introverts in schools, or why my seating charts take me so long to put together

Two posts in two days! (Pretty sure all my grading is done for the end of the quarter, haha. And if I missed something, well, quarter grades aren’t part of their GPA or transcript, so it’ll be ok.) Anyway- this is something that’s been on my mind for a while now.

The Atlantic had an article back in September about how schools are overlooking introverts. The argument is that the emphasis on groupwork and collaborative learning is detrimental for introverted learners, who often need quieter environments to process. And it made me wonder, because I’m a very strong introvert- on every Myers-Brigg personality test I’ve taken, I’m 99-100% introvert. (I wonder about confirmation bias here though- now that I know I’m an introvert, I know how to answer the “introvert/extrovert” questions so I always come up as an “I”.) But despite my introvertedness, I also believe very strongly in collaborative and student-centered learning, where students are talking to each other about the content to generate their own knowledge. (The author of the Atlantic article also acknowledges that overall, cooperative learning is a good thing and that several recent studies indicate that students engaged in cooperative learning tend to outpace students in lecture environments.)

So I’ve been thinking and wondering- am I neglecting my introverted students? I do try to encourage conversation and groupwork, but sometimes I let my students work more or less independently at their tables. I find myself torn about this also- am I doing them a disservice? Am I perpetuating issues of academic status in my classroom? Do students see the value of groupwork in the classroom? Do students see groupwork and the accompanying conversations as integral to the learning process? Students in my quiet groups do usually start talking to each other once they hit something they’re not sure about, and the conversations are often really awesome to overhear. It did take some prodding at the start of the year (“You guys should be talking to each other about this! It’s too quiet in here.”), but now they do it more or less naturally. Even as an introvert myself, I’ve found that groupwork can be really engaging and energizing (mostly) when I’m with people that I can feed ideas off of and who challenge my thinking. (I do still need that downtime at home to process everything, though.) The groups that I struggle with the most are the ones where it’s clear that one student is being left behind in the work and isn’t asking questions (out of fear of looking dumb? low social status? something else?) and other members aren’t making an effort to include them (hence my wonderings about issues of status).

I think the key in all this is who students are seated around. I have one class in particular that’s been hard to seat this year, because there are a lot of high-energy students who are distracting to other students (from what I can tell, these students seem to mostly have high social status as well). I try sometimes to seat these high-energy students with quieter students who might help them calm down and slow down, but sometimes I feel badly for those quieter students who are now sitting next to this human rubber ball. And sometimes the groups work great- students really work together and are drawn in together. And sometimes they’re awful, where one student is either ignored or chooses to be ignored, and the group just isn’t functional. Sometimes I put the high-energy, extroverted students together, and sometimes that works because they realize they all need to focus to get anything done (they can’t rely on the quiet workhorse student because there isn’t one in their group), but sometimes that’s a disaster too because they just continually distract each other.

Some of this is in training students to really work together. And I’m trying with things like group roles and actionable norms. (I think it’s been kind of successful- colleagues who’ve been in my classroom seem to think it’s successful in that students are working, but working doesn’t always equal learning.) And some of it is just knowing student personalities, and grouping students well. It’s not easy, and sometimes a group that I think will be great is terrible, or takes a few days to work functionally. And sometimes a group that I’m hesitant about turns out to be awesome. So it can take me a good two hours to put together a new set of seating charts (~20-30 min per class), and sometimes I wonder if the amount of time I’m putting into it is worth it (at some point, surely, there’s diminishing returns).

Which brings me to the thought- groupwork and collaborative learning are great, but should be carefully implemented and structured. Even my extroverted, quick-thinking students sometimes need to slow down and reflect, and being around introverts in a group can help them with that. I wish I did a better job at helping students really reflect, because it’s not easy to do. But just putting students together in a group is not really collaborative learning. Just doing an activity instead of a lecture is also not collaborative learning. I’m thankful for the work I’ve done with the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation around Complex Instruction and group-worthy tasks (are most of my tasks really group-worthy? Just conversation-worthy? Not really either?), which I would love to learn more about in a science classroom (I understand Complex Instruction started around math tasks, and there’s a lot of overlap, but I would like to think about the differences between math and science tasks as well). There are so many places where I want to improve the scaffolding and structures I have for groupwork, and I want to think about how to gradually take those structures away as the year moves on so that it’s the students who are really leading the conversations and bringing in their peers without having to consciously think about it. And I want my students to really see each other as resources (not just me as the teacher being the arbiter of the knowledge).

Teaching is one of the most intellectually demanding things I’ve ever done. Not only the content, where I really have to make sure I understand what’s going on, but thinking about group dynamics and student-student interactions and how to facilitate these things to really lead to better understandings for all students is challenging, to say the least. But there’s always something new to think about, always a new challenge to solve. It’s like a never-ending puzzle, and I have to say that I love it for that reason.

Teaching vs. learning

When I started this blog, I intended to post semi-regularly about my experiences as I learned how to teach science. That never really happened, because (surprise, surprise) teaching takes up a lot of time. Lesson planning, modifying/developing activities, grading (oh, the grading), making copies, setting up the classroom, ad infinitum. But here I am, near the end of my second year teaching, and thinking more about what it means to teach vs. what it means to learn, and what those differences mean to me as a teacher as I try to help my students learn. Lately, I’ve been wondering about what teachers really see as their role in the classroom, particularly in a science classroom (I honestly cannot speak for the other disciplines, which is, I think, a flaw in the structure of the American high school).

I see my role as a facilitator of learning. I have a fair amount of science knowledge in my head, and I am fortunate to have a good memory and can recall random facts as needed. My students like to ask me random science questions, and I give them my best answer (always being sure to say “I don’t actually know the answer to that question” if that’s the case, rather than making stuff up). However, I cannot sustain my teaching on this repository of knowledge. Yes, some of it’s cool and some of it’s even relevant, but just telling them the information does nothing for my students. And, quite honestly, I’m not the most engaging lecturer. I’m actually a severe introvert, and lecturing for even 10-15 min in each of my classes leaves me drained for the rest of the day. There are tons of engaging people on YouTube with great science education channels, and I do direct students to some of the more interesting videos for more in depth explanation of topics (those people also have the benefit of some really nice video editing and animations, which I don’t have at my fingertips).

I want my students to do as much as possible. To do the labs, to observe the data, to try to make sense out of it. And it’s messy, and sometimes I have to fudge things because at the introductory high school level, we simplify the science and sometimes the labs or the data don’t come out as neatly as they should when those simplifying assumptions are in place. At the beginning of the school year, my students were extremely frustrated and wanted me to just tell them what to do. (I think, for the most part, that they’ve adjusted to my method of countering questions with more questions.) And I continuously struggle with how much to give them vs. how much to let them struggle. What do you do if you have this lovely, hands-on, inquiry activity planned and the data is so scattered that they can’t see the pattern? Or worse, they come up with an entirely different pattern that is almost the opposite of what the goal of the activity was? And how do you deal with the amount of curriculum that is supposed to be covered in a given school year while still giving students time to really process the information? I’m still trying to figure this out. But there’s a lot of education research that says doing is a much more effective way of learning than listening or reading. My teacher prep program was all about inquiry (and the 5E cycle, which I don’t actually use explicitly anymore), and I bought into that way of teaching and learning hook, line, and sinker. Most science teachers, particularly recently trained teachers, will agree that inquiry is the way to go. But do we really understand what inquiry is or how to implement it?

The challenge for me is that inquiry was not the way that I was taught, for the most part. I sat through lecture and did confirmation labs and lots and lots of practice problems. And I was able to do all this and see the connections and figure it out. But I remember how my high school classmates struggled with chemistry. One topic that sticks out for some random reason is orbital shapes, and I remember telling my friends “well, you just have to visualize it in 3D!” As if it were that easy. As a teacher, I realize that some of my students are indeed able to see all the connections with only a quick explanation. And most of my students are able to follow an algorithm to figure out the problems without really understanding what they’re doing. (Even if I don’t give them an algorithm, they look for an algorithm, which is sometimes frustrating.) But I want them to know what they’re doing, and I want them to think about what they’re doing. As I write this, I can think of all of the many, many places this past year where I could have pushed more for understanding and deeper thinking on their part, and where I took the easy way out and just told them how to solve the problem instead. (And then, there are the students who continuously struggle- what do I do for those students?)

So then, how do we as teachers help students learn if the best ways for them to learn are not necessarily the ways that we have been taught? It’s so easy to fall back on what we know and what’s comfortable. I think I was extremely fortunate to have a student teaching experience where my mentor teacher valued and used inquiry regularly in her classes, and to have a collaborative team in my first year teaching that helped me figure some of this out. But that’s not the case for everyone and even with all those supports I’m still figuring out how to teach in a way that best allows my students to learn, and I wonder how, as a profession, we can help each other grow in this regard.

I appreciated the WSJ blog post by KSTF Fellow Helen Snodgrass about struggle and failure in her classroom. This is what I would like my classroom to look like, both for my students and for myself. And yes, I’ve failed in my first two years of teaching. There are things that could have gone so much better and there are things that I just dropped the ball on. But I’m learning from this experience. I suppose this is the hands-on, inquiry way of learning how to teach.