Sometimes, I say to my students, much of English is math. My course is out of 1000 points. If you get 0/100 on something, your grade's going to take a big hit. Especially if you're already on the brink, getting a 75%. The grade is a simple calculation. Add all points earned, divide by total points possible. Move decimal point two places to get percentage. Simple.
But people don't believe. Or they just deny basic mathematical fact. "I've gotten mostly C's and D's, but can I still get a B in this class?" We always want something other than numbers to be at play.
Sometimes there is. Students always like to hold out the hope that extra efforts and a special dose of creativity will push them from 69% to 70%, from 79% to 80%. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't; after all, people whose grades are low are usually not the type of people to be putting forth the kind of effort that will push them over the borderline to the grade that they want.
While grades are pretty simple math, we often treat group work as if it's a matter of simple math while it isn't at all. This occurred to me as I read a couple of essays last week when my self-proclaimed introvert students explained that they liked the small group work we do in class because they felt more comfortable speaking in small groups rather than in front of the whole class. I was surprised, which seems weird. Introverts love one-on-one and small group communication, right?
Maybe I was stuck in the instructor's perspective: I don't know if I'll ever totally get over the uncomfortable feeling of not being able to be everywhere at once, directing the lesson in an orderly fashion. I don't like hopping from group to group, never knowing exactly what part of the reading we'll be talking about next.
But then I thought back on my time as a student. I didn't like small-group work then, either. Why did my students like it while I didn't?
Well, introversion isn't just a numbers game. Sticking an introvert with just any one or two people doesn't mean the introvert will have a good rapport with that person/those people. Often, in K-12, students have gone to school with the same people for years and there can be years of history between those people, good or bad. In college, you could be paired with a total stranger; you might bond, but you might not. At least in college, students are less clique-y and more open to actually having an intellectual discussion--that is, in college, you might not be deemed a nerd for actually wanting to participate in the group's assigned task rather than socialize.
Part of it may also have to do with the fact that I'm an oldest child. As the stereotype goes, I always got along better with older people than I did with my peers. In a whole-class discussion, at least the teacher wanted to hear what I had to say and would usually respond in an encouraging way. I knew how to relate to adults. The rules were explicit and easy. Throw me into a group, and I had to spend most of my time figuring out the rules of teenage socialization rather than dealing with the content.
In whole-class discussion, the teacher's presence could protect me. Even though I had to speak up in front of others, those others were usually quiet and if they said anything insulting, the teacher would hear and deal with it. But in groups, it's noisy. The teacher wasn't there to shame my classmates into polite toleration of me or whoever the speaker was.
When I read about collaborative learning, the research always assumes a benevolent collaborator. In the real world, that's not always the case.
As they say, it's a jungle out there. Yes, introverts love one-to-one or small-group communication, but an introvert gazelle isn't going to enjoy hanging out with a lion, even if there's just one of him/her.
It's tough to be an introvert in an extrovert world, especially in an extrovert's profession, like teaching. Through this blog, I'd like to share my own and others' reflections on being an introvert in the classroom. This isn't a place for misanthropes or grumps, though; I hope to thoughtfully discuss the challenges that introverts face in schools and celebrate the gifts that introverted teachers and students bring to the educational environment. If you can relate, please join me!