The word “quiet” feels like a comfort and a curse for many shy and introverted children. Quiet can mean peace, a feeling of belonging and natural being; it can also feel like a weapon, used against them by others, a distinctly negative thing. This was my experience as a child, always feeling like the way I was somehow meant I was flawed and less-than. I spent years yearning to be loud, to be able to speak constantly and freely with ease. I saw how my teachers favored the talkative students, shushing them but never identifying their extraversion as a flaw. My own quietness was something to be gotten over, a problem to be solved. As I got older, I did get over it, to a degree; I can turn it on and off now, like a light switch. But I’ve begun to wonder: Was this right? Were my teachers right to push me into conversation, at the expense of my comfort in my identity? This is what I seek to examine in this article: How do quiet students experience the classroom differently than their peers, and how can they flourish in the classroom during an era that looks down upon their quietness? The answer may lie not in the changing of the student, but in the changing of the structures and expectations around them in order to support their learning style and the traits they bring to the classroom.

Some conflict seems to have arisen over what expectations should be placed on students and teachers for how learning takes place. On one hand, it may seem that too great an emphasis is placed on quiet activities that can be done independently, like literacy and writing skills, and not enough importance is given to social skills that will serve students better later in life. On the other hand, it could be said that too much emphasis on socializing and speaking skills allows naturally outgoing students to skate by without gaining a sufficient understanding of curriculum.

In order to understand this conflict, it’s important to understand how the expectations for learning in schools have changed over time. The ideal child for the early part of the 20th century and before was quiet, did not speak until spoken to, and was expected to learn discipline in school. The profile for the ideal quiet child was a precursor for the profile of an ideal adult, who was law-abiding and productive in the workforce; a good work ethic and a certain level of humility got a person ahead in life, and so children were instructed according to what their teachers thought would give them these qualities. As the 20th century went on, however, the profile of an ideal adult changed. An article from 1983, “Introverts and Extraverts Require Different Learning Environments” by Ronald R. Schmeck and Dan Lockhart, provides an example of what education scholars were thinking during this transitional period. The article discusses the different styles of teaching that tend to benefit introverts and extraverts, ultimately concluding that “perhaps the greatest danger lies in failing to provide a favorable environment for the extraverted student.” At this point, the classroom still retained a quiet ideal. The authors assert that people tend to become more introverted as they age, and so teachers will always be more introverted than their students and therefore may not be as sensitive to the needs of extraverted students.

Following the progression of the ideal adult into the later 20th century, it became advantageous to be personable, well-spoken, likeable, and effervescently social. As Susan Cain writes in her book Quiet, the shift from a primarily agricultural society to a primarily urban and business-oriented one meant that a good personality and getting to know the right people could lift a person up socially and financially. Naturally, the culture in schools changed to reflect this, and so outgoing children were applauded for their speaking abilities and social fluency. This even has implications for how teachers perceive their students’ intelligence. In a 2011 study, researchers from Carleton University and Brock University found that, when given a hypothetical scenario with both “exuberant/talkative” children and “shy/quiet” children, elementary school teachers tended to believe that “shy/quiet children were less intelligent and would do more poorly academically than would exuberant/talkative children” (Coplan, et al., 2011).  These teachers were concerned for the hypothetical shy/quiet students, and the findings of the study indicated that teachers do not give shy/quiet children any less attention than they do the exuberant/talkative students, but the authors express concern that “not all of the attention they may be receiving is necessarily beneficial.”

Despite discomfort that shy or introverted children may face, it is generally agreed upon that talking and conversation are beneficial for learning in the classroom. In her article “Banishing the Quiet Classroom” (2006), researcher Christine Harrison makes a case for why talk in the classroom greatly enhances learning; she asserts that “oracy has a greater role to play than literacy in fostering and establishing learning.” Harrison points out that conversation between students in the classroom helps them to engage with the material they are learning, allowing them to establish “common meaning.” Additionally, she holds that dialogue between students can serve to improve overall understanding of the material by providing the students with different perspectives and opportunities to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. This view on the importance of classroom conversation is supported by many educators, such as Paula Johnson, M.A. (Johnson, 2016). In her focus on oracy in the classroom, however, Harrison fails to acknowledge how the temperaments and personalities of different students can affect how easily they are able to engage in conversation. By prioritizing conversation in the classroom above anything else, a teacher would be putting less-outgoing students at a disadvantage by forcing them to learn in a way that is unnatural to them. It’s also important to recognize that talk is not the only way students process information, and that it is not the only way they communicate. Quiet students who are introverts often learn better when given time to reflect on material and may not be able to easily vocalize their understanding, even though it’s at the same level as a talkative student’s who can. In their article “Quiet Students’ Experiences with the Physical, Pedagogical, and Psychosocial Aspects of the Classroom Environment”, Anne Medaille and Janet Usinger from the University of Nevada discuss the findings of a study they did on ten self-described college students. In a series of in-depth interviews, the researchers found that “expectations for speaking aloud were a source of tension and unease for many participants.” The students often seemed to prefer remaining silent, even if they knew the correct answer to a question. Six of the students felt that their instructors viewed quiet students negatively, and seven students felt that instructors created classroom environments that favored talkative students in discussion contexts.

The expectations of a teacher are important for learning outcomes in different kinds of students. If a teacher maintains a talking ideal for all students, “the absence of talk [in quiet students] …often leads a teacher to assume the absence of learning” (Rosheim, 2018). In fact, even the expectation from a teacher that a quiet student will do worse on schoolwork can affect the quality of instruction the teacher gives to that student. This effect is especially prevalent for teachers who view conversation as fundamental to their teaching philosophy, as “teachers who value social interaction and discussion may do so at the expense of students who learn best through quiet, solitude, and order” (Medaille and Usinger, 2019). Students can perceive whether their teacher believes in their abilities; if it is clear the teacher has low expectations for a quiet student, that student will internalize that attitude and it will negatively affect their self-esteem. This places those students at a distinct disadvantage, as students with high self-esteem tend to perform better academically (Ciorbea and Pasarica, 2012), and are better able to “establish good relationships with others in terms of communication.” The question needs to be asked, then: How can the divide between the needs of quiet students and the current operation of the classroom be bridged?

First, the student must be met where they are at, rather than be expected to change for the sake of their teachers or their environment. There are many reasons a student may be quiet in the classroom, including an introverted nature, shyness, a feeling of disconnect from their peers, cultural reasons, and many more; it is not for the teacher to “correct” this, but rather to help the student learn in way that best suits them. Quiet students learn differently than their outgoing peers, often needing quiet time to reflect on material in order to fully understand it and are usually uncomfortable with immediate-response situations. It can be extremely discouraging for a quiet learner to be expected to participate in large group discussions. This discomfort will keep the student from speaking, even though they know they are supposed to, which makes the student feel inadequate compared to their outspoken peers. Teachers have the power to shift the learning environment to accommodate and engage quiet learners so that they get as much out of school as their peers do. Ann Medaille and Janet Usinger (2019) suggest a variety of strategies for engaging quiet students in the classroom; they recommend that instructors “consider other forms of class participation than speaking aloud”, “have students share their thoughts through written responses”, and “use technologies to encourage and redefine what it means to participate in classes” among other things. Through strategies like these, quiet students are given an equal opportunity to express their understanding to their teachers without being forced to change their natural learning style.

Second, a broader cultural shift needs to occur for quiet students to truly be accepted as no less capable than their outgoing peers. Though American society continues to reward personable, outgoing people, the classroom has the potential to be a birthplace for change. If quiet children grow up with the assurance that their quietness does not diminish their value or capability, they will become quiet adults who can utilize their unique attributes rather than suppressing them. Susan Cain expresses this idea in Quiet, calling the unique characteristics that many introverts have “soft power” (pg. 181). Existing naturally in quietness often allows a person to focus better, study a subject for hours on end, or become more in-tune with the thought and feelings of those around them. Teachers can recognize these abilities and encourage them in the classroom, ultimately benefitting all students by allowing a wide range of contributions to come together to create the best possible learning environment.

Many quiet students experience difficulty in the classroom; as I learned in my personal experience, it’s easy for to feel inadequate when things like conversation and verbal participation–skills that don’t come naturally to quiet students–are emphasized above all else. It can be disheartening for these students when their peers ask them why they never talk, or when their teacher passes over them in favor of more outgoing students. Fortunately, there are strategies that instructors can employ to engage quiet students and give them a more equitable learning experience. Involving written responses, allowing time for reflection, and offering small-group conversation options among other things can help teachers to support the learning processes of quiet students. This kind of support is essential for creating the best learning environment for these students, but it is also necessary for supporting their sense of self: being quiet is not a flaw, after all, but perhaps is even a strength.

Ella Steen

Ella is a freshman at Gordon, majoring in Linguistics. She is from the Twin Cities area in Minnesota. Ella enjoys reading, writing, watching movies, and learning about linguistics. She is very excited to be writing for the Princemere this year, and hopes Gordon students will enjoy what the journal has to offer!