An interesting discussion happened on my FB feed, sparked by an article that urges teachers to find alternatives for students who are struggling with in-class participation. There were some great comments in the feed itself, but even more interesting were the discussions I had with people in private. Some people stated the need for changing environments even more radically to suit introverted students. Some bemoaned the need to do group work in addition to participating in class (and, in fact, found that more aggravating). Some, however, argued that participation/group work is an important skill that prepares students for real life. One friend (we’ll call him Bjorn because I secretly pretend all of my friends are Vikings) even went as far as to say that introversion is a disability, and so it is important to teach students how to “get over” it.
Our conversation with Bjorn turned out to be a case of mistaken terms and general confusion, but it also revealed how important this topic is to a lot of people (so be prepared for more posts on this).
I feel the need to clarify a few things before considering the actual article and what I gathered from this discussion in relevance to my teaching.
The Confusion of Terms: Introversion, Extraversion and Social Anxiety
First of all, and most importantly, it is necessary to separate the terms introverts, extraverts and social anxiety. Introversion and extraversion were terms first coined by Carl Jung, and they are characterized primarily by a change in attention (focus). Introverts focus more on 'inner events' - the mindspace; extraverts focus more on outward events -- the worldspace, so to speak. According to Jung, all of us are a mix of introversion and extraversion. As such, introversion-extraversion is a spectrum, with some individuals falling to the extremes fairy squarely, others occupying a more neutral ground. In current usage, a bunch of traits have also come to be associated with introverts vs. extraverts: introverts are perceived as being more solitary, reserved, thoughtful. Extraverts are perceived as being more outgoing, talkative, and social. One explanation of this distinction is the idea of exchange of energy: that introverts give energy in social circumstances and "recharge" by doing solitary activities, while extraverts give energy in solitary pursuits and "recharge" socially. Psychology seems to point to introversion and extraversion being an inborn tendency, rather than an acquired trait. I know some very clear self-identified introverts, some very clear self-identified extraverts, and a bunch of folks who are sort-of, kind-of. In personality tests I tend to fall somewhere in the middle, closer to one side or another depending on the test. I have trouble gauging where I fall myself (and this probably means that I don't fall to either extreme), and part of the reason for that is the third term in this exploration: social anxiety.
Social anxiety is an animal as different from introversion and extraversion as fleas are to cats and dogs (with similar delightful connotations). While most kids experience some sort of stranger anxiety as part of their normal development, social anxiety is not an inborn trait or a normal developmental milestone (and neither are fleas). It is acquired through a mechanism that is complex and differing from individual to individual. It seems to be a combination of genetics, early childhood experiences, natural sensitivities and experiential framing (how an experience is interpreted by the individual). Social anxiety causes numerous issues for people: your classic sweaty palms, public-speaking-is-scarier-than-death, feelings of being judged, avoidance of social situations, withdrawal, the overarching ‘shyness’, etc. I’ve had social anxiety for years, and I am still working out my true personality hidden behind the intense fear of “other people seeing me” and the personas I created to circumvent this.
Take away: It is absolutely possible to be a non-socially anxious introvert, a socially anxious introvert, a non-socially anxious extravert or a socially anxious extravert.
Social anxiety is often mistaken for introversion, and introversion for social anxiety. This is important.
(If you want to read more, here is an interesting article in the Quiet Revolution that discusses the difference, as well as how it manifests differently in two different introverts).
Social anxiety can be a big problem; and can be fixed. Introversion is not a problem and doesn’t need fixing; we often create social anxiety in an introvert by trying to ‘fix’ them to fit into an extraverted world.
So, a number of people I spoke to discussed how they had to get over their fear of public speaking, or presenting, etc, and used the terms ‘introversion’ and ‘shyness’ interchangeably.
The issues that Bjorn and another friend, Hilda, described as being problematic were actually the symptoms of social anxiety, rather than introversion. They were the same symptoms I, the very-possibly-extravert, experienced on a daily basis for years (and still experience today). The exhaustion that leaves you unable to speak to anyone after a day of public interaction. The shaking hands, the almost-fainting, the words getting choked in the throat. All of this. I know all of this. Is this an essential trait of being an introvert? No.
I know quite a few introverts, and among them some on the very edge of the introverted spectrum – and most of them seem quite happy with themselves. They are not happy with a society that downplays their contributions and constantly tries to “fix” them. And those who suffer from it are not happy with their social anxiety. But introverts themselves are terrific. I’ve witnessed the intensity, passion and dedication they bring to their projects. I’ve had intense, deep, hours-long conversations with them about dark matter, other worlds and other spaces. I love being in the same spaces as my intensely introverted friends. Writing side by side for hours while drinking endless tonic water. Working in separate rooms on separate projects, with the general companionship of shared house. I have seen them absolutely happy in their element, including in groups of good friends, including very extraverted work environments (Freya, one of my favorite teaching colleagues, is a brilliant teacher – and an introvert). I do not want them fixed. They don’t want to be fixed.
Social anxiety is a whole other animal. I am not happy with my social anxiety, ever. It does lead to problems for me, and it seems, for many others. So I do wish I could fix it. I do wish I could help others fix it. I can talk about all the ways I found to help manage mine. Now, whether I am equipped as a teacher to fix it is another story (short answer: No, not really.)
But I digress. The problem is that trying to ‘fix’ introverts leads many of perfectly fine kids to develop social anxiety. (Fixing things that don’t require fixing in general leads to issues - remember how we used to try to “fix” left-handed people?)
The cycle can be pretty simple.
In a world where extravertedness is praised and valued, introverted traits are seen as less desireable, and this is emphasized from early childhood (with kids who prefer their own company or the company of one or two friends described as 'loners' or 'aloof').
Teachers, parents, well-meaning or not so well-meaning adults try to get the child to be more extraverted, and “play with others”, “go to parties”, “work in a group”, etc etc. The child may not want to, but may feel like they SHOULD want to, since this is what the caretakers are emphasizing as desireable. In fact, they are told that if they don't master this skill, they will not thrive in the world.
This convinces the child that something is “wrong with them”, and he or she begins to perceive social situations as being dangerous by virtue of a) reminding them that something is wrong with them; b) putting them in a context where other people are likely to discover that something is wrong with them and c) judge them for their wrongness.
If where you fall on the spectrum is indeed an inborn trait, it’s not like the kid can switch it on or off. If the theory of energy exchange is right, it's not like they can learn to recharge differently (try learning how to get vitamin A from chewing rubber). And thus, social anxiety marches in, and can persist for years, becoming an automatic physical response rather than a conscious thought process.
Of course, this is not the only way social anxiety can come about. But it strikes me as a very plausible scenario.
What does this mean for us as a society? I’ll need to think some more on this.
But consider this: unlike previously reported data, recent studies show that there are about an equal number of extraverts and introverts, and the way extraverted traits are emphasized, half of the student population is at a potential risk for developing social anxiety. Is it any wonder that public speaking still ranks as a number one phobia in the U.S.? And is it really beneficial to us to continue maintaining a society that is so geared towards extreme extraverts?
I’m going to look at what this means for me as a teacher (and what it might mean for the ideal education system that exists in my head) after I do some more thinking and research.
Please tell me what you think -- especially if you think I'm totally off base with any of this!