Helping Introverts Thrive in Collaborative Projects

We know collaboration is important but it’s easy for introverts to get lost in the shuffle. So, how do we honor introverts’ identity and build on their hidden strengths and we engage in collaborative projects? 

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Collaboration Isn’t Working for Introverts

I don’t enjoy most collaborative projects. Even when I find the work meaningful, I get frustrated by the lack of internal processing time. I work with some amazing professors but I’ve had moments when I had to say, “Can we take a quick break and process this individually and then come back to it?” I often wander away from the agenda in a meeting so that I can play around with a specific item that we’ve been discussing. The more fascinating it is, the more likely I am to seem aloof.

When I was a student, I hated group projects. I felt overwhelmed by the constant chatter and the lack of individual processing time. The sheer noise wore me down. It makes sense. I have always been an introvert and I need the space and the quiet to think.

In her TED Talk on the power of introverts, Susan Cain described a challenge for introverts at school.

So if you picture the typical classroom nowadays: When I was going to school, we sat in rows. We sat in rows of desks like this, and we 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, those kids are seen as outliers often or, worse, as problem cases.

A little nuance here. Even though I am an introvert, I disagree with Susan Cain’s point that introverts are seen as “problem cases.” In many classrooms, the gregarious, talkative extroverts are sent to the office and given behavioral plans while the introverts are allowed to go pick up a book. Both introverts and extroverts experience a certain level of shame for being too loud or too quiet.

But she has a point here. I often hear teachers say things like, “The class is awful. Kids are in rows working alone.” We extol the idea that if learning is messy, it must also be loud and chaotic. Most of the conversations around classroom space revolve around adding collaborative spaces, incorporating more movement, and adding vivid color. Negative space is seen as, well, negative. I remember times when kids were reading silently and a teacher would walk in and say, “Are they in trouble?”

However, I also believe in collaboration. I want to see students working interdependently on collaborative projects. So, how do we make collaboration work in a way that honors the identity of introverted students?

Three Strategies for Honoring Introverts

Introverts can actually thrive in creative collaboration if we they are given the space and the time to process things individually. In fact, there are certain hidden skills that introverts can bring to the table. While these are not universal to introverts, they are often the types of skills people develop through independent work and introspection.

So, here are three different strategies you can use to honor introverts as you design collaborative projects.

#1: Create moments of silence throughout the class period.

Start each class period with a silent warmup. You might start out with deliberate silence, like a journaling activity, a sketch-note session, or a mindfulness activity. But it might simply be a chance to plan out the project, complete a related question, or engage in a free write. However, this initial moment of silence can help introverts relax and re-center themselves before entering into a collaborative project.

You can also use silence strategically to encourage reflection in the midst of a project. These shorter breaks promote metacognition as a way to help students monitor their progress and make adjustments. A word of caution: this can backfire. Sometimes groups can be in a state of flow and a break will disrupt the valuable work they are doing. Ultimately, you have a relationship with your students and you know when it’s best to shift into a silent reflection time.

It also helps to create space where introverts can walk away. This doesn’t have to be a differentiated “quiet space” in a classroom. It might mean a quick walk to the library to process one’s thoughts before re-entering the collaborative space. It might mean an introvert puts on headphones and jots down some thoughts in a notebook.

However, this doesn’t have to require a break from collaborative work. I remember a moment when a small group suddenly disbanded in our class. Each member walked to separate ends of the classroom and sat alone with their computers.

“Are you guys okay? Is there some conflict going on?” I asked one of the members.

“No, why would you think something is wrong?” she asked.

“Well, you’re not with your group.”

“Yes, I am,” she said, pointing to her Google Doc. This group had decided they need to work silently, in a focused way, and it meant physical space and a lack of verbal feedback while still being fully engaged in the collaborative process. In this sense, they were each able to have the time and the mental space to think through what they wanted to say before adding it to the document.

#2: Integrate individual tasks into the collaborative projects.

If you look at the LAUNCH Cycle, you’ll notice that each phase has specific individual tasks. When students Look, Listen, and Learn, they process the ideas and activate prior knowledge before meeting with their teams. When they Ask Tons of Questions, they engage in personal inquiry before sharing their questions with the group. The research in Understand the Process or Problem can be both partner and individual (honoring both introverts and extroverts).

If you look at the brainstorming process in Navigate Ideas, you’ll see that it begins with an individual brainstorm:

When students create a prototype, they can easily move between individual, partner, or small group depending on their personal preference. Often, an introvert in a group will feel totally comfortable having a key section in a collaborative project where he or she can work independently and hit a state of creative flow. This independent work is then re-integrated into an interdependent project.

#3: Teach students about the role of introversion and extroversion.

Sometimes a group member might appear stand-offish when she simply needs space to think about group dynamics before entering the conversation. Other times, a member might seem rude when he disengages in a group conversation and writes down notes or thinks about a particular point. This is why it helps to teach students about the way that introverts, ambiverts, and extroverts process information and to feel the permission to be who they are.

It’s also important that students understand that introversion isn’t the same as being shy. There are loud, social introverts and there are quieter extroverts. The goal here is to build empathy toward group members and to help them see that introverts and extroverts can contribute to the success of creative collaboration.

You Don’t Always Need to Collaborate

We often associate design thinking and project-based learning with collaborative projects. However, some of my favorite design thinking projects were individual. Here, students would still meet with a partner or a group in order to share their ideas and get feedback. We often used the 20-minute peer feedback approach. But each individual student still owned the creative project. This was the case with our Geek Out Blogs. Each student chose a topic based on his or her interest and worked independently. However, they still engaged in peer editing and when they published their posts, every student had a chance to participate in the community.

With certain projects, you can let your students decide the grouping. Last year, when I taught action research, I had students work individually or in small groups. When I taught middle school, I had students work on Genius Hour projects. Some students would work individually, others in pairs, and other in small groups.

In the end, it’s about giving students the opportunities to process information internally and externally and to feel the permission to be who they are. This goes way beyond introversion and extroversion. It’s about honoring all students and letting them feel known, honored, and appreciated.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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