Here’s a little scenario that will be familiar to most teachers. There you are leading a brainstorm for a creative project, when you notice several students haven’t contributed a single word. Despite your best attempts to moderate and encourage all voices, you just can’t seem to catch the eyes of the quiet ones. But you know they’ve got great ideas; in fact, their written work is often the best in the class. And yet, you know they’ll be mortified if you call them by name — red cheeks and stammering is almost a guarantee. How can you help your introverted students brainstorm great ideas without this level of stress?
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While there is a high chance that quieter students may be introverts, it’s important not to confuse introversion with shyness or other social anxieties. As Susan Cain articulates with such nuance in both her famous TED Talk and her bestselling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, introversion is primarily about a student’s energy. Students who gain their energy and inspiration from being around people are extroverts, while introverts are refreshed via quiet and alone time. Introverts can definitely be social creatures, but they can only be so when they’re getting enough solo thinking and contemplation time. Introverts are also more likely to find loud and highly social experiences overwhelming, and often prefer to have fewer but higher quality friends.
Given these realities, here are a few ways you can set introverts up for success while brainstorming in the classroom.
Extroverted students often prove essential in getting the discussion rolling. They also often have wonderful ideas to contribute. Still, it’s important not to let louder voices dominate the entire discussion. Encourage other students to speak, first by asking other extroverts who haven’t managed to work their way into the exchange yet directly to contribute. Then encourage introverted students to speak not by asking them directly but by saying something like, “Thank you for these wonderful ideas. Is there anybody who hasn’t spoken up yet who has any thoughts to add?”
Even better, get specific with your questions so that your introverted students will feel confident what they have to say is relevant to the topic at hand. And of course, praise and write down all ideas, no matter how good you secretly think they are. Taken together, these measures will provide at least some introverted students with the confidence they need to speak up.
Introverts thrive when they have the mental space and quiet contemplation they need to really think their thoughts through. They also do better when they’re not trying to process a loud, rapid fire conversation at the same time as they’re trying to think. As such, try breaking students into much smaller groups of extroverts or introverts, or even letting them brainstorm on their own (a solid 40 years of research indicates that people tend to brainstorm better ideas solo anyway). For the introverts, make sure to provide a quiet space that is free from distraction — one that is basically the complete opposite of the open plan office.
Of course, before giving students this kind of autonomy, set clear goals for what they are to accomplish and demonstrate a few ways that the process can go. Introverts in particular tend to thrive when they have the nitty gritty details, and it will be well worth your time devote class time to a lesson in brainstorming. As with all brainstorming, emphasize a “yes, and…” mentality; that is, there are no bad ideas, and every thought should be taken as far as it can go.
When brainstorming in a group of any size, introverts will do best when the brainstorming sessions don’t last any longer than about 10 minutes (depending on the age). For longer sessions, take think breaks to allow introverts to recover.
No one said brainstorming had to happen in one sitting. After all, there’s a reason thought leaders and creatives so often talk about having “shower moments,” in which a great idea just pops into their brains as their sudsing up. Our brains often need time and space for processing thoughts and making connections subconsciously. As such, have students touch base again the next day to see if they have any thoughts to add to the discussion. Alternatively, keep a sheet on the wall and have students add ideas sporadically as they come. This can be done well in a shared Google Doc as well.
Who said the best ideas are orally articulated? Try asking your students to jot down a few ideas for the project at hand. Then have them swap papers and add their own thoughts in different colored pens. Maintain silence the whole time, while students’ minds open up on the page before them.
In the workplace, detailed agendas allow introverts the space they need to really think through what they’re going to say when the time comes, removing the pressure of thinking on their feet. The same can be true in the classroom. Whether you write it down on a syllabus, email the class the night before, or communicate details orally at the end of the previous school day, give students a brief rundown of what they can expect in the project brainstorming session to come so they can fully prepare.
From J.K. Rowling to Steve Wozniak, introverts across the ages have consistently contributed to the world good. Help build the confidence of your introverts by providing them with famous role models, while also providing positive feedback for their ideas, and embracing rather than criticizing their mindset.
This point cannot be emphasized enough. Yes, introverted students will need coping skills as they navigate an extroverted world, and yes, this does mean learning to speak in bigger groups from time to time. But these are skills that can and should be worked on in a focused and encouraging manner, one that is separate from the brainstorming process. Creativity requires confidence and an environment in which all students feel they can safely articulate their ideas without criticism. Forced contributions remove those feelings of safety, and are therefore counterproductive. By all means, work on public speaking, but do it outside of the brainstorming arena.
Introverted students are deep-thinking, and often highly creative individuals who can and should be encouraged to brainstorm in a way that unlocks their potential rather than getting in its way. How do you help your introverts brainstorm? Let us know what you’ve seen work — and what you’ve seen fail — in the comments below or via Twitter @Edudemic!