Turning Inward: The Plight of the Reggio Introvert

I’m not shy.  I love to talk, interact, discuss, argue, and have even been known to pontificate in some extreme situations.  My parents, my wife, my older brother, and probably almost every human being I have ever met would designate me as a person who thrives in a social context.  Interpersonal connection is an essential part of what makes my life dynamic, exciting, and fulfilling.

But as I get older, I have found that while I enjoy gatherings and parties, they leave me fatigued.  I deeply value quiet time, solitude, focused individual activity, and one-on-one interactions.  Which makes me, according to many researchers, an introvert.

At first, that seemed counter-intuitive to me.  How can a born-and-bred talker feel uncomfortable conversing with others?  Is there such a thing as a loquacious introvert?  Well, as it turns out, shyness and introversion have very little to do with one another.

Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist commonly regarded as the father of analytical psychology, first coined the two terms in Psychological Types, which was published posthumously in 1971.  According to his original use of the term, an introvert is somebody who tends to live life focused primarily on their inner, mental self.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, an extrovert is a person who tends to focus on interactions with the outside world.  Most modern psychologists use the terms in a more specific, demonstrable sense.  Generally, "introvert" and "extrovert" are used to classify the manner in which people recharge themselves; extroverts are revitalized by interactions with others, while introverts need solitary time to recuperate.

 Some young minds feed on social interaction and new experiences.  A New Leaf has no shortage of extroverted students; there are plenty of children who make an effort to take part in every activity and see every friend each and every day.  Conversely, some students choose to take their time focusing on a single project or area each and every morning.  One benefit of having the whole school start the day outside is that these two groups tend to coalesce, creating opportunities for introverts and extroverts to cultivate ambiverted activities.

Some young minds feed on social interaction and new experiences.  A New Leaf has no shortage of extroverted students; there are plenty of children who make an effort to take part in every activity and see every friend each and every day.  Conversely, some students choose to take their time focusing on a single project or area each and every morning.  One benefit of having the whole school start the day outside is that these two groups tend to coalesce, creating opportunities for introverts and extroverts to cultivate ambiverted activities.

In the West, leadership tends to be a quality designated as belonging to extroverts.  Their confidence and willingness to speak up in order to demonstrate personal knowledge makes them the most obvious choice for high-responsibility positions.  Over time, especially in the United States and the UK, many companies have become adept at coding corporate language to discourage introverts from participating.  Terms like “people person,” “go-getter,” and “self-starter” are so ubiquitous that, in certain professional spheres, it is hard to find a job listing that does not ask for at least one of the three.  While the population of the United States is comprised of 30-50% introverts, a huge percentage of professional work environments stress the importance of teamwork, brainstorming, and group strategy sessions, which are not always the most productive conditions for more introverted thinkers.  Some studies report that within smaller professional subsets, the percentage of introverts and extroverts become staggeringly one-sided.  90% of Intellectual property attorneys, for example, are self-reported as introverted.  Susan Cain does an outstanding job explaining this phenomenon in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in the World That Can’t Stop Talking.  I highly recommend giving it a read, or at least viewing her TEDTalk.

 Particularly for students with a multi-cultural background, verbal language can be prohibitively difficult.  This does not mean that they are introverted, only that they have yet to become comfortable enough in their environment to engage on their own terms.  There is nothing more difficult that feeling an emotion, whether positive or negative, and not being understood.  Instead, many choose to display learning preference through the materials they engage with throughout the day. For such students, teachers with cultural sensitivity training, are multi-lingual, have ESL experience, or come from diverse family backgrounds are invaluable assets.  Additionally, color, shape, structural design, and numbers are all languages that transcend culture, making them extremely effective bridges between students of diverse backgrounds.

Particularly for students with a multi-cultural background, verbal language can be prohibitively difficult.  This does not mean that they are introverted, only that they have yet to become comfortable enough in their environment to engage on their own terms.  There is nothing more difficult that feeling an emotion, whether positive or negative, and not being understood.  Instead, many choose to display learning preference through the materials they engage with throughout the day. For such students, teachers with cultural sensitivity training, are multi-lingual, have ESL experience, or come from diverse family backgrounds are invaluable assets.  Additionally, color, shape, structural design, and numbers are all languages that transcend culture, making them extremely effective bridges between students of diverse backgrounds.

Introversion is equally tricky to engage within the context of education. Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio Way, described an image of the child as “the protagonist” of their own learning journey.  But as educators, what do we do if instead of narrating their story aloud, our protagonists choose for their journey to take the form of a monologue, or even a soliloquy?  How exactly can we develop a conception of each and every child as a capable, powerful, responsible learner if verbal or social interactions are draining to them?  For early care and preschool, evaluating each student by verbally ascertaining what they know is inherently biased to extroverted students, isn’t it?  Later on, do more traditional schooling models which incorporate structures like participation grades discriminate against introverts?

Frankly, there aren't any easy answers.  As parents and educators, it is my personal opinion that two helpful concepts to keep in mind are as follows:

First, talking and communicating aren’t always the same thing.  Extroversion does not guarantee an affinity for being understood or expressive, it is only a categorization indicating that child tends to find joy or solace in group social interactions with peers, breadth of activity, or new experiences.  Likewise, introversion is just a term used to refer to children who tend to find joy or solace in one-on-one conversations with familiar people, depth of activity, and familiarity or routine.  Not all extroverts are eloquent in much the same way that not all introverts are shy.  As psychological categories used to group and better understand the way populations think and learn, the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” aren’t prescriptive tools used to determine the ability of certain people to participate in specific parts of society.  They are simply lenses through which individuals manifest the skills and knowledge they already have.

 Introverts tend to need time to contemplate not just what they are going to say, but how they are going to say it.  They rarely take action without a fully formed plan, and sometimes need to warm up to an activity before joining in, often by watching or studying the actions of participants.  While they are less likely to be the first to jump in, they are often uniquely suited to being conflict mediators, innovators, and instigators of new and exciting investigations.  As teachers, sometimes the key to helping an introverted student feel comfortable is to slow down and take a moment to relax and reflect.

Introverts tend to need time to contemplate not just what they are going to say, but how they are going to say it.  They rarely take action without a fully formed plan, and sometimes need to warm up to an activity before joining in, often by watching or studying the actions of participants.  While they are less likely to be the first to jump in, they are often uniquely suited to being conflict mediators, innovators, and instigators of new and exciting investigations.  As teachers, sometimes the key to helping an introverted student feel comfortable is to slow down and take a moment to relax and reflect.

Although it seems counter-intuitive, the world’s greatest communicators are an even split of extroverts and introverts.  In fact, some of the most successful companies and social movements in the United States are the byproducts of partnerships between one of each.  Stephen Gary Wozniak (introverted inventor of the original Apple technology) and Steven Jobs (extroverted entrepreneur and voice of the Apple corporation) are a classic example of cooperation between the two groups.

Second, cultivating a deep and trusting relationship with a child is the most effective way to understand them.  Words are just words, and while they work very well for children who feel they can openly communicate, they need to be treated as just one of many ways teachers and parents can connect with a formative mind.  Making an effort to understand children’s facial expressions, body language, emotions, family contexts, and self-soothing behaviors are just a few ways we can bridge the communicative gap with introverts.  Time, not verbal language, is the true currency of accurate assessment and curriculum development.  The longer the nurturing relationship between a teacher and a student, the stronger the bond of trust becomes, which engenders an atmosphere of comfort in which deeper and more meaningful learning can happen.

 While they sometimes manifest in differences of verbal ability, introversion and extroversion are not a predictive tool for language.  Specifically for very young students who are still building their verbal skills, it is essential for teachers to watch carefully.  Even if they don't say it, they can't help but express interest in the world around them.  Getting to know them, more specifically what excites them, can help encourage verbal expression and emotional development.  Whether paint, trucks, apples, or family members, every student is constantly doing their best to explain what they want to do, where they want to go, and who they want to interact with.

While they sometimes manifest in differences of verbal ability, introversion and extroversion are not a predictive tool for language.  Specifically for very young students who are still building their verbal skills, it is essential for teachers to watch carefully.  Even if they don't say it, they can't help but express interest in the world around them.  Getting to know them, more specifically what excites them, can help encourage verbal expression and emotional development.  Whether paint, trucks, apples, or family members, every student is constantly doing their best to explain what they want to do, where they want to go, and who they want to interact with.

Teachers in Finland, which has one of the most successful educational reform stories in the history of the world, are encouraged to develop curriculum based on the individual needs of their students.    On a national scale, Finland’s government is largely unconcerned with standardized testing and does not implement mandatory schooling until age seven.  Extremely small schools, extremely small class sizes, and fewer hours spent in the classroom create an learning environment in which teachers really know every student in their care.  Mandatory all-weather fifteen minutes recesses between each lesson, abundantly available private tutoring, and staff trained in cultural sensitivity help students of all abilities and ethnicities feel empowered to learn.  Lynnell Hancock discusses Finland’s educational philosophy much more in-depth in Smithsonian’s 2011 article titled “Why are Finland’s Schools Successful?”.

In other words, I believe it is essential that we strive to create an environment in which diverse learners feel comfortable, and more often than not that means shying away from a universal or comprehensive approach to early childhood education.  What works for one student doesn’t always work for all students.  To introverts and extroverts alike, listening is essential.  But teaching sometimes means watching and waiting for a moment to connect with students who aren’t interested in openly sharing what methods work for them.  In the words of Pasi Sahlberg, a member of Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture, “we prepare children to learn how to learn, not take tests.”  Proving to each and every student that we show up to work with open ears and open hearts is the first step to creating a learning community in which, when they are ready, every student feels they can propel themselves into a world of productive, internalized, self-guided, and ultimately powerful learning.

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Published on by Misha Davydov.