which points to a valuable reason for their continued popularity – group brainstorming makes people feel attached. A worthy goal, so long as we understand that social glue, as opposed to creativity, it the principal benefit.’ [10] Later in the book, Cain offers the following alternative approach: ‘If it’s creativity you’re after,’ she writes, ‘ask your employees to solve problems alone before sharing their ideas. If you want the wisdom of the crowd, gather it electronically or in writing, and make sure people can’t see each other’s ideas until everyone’s had a chance to contribute’ [11]. As far as our classroom practice is concerned, this would accord with Martin Robinson’s strategy for ensuring focused group work by starting with solo work, moving through paired work and building slowly into working in groups of four, then eight, then sixteen, before reaching the whole class level. ‘Each time, if any stage didn’t work, we’d go back to solo and rebuild’ [12].

Regarding the nature of solo work, Cain discusses the research of K. Anders Ericsson into “Deliberate Practice” in fields as diverse as medicine, music, chess and sports (including team sports). One study, at a music academy in Berlin, found that the very best violinists (i.e. potential future international soloists) spent an average of 24.3 hours per week – almost half of their self-reported total weekly practice time – engaged in individual practice, compared to 9.3 hours per week out of the same total for those training to be music teachers.

‘In many fields, Ericsson told me, it’s only when you’re alone that you can engage in Deliberate Practice, which he has identified as the key to exceptional achievement. When you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly. Practice sessions that fall short of this standard are not only less useful – they’re counterproductive. They reinforce existing cognitive mechanisms instead of improving them’ [13].

There are three main disadvantages to group work: social loafing (not everyone contributes to the group equally), production blocking (only one member of the group can contribute at any one time, forcing the rest into temporary passivity) and evaluation apprehension (in other words, the fear of your contribution being ridiculed by the rest of the group). Deliberate Practice, meanwhile,

‘is best conducted alone for several reasons. It takes intense concentration, and other people can be distracting. It requires deep motivation, often self-generated. But most important, it involves working on the task that’s most challenging to you personally. Only when you’re alone, Ericsson told me, can you “go directly to the part that’s challenging to you. If you want to improve what you’re doing, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class – you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time”’ [14].

The overall message of Quiet is not that we should avoid collaboration altogether, however, but that we should refine how collaboration takes place. After all, those elite violinists did spend slightly more than half of their time practising in a group situation. ‘Our schools should teach children the skills to work with others – cooperative learning can be effective when practiced well and in moderation – but also the time and training they need to deliberately practice on their own,’ says Cain [15]. One way of achieving this balance might be found in the feedback cycle of ‘upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly’ that is quite explicitly central to Deliberate Practice. Following Robinson’s strategy discussed above, solo work could be combined into the product of paired work, which could then be combined into the product of a group of four, and so on. Alternatively, solo work could be offered to a partner for feedback, whereupon students return to Deliberate Practice to redraft their work. Either way, for Steve Wozniak (the co-founder of Apple, but reminiscing about his days working for Hewlett-Packard), effective collaboration meant ‘the ability to share a donut and a brainwave with his laid-back, non-judgemental poorly-dressed colleagues – who minded not a whit when he disappeared into his cubicle to get the real work done’ [16].

Notes

[1] S. Cain (2012) Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking (London, Penguin Books)

[2] Cain (2012) p.255

[3] Cain (2012) p.255

[4] Cain (2012) p.255-256

[5] Cain (2012) p.265

[6] Cain (2012) p.75

[7] A. Old (2013) ‘The OFSTED Teaching Style’, http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2013/05/20/the-ofsted-teaching-style/ (post dated 20 May 2013; site accessed 22 September 2013)

[8] Cain (2012) p.77

[9] Cain (2012) p.88-89

[10] Cain (2012) p.89

[11] Cain (2012) p.266

[12] M. Robinson (2013) ‘From the Me to the We: Making Group-Work Work!’, http://martinrobborobinson.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/from-the-me-to-the-we-making-group-work-work/ (post dated 20 September 2013; site accessed 22 September 2013)

[13] Cain (2012) p.81

[14] Cain (2012) p.81

[15] Cain (2012) p.94

[16] Cain (2012) p.94

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About carljphillips

Geography teacher. PhD in cultural/historical geography (Nott'm., 2006). SF/F genre fiction fan. Liverpool FC supporter. Libertarian. Humanist. Etc. I blog about the theory and practice of Geography teaching, and teaching in general.
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4 Responses to In which I review ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain

  1. I’m currently reading this book and let me say, I love it! Can’t wait till I’m finished, to write a review also. Good post, by the way

  2. Thank you for linking to my blog, ‘Quiet’ is certainly a book I had in mind when I wrote it.

    • carljphillips says:

      You’re welcome! I thought I could detect the influence of ‘Quiet’ when I read your blog…

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