Look into your own suitcase…

In a 2012 TED Talk Susan Cain highlights the extraordinary talents and specific abilities of introverted people.[i] Based on her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts, Cain argues that in a culture that prizes bold and outgoing extroverts, it can be challenging to be reserved and inwardly focused.[ii] She claims that one-third to one-half of the population is introverted, preferring solitary activities, and quiet reflection to group work and boisterous conversation. Here Cain is careful to assert that introversion is not simply shyness or a fear of social interaction but rather a way of relating to external stimuli. She provides a brief description of a historical shift from a culture of character to one of personality that in the 20th century has celebrated charismatic and gregarious leaders. Finally Cain concludes by asking the audience to do three things that will empower introverts: reduce the focus on “group” work, spend more time in the “wilderness” unplugging, and looking into our own suitcases, a metaphor she uses to deftly explain the ways in which both introverts and extroverts value their own innate gifts.


As an introvert myself, I found Cain’s perspective refreshing. I can appreciate the desire to retreat from classroom environments to read quietly and process concepts on my own. However, as much as I applaud Cain for raising awareness of the unique needs of introverts, extroverts, and ambiverts (those able to negotiate both preferences), I think it is really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of thoughtfully identifying the diversity actually present in most classrooms or learning communities. Educators must also consider learning styles, multiple intelligences, language skills (especially around English as a second language), educational backgrounds, and other factors that can impact student engagement.

While I appreciate Cain’s rallying cry to end the tyranny of group work and forced social interaction that can be so detrimental to introverts, I think it can be more nuanced. I believe that such collaborative work should stop all together (and neither does she), but I think it is a matter of providing students with more choice. Depending on the activity, it can be fruitful to allow students the autonomy to determine how they can work. As Elizabeth F. Barkley notes, “The need for self-determination works hand in hand with helping students build self-efficacy: they are more likely to believe they are capable of achieving a particular goal if they feel they are in control of the actions required for success.”[iii] Allowing students the independence to choose how they work in different instances serves two purposes. Primarily it gives both introverts and extroverts the ability to work in ways that serve them best, but I think it further allows them opportunities to periodically test their boundaries and challenge themselves when they feel comfortable in low-risk settings. Just as Cain consciously practices her public speaking, I would hope that I am able to foster an environment where introverted students can try their hand at “speaking dangerously.”

As an instructor I feel that it is my responsibility to strive to meet the diverse needs of students, introverted, extroverted or otherwise. Last semester I experimented with a flipped classroom model in which students were provided material (videos, texts, images, etc.) to review prior to our meeting, and then during class time groups of students rotated through three different stations. I feel that this format provides a great deal of flexibility for introverts and extroverts alike. Introverts were able to explore the material at their own pace, before coming to class and extroverts could if they choose to get together with others to view and discuss both before hand and during our session. Thinking ahead to next semester, Cain’s talk has also led me to reconsider what “participation” can look like for introverts versus extroverts. I have always provided different venues for students to contribute for example formal and informal class conversations but also online in a variety of different media. I was inspired by Cain’s talk and will work toward promoting an environment of privacy, freedom, and autonomy that will foster the kind of deep thought that will benefit all students, extroverts and introverts.

[i] Susan Cain, The Power of Introverts (February 2012) accessed 16 May 2015 http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts?language=en#t-57624
[ii] Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts (New York: Random House, 2013).
[iii] Elizabeth F. Barkley, Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010): 85.

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