Introverts and Schools: a TED talk by Susan Cain

“Phase I” by Erin Ciulla, 2005 (suitcase containing miniature books with mixed media, found materials, and handmade paper)

Susan Cain’s TED talk “The Power of Introverts” is a fascinating 20-minute lecture describing how a world that undervalues introverts creates a waste of talent, energy, and happiness. She begins with a description of her first time at summer camp, armed with a suitcase full of books “Because in my family, reading was the primary group activity…you have the animal warmth of your family sitting right next to you, but you are also free to go roaming around the adventureland inside your own mind…I had a vision of 10 girls sitting in a cabin cozily reading books in their matching nightgowns.”

When her camp counselor told her “We should all work really hard to be outgoing,” Cain put her books away and cheered along with the other campers. Later she describes how many people, places, and experiences reinforced a feeling that a quiet and introverted style like hers was not quite right. In spite of her natural tendencies, she became a corporate lawyer and negotiations consultant instead of a writer—though she has returned to her roots with the publication of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Photo of Susan Cain from the TED website:

Cain says that one-third to one-half of our population is introverted: “They feel at their most alive and their most switched-on and their most capable when they’re in quieter, more low-key environments…a lot of the time.” When introverts are forced out of their quiet, contemplative, and, often, creative ways, it’s our community’s loss. Schools, workplaces, and our whole idea of leadership are biased towards extroverts:

“When I was going to school, we sat in rows…and did most of our work pretty autonomously. But nowadays, your typical classroom has pods of desks—four or five or six or seven kids all facing each other. And kids are working in countless group assignments. Even in subjects like math and creative writing, which you think would depend on solo flights of thought, kids are now expected to act as committee members. And for the kids who prefer to go off by themselves or just to work alone, they are seen as outliers often or, worse, as problem cases. And the vast majority of teachers report believing that the ideal student is an extrovert as opposed to an introvert, even though introverts actually get better grades and are more knowledgeable, according to research.”

Cain’s talk has lead to some interesting discussions among our faculty, staff, and administrators. Our librarian Derek Anderson has ordered several copies for the library, science teacher Liz Gottleib brought the TED talk to our attention, and Director of Admissions Dan Babior is organizing small group discussions to see how Cain’s thesis operates at Marin Academy.

I’m an extrovert—my energy comes from the company of others. But I understand Cain’s main takeaway—it’s about the balance between introverts and extroverts and the continuum in-between.

A quiet moment at MA

At MA we pride ourselves on collaboration, but this doesn’t only mean group work. Individual creation is often just as important in the classroom: purposeful collaboration involves working together as well as individual preparation and contribution. Our modular classrooms and 80-minute classes allow for many different approaches beyond the traditional models of teaching and learning.

Collaboration in a math class

Cain ended her talk with three calls to action:

  1. “We need to be teaching kids to work together, for sure, but we also need to be teaching them how to work on their own. This is especially important for extroverted children too. They need to work on their own because that is where deep thought comes from in part.
  2. “Go to the wilderness. Be like Buddha, have your own revelations. I’m not saying that we all have to now go off and build our own cabins in the woods and never talk to each other again, but I am saying that we could all stand to unplug and get inside our own heads a little more often.
  3. “Take a good look at what’s inside your own suitcase and why you put it there. So extroverts, maybe your suitcases are also full of books. Or maybe they’re full of champagne glasses or skydiving equipment. Whatever it is, I hope you take these things out every chance you get and grace us with your energy and your joy. But introverts, you being you, you probably have the impulse to guard very carefully what’s inside your own suitcase. And that’s okay. But occasionally, just occasionally, I hope you will open up your suitcases for other people to see, because the world needs you and it needs the things you carry.”

I look forward to more discussions about our diversity as a community and how we can continue to improve the learning experiences of all of our students—introverts and extroverts alike.


About Travis

Head of School, Marin Academy.
This entry was posted in diversity, experiential education and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Introverts and Schools: a TED talk by Susan Cain

  1. Barry says:

    I plan on reading this book. As a father of two daughters, one who is a student at MA and the other headed to college next fall, I wish I had given more thought to this years ago. I have been extremely extroverted since my 20’s but feel more comfortable alone. My daughter loves the academics at MA but finds it hard to make friends because she Is very introverted and loves writing and reading. Most adolescents are very concerned with popularity and will do what is required to accomplish this. If a child does not take this route they seem to be looked upon as either a snob or “different”. A singular existence seems to be frowned upon, thus the need for multiple clubs, social activities and multiple “play dates” starting at an early age. Forcing children to always participate and penalizing them for not doing so may be taking away their creativity and cloning them be just like all of their peers. I hope my daughter/s continue to be themselves and will always love reading. Thank you for bringing this topic to our attention. Let’s reward those who remain silent but contribute when asked. There is room in the world for introvert and extrovert.

    • Travis says:

      Thanks so much, Barry. I really appreciate the time you took to respond and write about your family’s experience. I too hope that your daughters will always be themselves and love reading. I hear you about the over-programmed kids and hope we can all resist that culture. At the same time, at MA, I’m glad we have multiple clubs because it speaks to a diversity of interests.

      We had a faculty and staff meeting last year with a local expert who talked about what it was like to teach introverts and extroverts. Since then, there have been many conversations about this topic. We’ve been working and continue to work to shape our classrooms and respond to all types of differences. We’ve found that our schedule allows for a lot of reflection and time for individual work–I hope your daughter has found this to be the case. Keep the feedback coming, and know that we are here for you and your daughter–and that many faculty and staff members are introverts too!

      • Ellen Pichey says:

        Thank you for alerting me to this interesting sounding book. I laughed at her camp story, as I always have an argument with my MA daughter about how many books she takes to camp or any trip in her suitcase and backpack–the reassurance of old friends to help her conquer new experiences. As a definite introvert who values my connections with people, but likes smaller more intimate settings, one-on one time, and solitude for work and thought, my daughter and I sometimes collide as she figures out her own style. She seems to have much more of a back and forth with how she sees herself: sometimes finding it hard to be by herself, at other times, hard to fit in with a crowd. I do think that the over programming of children in today’s world, the difficulty for children simply to come together casually for free play on their own terms, makes it more difficult to allow their personal style to blossom. Add on the social pressure, expectation and competition that becomes more intense at the high school level, and it becomes even more complicated for a teen to be comfortable with his or herself.
        I liked the author’s third point. In a recent newsletter, our rabbi wrote about the genizra, a box in ancient temples, in which the meaningful articles and records of the community were kept. She brought this to a personal level, of the things that each of us hold on to, are unable to throw away, that evoke memories, and asked, what’s in your genizra.. I agree with Ms. Cain that many who stay quiet may be afraid to share what is most special to them, and the world may miss some truly wonderful contributions, if there had been some encouragement and support.
        I hope that MA will continue to look at this issue and find ways to support all styles at the school–not only in the classroom, but in the extracurricular and elective opportunities as well.

      • Travis says:

        Thank you, Ellen, for your thoughtful insights. I would love to understand more about how you would imagine extracurricular activities with an introverted focus or flavor. I appreciate your rabbi’s analogy with the genizra–it feels like an important way to reflect on one’s life. I hope that your daughter will find a place over the next three years where she feels more comfortable sharing–please let me know if there is anything I can do to help.

  2. Berta Campos-Anicetti says:

    Thank you for sharing this information with us. Encouraging our introvert son to open up his suitcase every so often has been an ongoing conversation in our family. I can’t wait to share Susan Cain’s insight with him! He will have a huge smile on his face and will appreciate MA’s focus on this topic!

    • Travis says:

      Thank you for your comment, Berta. I know first-hand how thoughtful your son is. As educators, part of our constant commitment is learning more about how kids learn and being about to respond to it.

  3. Bill D. says:

    This INTJ very much enjoyed Susan Cain’s talk.

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