How to Engage Introverts in Classroom Discussion

In my latest blog series, I’ve been focusing on classroom discussion:  technology tools, whole-class discussion strategies, the big-picture, and goal-setting. As a teacher, I see all kinds of good and sparkly rewards that come from discussion. I feel like Sam-I-Am…would you like discussion here or there…yes, I would like it anywhere! It is a real-world ELA skill, one that has workplace and life applications. So, yes, as a teacher, I’m all in

But students don’t always feel the same way, at least when they enter my classroom, and as an introvert I can see why.

If you need extra processing time, like to express your thoughts on paper, get your energy from within rather than with other people…why wouldn’t you be running away from discussion like that reluctant friend in Green Eggs and Ham? 

So…What About the Introverts in Classroom Discussion?

So, what gives?  Are we, like Susan Cain discusses in her well known TED talk, “The Power of Introverts,” expecting all of our students to function as extroverts by requiring them to participate in frequent discussions?  She makes an interesting point in her talk that our society, including our workplaces and, yes, even our classrooms, is designed for extroverts rather than introverts.  

Since watching this talk, I’ve thought a lot about this topic. As a quiet girl (who always hated that label, by the way), I didn’t say a word in class as a high school student unless a teacher called on me, and this usually resulted in heated red cheeks, a feeling of panic, and the response of “I don’t know.” (psst…even if I really did know the answer, I was too shy to share it OR too inside my own head to figure out how to spit it out on the spot.) On the other hand, I can now also put on my teacher hat and see a different perspective…we have to get students ready for the real world, right?  We have to address the skills, right?  They just need to learn to step outside their comfort zones, right?

Maybe there is a happy place that can be found, a way to make discussions more accessible to all students, and maybe even (dare I say?!) enjoyable.  I think that the enjoyable part is different for the extrovert vs. introvert, though. Extroverts get their enjoyment from the process of exchanging ideas, interacting with others, and talking. Introverts like me will get their enjoyment from the thinking that happens as a result of having a discussion.

Let’s see…so my highly scientific formula for increased participation by introverts in classroom discussion is this:

processing time + non-threatening opportunities for talk = “aha” moments and increased awareness of self and others

How to Engage Extroverts AND Introverts in Classroom Discussion:  

Introverts in Classroom Discussion

  1. Be Intentional.  All students need to grow and stretch beyond what is comfortable for them.  Introverts in classroom discussion need to learn to express their ideas and interact in group settings.  However, as a teacher there are small tweaks I can make to give introverts a positive discussion experience.  First of all, increase your wait time or give students the opportunity to preview discussion questions or brainstorm ideas prior to discussion. This ensures that all students, even those who need more processing time, have an equal opportunity to access the discussion. Second of all, take time to build classroom community in ways that aren’t awkward and uncomfortable.  It is not a waste of time, and you will build comfort for all students, not just the introverts.
  2. Be spicy, a.k.a. “variety is the spice of classroom life.”  I’ve come to think of discussion strategies as tools in a toolkit.  When I am thinking of how to assess student understanding, or what kind of instructional strategies I want to use, I consider discussion among other tools in my toolkit.  Like a builder, I must carefully consider my purpose and what outcomes I want, and select the appropriate tools for our classroom work.  I don’t want to over-use discussion as an instructional or assessment strategy, and I don’t want to over-use the same type of strategy too much.  That would be like saying a carpenter can build a whole house with only a hammer…nonsensical.  The aisles upon aisles at any local hardware store to suggest otherwise!  I don’t want to be that teacher who always reaches for the hammer, over and over again.  This results in boredom and a one-dimensional classroom, not to mention ignores the needs of my students, some of whom are introverts like me.  
  3. If possible, give students choice.  Allow them to choose their partner(s), discussion topics, even their discussion format. Your introverts in classroom discussion will thank you!
  4. Always, always create opportunities to use student-led discussion strategies (hello, Danielson Domains 2 and 3!).  I think it is a common newbie misconception that the teacher is in charge of a discussion, when in fact it is waaaay more powerful if you turn over the discussion reigns to the students. Shifting my definition of “good teaching” from “sage on the stage” to “facilitator” of student learning was a game-changer for me and much more fitting to my personality anyway…talk about lowering my stress levels while upping the rigor and interest for my students!
  5. Use technology. There are a lot of online tools you can use to add spice to student discussion. These tools give students the opportunity to increase processing time, share their ideas with others in a non-threatening way, and have the opportunity to “re-do,” a.k.a. re-record a response.  Click here to read more about seven of my favorite online discussion tools. 
  6. Hit the pause button… and then continue.  Who says that discussion has to continue, uninterrupted, for a set length of time?  I have found that building in opportunity for a quick think-pair-share or written response can help to re-focus a discussion, with the added bonus of giving increased time to let everyone develop ideas and form connections before continuing discussion. You can also pause discussion and ask students to respond to a Google Classroom poll or question, have them submit their best thought or question for consideration, and use the best submissions to prompt further discussion. Or, you can begin discussion student-to-student and continue/finish the discussion online by having them respond to the thoughts students post on Google Classroom. You can also use Padlet or the tried-and-true sticky note to do achieve the same result.
  7. Allow for reflection. This is kind of like hitting the pause button, except not in mid-discussion. I know that I’ve been guilty of going right up until the bell with discussion, leaving no time for post-discussion reflection, and I have to be mindful of the need to decompress, reflect, assess, and goal-set. Here are some suggestions for what you might have students write down (and always explain “why”):
    • Their #1 take-away from the discussion
    • A question they have as a result of the discussion
    • A connection they made during the discussion
    • Synthesis of three important ideas from the discussion
    • They said…I think…
    • How their thinking changed as a result of discussion
    • How they contributed to the discussion and a goal for next time
    • How they demonstrated a specific skill during discussion and a goal for next time
    • If this discussion was an animal/color/plant/geographic location, what would it be?
    • What they wanted to say, but didn’t get a chance to say during discussion
    • So What?! Why does this discussion topic matter?
  8. Team it up.  A book that I’m currently reading, Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk that Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings, makes a strong case for conducting a lot of student discussion in pairs rather than in larger groups. This way, students are better able to practice discussion skills (this book focuses a lot on stems for discussion) and students aren’t able to “hide” during the discussion. There is also that whole diffusion of responsibility idea from the world of psychology that can be applied, I think, to larger group discussion. The idea is that people are less likely to take personal responsibility as more and more people are present. In large group conversation, I think that students assume that the talkative students will take the lead or “responsibility” for discussion while some are able to get by without saying much, if anything at all.  Introverts in classroom discussion are likely to let someone else take the responsibility for sharing, so if your goal is for ALL students to be heard, think about group size and if pairs would be best.
  9. Use sentence stems.  Giving students the language for successful discussion allows them to gain confidence and make these “moves” for academic conversation theirs over time. They will own these stems and use them automatically by the time they are done with your class.
  10. Create comfort in the classroom.  Don’t think of team-building as a beginning-of-the-year thing…use it year-round to increase student rapport and a positive classroom climate. This comfort level between students can yield huge rewards when it comes to academic conversation. Also, don’t give up on students…maybe they won’t rock at discussion the first time…or the second time…or even the third time, but they will grow and you will see success with your extroverts AND introverts in classroom discussion if you give them time and thoughtfully keep the above tips in mind. 
Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 0 comments