Inside out? collaborating introverts

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Michael Godsey claims that the growing emphasis in classrooms on interactive arrangements can be challenging for introverted students who tend to perform better when they are working independently and in more subdued environments.

The author argues that such students sometimes appear shy, depressed, or antisocial, when they actually “feel at their most alive and their most switched-on and their most capable when they’re in quieter, more low-key environments.”

These are valid concerns, especially with government and business driving student-centred learning at full tilt. So, for the benefit of heads and teachers considering Cooperative Learning, I hope to address some of the points raised in the article.



First of all, as always here on, the term ‘Cooperative Learning’ denotes the structural approach which “consists of students in small hand-picked teams or pairs working in a number fixed “Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns”, called CLIPs. These CLIPs define step-by-step how students interact with materials and each other and are void of content.” See for the full description.

These standalone CLIPs are deployed by teachers at specific points during lessons, to achieve specific aims. Teach SPaG, drill dates, assess writing, present knowledge, solve worksheet tasks, reflect on own learning: It is a precise tool, not vague “student engagement.” Cooperative Learning may even be used to support such quiet, supposedly introvert skills as reading and text comprehension. Examples are found below and are being made available on Cooperate Be Literate. I have outlined some examples how to facilitate rote learning and of the misuse of the term Cooperative Learning in my Note to Mr Peal.


Student-centred vs teacher-centred ratios

Any experienced educator knows continuous discussion may well be engaging, but also taxing. I therefore always warn teachers not to exceed 80% Cooperative Learning in any lesson. In a Cooperative Learning classroom, students passively receiving input from the board, or passively listening to an open class debate, is a relevant piece in a bigger puzzle.

Relevant because, as the teacher, you possess unique knowledge and you see the big picture, which needs to be fed to the class as a whole. Not only to set up tasks, but to steer the learning process through-out the lesson. That in itself should be ample argument for giving teacher input space. (The fact that your class input will be more relevant and precise if you have monitored during the preceding Cooperative Learning sequences is a sidenote here).

Then there is the issue of precision. What sort of relevant discussion will students have if they have not been presented with clearly delineated objectives, understand the context and, for most subjects, have certain hard knowledge in place? Unguided pupil discussions, not preceded by input or modelling, is often of a shockingly low level, especially in classes very used to teacher-centred learning styles. For interesting examples, see Andy Tharby’s “English teaching and the problem with knowledge” .


The introvert steps of Cooperative Learning interaction

The ratio aside, Cooperative Learning in itself does not have to entail excessively social or overstimulating mandates; it can easily involve quiet components that facilitate internal contemplation. Think-Pair-Share comes to mind, and we will use this classic Cooperative Learning Interaction Pattern as an example.

The Think-step may be 30 minutes of quiet, individual reading, followed by Pairs spending five minutes working out a summary of interesting or difficult points, presenting answers to comprehension questions, etc.

In the final step, Share, the pair then become responsible for presenting or arguing their case in front of another pair, who may hold entirely different views. This step may also last as little as five minutes, and interaction may be micromanaged to stress individual accountability or left as an open discussion at students’ discretion, permitting the more introverted students to lean back and let the partner do most of the talking. As a teacher, you always know best what is good for your students. Cooperative Learning will simply give the tools you need to make it happen.

For the last five minutes of this 45 minute lesson, the teacher rounds off and corrects key points he picked up while listening in or guiding individual groups, and answers any final questions.

And, obviously, he collects those note made through-out the three stages, giving clear, written evidence of the learning process. 30 minutes quiet reading, 10 minutes of group work, all in one Cooperative Learning interaction pattern.


Think time

Think-Pair-Share is not unique in affording an individual element as an integral step. In fact, I push for CLIPs to be preceded by “think time,” again preferably with note taking, which gives written evidence of learning. This will also continuously promote identifying key points, concise, precise language, and legible writing; every day, every lesson, with a practical purpose and instant consequence, as the individual accountability inherent in CLIPs often means notes may serve as materials for peers.

Many course participants will remember the Simultaneous Write-Round here, where students individually contribute to a piece of creative writing, based on written input from others. After having jeopardized team performance a couple of times, and understanding the vital role they play as individuals, most students see the benefit of clear writing. This especially true if some time is dedicated to team building exercises.


Getting the introvert out there

We’ve demonstrated above that Cooperative Learning strategies aren’t irreconcilable with the needs of introverts. So in the following I’d like take a step further and point to some of the areas where Cooperative Learning may decidedly benefit introvert students – while bringing their deep thinking to bear on the class.

I have no doubt that introverts are not always “shy, depressed, or antisocial,” and that we should not conflate introversion with an inability to self-advocate. But, let us face it, chances in the real world are not hurt by the ability to present one’s knowledge coherently, argue one’s case, learn from others, negotiate with equally intelligent peers, or reframe one’s understanding to meet needs of very different temperaments and learning .



Similarly, extrovert, talkative students should benefit from, and appreciate, the more profound, worked-through solutions which I often find comes from so-called introverts. Learning to be quiet and simply listen is a crucial human skill, and where better to train it than with an introvert, struggling with every word? By engaging each other in the managed form of CL, both reap subject knowledge and get an opportunity to reflect on benefits and drawbacks of these personality types.

Godley concedes that the ideal, of course, would be to establish arrangements that facilitate differentiated instruction for varying personality types, but that “this might be difficult in large classes with students of diverse levels of proficiency and motivation.”

My claim here is that Cooperative Learning is uniquely suited to facilitate this full-spectrum differentiation: By securing both simultaneous interaction across the class and equal participation, Cooperative Learning will give introverts the time and space needed to present their capabilities in their own tempo, to the benefit of extrovert pupils. On a practical level, this might take the form of working out useful phrases, such as “Do you need any help getting started?” or, vice versa, “No thanks, give me a moment, I just need to phrase this right…”.


Signal to noise

Finally, Michael Godsey worries collaborative arrangements may “inherently enable noisy, distracting conditions that make learning particularly difficult for [introverts].”

It does not hurt to state the obvious: students in any collaborative class must be drilled, drilled, drilled, for everyone’s sake, to recognise appropriate volume. Short voices means that no one outside arm’s reach will hear a word; an all-round useful human skill, and transferable, too. Many so-called introverts don’t mind a quiet, thoughtful discussion. What they do mind is a shouting contest.

The author admits that group activities can serve a purpose in the teaching of introverts and refers to several recent studies that confirm the mountains of evidence that “students who engage in cooperative learning tend to outperform those immersed in traditional learning approaches—namely lectures.”

Here I want to point out that with CL it is never an either-or. Specifically on the subject of lectures, I am currently trialling a programme for a university interested in how Cooperative Learning may facilitate an effective, manageable move towards the student-centred environments required of 21st century tertiary education by the Bologna process.

A key element is CLIPs which organise input processing to provide context, aid retention, clear misunderstandings, share ideas. Dropped in at crucial points during standard klectures, such 2-5 minute interactions are a simple way to shuttle back and forth between very traditional lecturing and innovative student-centred learning.

The real problem is, for Mr Golly, how “…trends like “collaborative learning” and “project-based learning” and “flipped classrooms”—are applied often neglect the needs of introverts.”

Key word here is applied. I feel I have made my case for Cooperative Learning to be considered….







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