Thursday, June 20, 2013

Understanding is essential. Gregariousness is optional.

Hello, my name is Tim and I'm an introvert. I have been an introvert for most of my life. This will likely surprise most of the people who know me socially and work with me, as only those closest to me are aware of my "horrible" secret, and honestly, they only know out of necessity. They know because I made them aware in the event that I might need them to save me some time from certain social situations that I might unwittingly or unavoidably find myself in and begin to panic.

Now, let's get this straight, over the years I have developed lots of skills and compensatory devices that help me function comfortably, or at least provide me with the appearance of comfort in these situations, despite what is happening below the surface.  I certainly don't mind crowds; they are part of my business, I enjoy speaking to large groups and debating (even passionately) in public; par for my career course. And I certainly don't think that anyone who I know would ever describe me as the shy or retiring type.

And yet...

The scariest place in the world to me is a cocktail party or a post-school event celebration where people mingle and chat.  If you are one of the half to two-thirds of people who psychologists classify as extroverted, you likely see those situations as a pleasant, friendly and enjoyable. For me it's a war zone. Terrifying.  Nothing scares me more than small talk, and with people milling all around me, overstimulating my senses like so many social land mines, I would rather be almost anywhere than there.  Solitary confinement looks like a great alternative to me, honestly, especially if I get to have a book.

But how can a leader be an introvert? Society tells us that in order to be great, we have to be confident, outspoken, happy and sociable. Extroverts are seen as vibrant, charismatic, positive and energetic people. Introverts, by contrast, are, well ...boring. Introversion is even considered a disorder or personality defect by many people, such as parents who typically feel a need to constantly explain their children’s shyness to others and make constant attempts to get them to "come out of their shell.".

When was the last time you saw a progress report that praised a child for their solitary, thoughtful, careful demeanor? The reality is that schools and workplaces are designed to benefit extroverts. But why is it so dangerous to let people simply be who they are? Would you want a few introverts on your most important teams at work? Would you actively recruit them?  You might want to think about it... I know that I do it all the time, because I understand the benefits and powers of introverts.

Being the best talker doesn't necessarily translate into having the best ideas. In fact, in my experience there is often an inverse correlation between the amount of talking someone does and the amount of genuinely good ideas and solutions to problems that they provide.  Just look at any politician for a brilliant case study in what I am talking about.

According to Susan Cain, the author of  Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, and whose brilliant video is above, introverts don't have the same need for external stimulus as everyone else, but if we understand and support them, introverts can produce amazing results in many situations. As Cain brilliantly puts it: “Love is essential, gregariousness is optional.”

This difference between introverts and extroverts is demonstrated in how they work and the social interactions that they enjoy. Extroverts typically seek to dominate conversations, and tend to be multi-taskers who require social interaction throughout their day in order to live and work happily. They think out loud and prefer talking to listening. Extroverts are energized by socializing.

Introverts tend to be slow and deliberate. They typically have great powers of concentration and prefer to work on one thing at a time. Although they might enjoy interacting with others, they tend to prefer to work with a small group of close colleagues or friends, and prefer to listen rather than speak in meetings. They typically avoid conflict, but enjoy deep discussions with people whom they feel comfortable. Introverts are typically energized when they are able to work alone or in small groups, the smaller the better.

QUIZ: Are You an Introvert or an Extrovert?

What are the educational implications for introverts in our schools?  First, let's remember that introversion is not a defect but more of a careful, sensitive temperament that, when nurtured, may support high academic achievement, unique creativity and the development of a type of leadership that is characterized by thoughtful consideration and empathy.

Susan Cain says in her book that introverts "win a disproportionate number of Phi Beta Kappa keys and National Merit Scholarship finalist awards, cheat and break school rules far less frequently, are more likely to be described by parents and teachers as caring or conscientious."

Our classrooms contain many introverted students who have tremendous gifts that likely aren't being developed or supported right now.  Cain advises that students need more privacy and autonomy than typically is available in modern classrooms, and should be taught to work together but also supported in how to work alone. Consider, for example, that recognition for student engagement should not be measured simply by student's oral contributions, as that common practice works directly against one third to one half of your class's natural demeanor.  It's vital that we start to recognize those kids who behave well and say very little while oftentimes falling between the cracks, because that student in the back of the room who we might believe is withdrawn or depressed, when given other opportunities to express themselves and to be known in your classroom, may very well blossom.

Many students who rarely speak in whole group settings are very active in smaller groups and have a great deal to share through other types of feedback, such as journals. If you have quiet kids who write for you, spend a little extra time responding to their journal entries with personal feedback that encourages a continuous dialogue as evidence of their engagement, or reach out to them with a quick comment after class and let them know that you appreciate their contributions, and that you value their input.

Here are some other strategies for helping introverted students, from Canadian Teacher Magazine:

  • Give the students options in assignments and classroom activities that allow introverts and extroverts to choose which helps them learn and develop best. One option is allowing students to choose whether to work in groups or individually.
  • Give introverts the time to process information and respond later. They need time to process information at their own speed and a private space without distractions and overwhelming stimulus.
  • Allow written dialogue and interaction, which now work well with computers, cell phones, the Internet and social media.
  • Break the assignments into multiple, staged smaller assignments, since introverts can be overwhelmed by deadlines and the way they think at length about large tasks.
  • Give introverts breaks to restore their energy.
  • Give the introverts privacy by letting them keep the results of their work private.
  • Be aware that tests favor extroverts, and disadvantage introverts. Introverts need conditions that allow them to focus and concentrate without distractions, tasks that allow them time to process information, which suggests they learn better with long-term assignments than tests with surprise questions. 
  • Give the introverts strategies for interacting with people, such as preparing a script beforehand. Introverts are stressed by having to interact with others verbally in spontaneous situations, including talking on the phone, and by having to attend long meetings with large groups. Being able to take notes helps them adjust.
  • Give the students work with cameras. Like taking notes, cameras allow introverts to mediate with the world in a separate, reflective way and, at the same time, give them a framework for developing interaction and social skills.
  • Empower introverts with the awareness that they have the right to set boundaries that make them feel comfortable dealing with others.

Finally, parents should view their introverted child with understanding rather than fear that they will be left behind socially or in leadership positions. It will likely work out fine. In fact, researchers have found that introverted CEOs tend to perform better than extroverted ones, so there's even hope that they might have a boss who understands them and how they work best later in life.

But, really, how can an introvert ever become a successful leader, you ask? Can a person who prefers solitude to interacting with groups of people ever become highly successful and have people want to follow them or garner a great deal of attention and respect from others?

In response, please consider that: Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Marcel Proust, Frédéric Chopin, Charles Darwin, Steve Wozniak, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Steven Spielberg, J.K. Rowling, Charles Schulz, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Dale Carnegie, Albert Einstein, Dr. Seuss, Warren Buffett, Al Gore, Charles Schwab, David Letterman, Barbara Walters, Isaac Newton, Pablo Picasso ("Without great solitude, no serious work is possible”), W. B. Yeats, George Orwell, Johnny Carson, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Steve Martin and even Moses, Jesus, and Buddha have been identified by Cain in her research as introverts.

If my child or yours were to grow up to have the qualities and accomplishments of those people that came before them, I think we would all be quite satisfied providing them with a little solitude and quiet reflection on which to build their greatness. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Zi said: ''Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.''

Monday, June 17, 2013

Our Kids Are Exactly What We See. Even When They Aren't.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. - Martin Luther King Jr.
As I said previously: the Internet allows people an opportunity to put themselves out there in ways that no other media can.  It allows people to share, speak out, help others, question things, look for support, develop new knowledge and become part of a larger, global conversation/community.

The offshoot is that, like it or not, we should all consider what our "digital footprint" looks like over time: that trail of data left behind by the interactions that we all have had in a digital environment. Blogs, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest, they all paint a portrait of who you are, what you are all about, and what you think, feel and believe over time. What does yours look like?  More importantly, what does your son's or daughter's say about them to potential admissions officers, employers and people who they will want to enter into future relationships with?

Will your children be satisfied with people judging them by, to paraphrase Dr. King above, their content and their character as it is portrayed online right now?  What about in ten years?  Twenty?

For teenagers who have come of age in a world where reality TV has dominated their viewing practices, it probably seems perfectly normal or even in some ways necessary to disclose their opinions, desires, locations, relationships and activities during seemingly every moment of the day through various digital means. In fact, much new educational  research on engagement and relevancy in classrooms encourages students to have more opportunities to become “content creators” and eschew traditional essays and reports in favor of  the creation of videos, photo essays, blogs and the use of Twitter to communicate and share their writing and demonstrate their understanding of new content.

This is a great example of where a real generation gap exists.  For anyone over thirty, the constant revelation of every thought, event and conflict that occurs during the day by our young people is at the very least narcissistic and embarrassing and, at worst, compromising and dangerous. Most adults understand the value of privacy the ability to control what people know about them and their personal life. Adults tend to shape their self-presentation to fit their audience. Young people tend to have the opposite approach.

Most of the kids who have been raised over the last 20 years have been fed a steady diet of self esteem building messages and activities that helped shape and create what many people have described as the "Me, Me, Me Generation." That, in conjunction with the Internet's ability to provide a worldwide audience for whatever content they may produce has made every waking moment and thought seem important enough to release into the world. But what are the messages that our developing and often emotional and immature children are putting out there?  And at what cost to them long term?

Because of much media attention and education, most teens have become relatively savvy about sharing information that might make them vulnerable to online predators such as addresses, e-mails and phone numbers. That being said, posting compromising pictures or information about themselves that they may later regret has become a rite of passage for most young people, despite a growing number of stories in the media reporting that young people are losing out on leadership positions, college acceptances, scholarships, internships and jobs because of things discovered online by people interested in their content and their character.

What will your child's reputation be? At this point, many teenagers may genuinely feel that the identity that they have established for being outrageous, funny, “hot” or “not giving a $#%&” matters more than anything else to them. As parents and educators who have a long term vision beyond 3:00 PM this afternoon, we have a responsibility to remind them that later in life they may not feel that way. For most, getting into college, finding a good job and a fulfilling relationship will likely supersede the need to maintain a high school reputation five or ten years from now, so it’s vital to help them establish habits such as imagining what a future employer or ​relationship partner will feel about what they are posting today.

Have you searched for your son or daughter online? Try this: Get together with your son or daughter and put their name or nicknames, surrounded by quotes (and maybe the abbreviation of the state you live in) into a search engine and see what comes up. Try using Dogpile or Clusty which show results from multiple search engines at the same time. You might be surprised by the amount of content and the things contained therein, so be prepared for anything.  In many cases you will find that your child's name will yield not only  what they have posted themselves, but what others have posted about them as well. Ask them to use passwords when necessary to see their other content as well.  But be prepared for anything.  The results may be quite shocking and embarrassing.

Is this an invasion of privacy? Let me put it this way, if more than five billion people have potential access to it, it's not private.  That's the point, kid.

Is your child the respected, admired student leader that both you and their teachers know, or the misogynist, unkind, occasionally disrespectful, homophobic or racist teenager that is portrayed in their Twitter account?  Is your student an athlete and a scholar, or the student whose non-uniformed pictures on Facebook portray them frequently surrounded by red Solo plastic cups and plumes of suspicious looking smoke? Would you let your daughter leave the house in the clothes that she is wearing (or not wearing) in those pictures from the concert or party that she attended? Would you want your neighbors to see your children in that light? What would you think about the words and pictures attached to your kids being posted on a billboard with their name?  Because it is right now.  Anyone else can see what you see too.  Really.... who is this kid to the rest of the world? They are exactly who we see. Even if they aren't.

The reality likely is that your son or daughter is a little of both. And neither.  I tend to think that most teens, because they are still developing physically, mentally and emotionally, are what I call "situationally appropriate."  When surrounded by adults and given expectations for behavior and performance they will live up to your expectations.  In the absence of that context and while trying to fit in, we see other behaviors and attitudes creep up to the surface.  The content that you or a future adult who will be making decisions about the fate of your kids may find offensive was likely posted in a moments notice without much thought or in order to avoid feeling "left behind" from a group of friends who are doing the same thing.  The fact is, with teens and with adults, when people are part of a group, they often feel a loss of self-awareness and are less likely to follow normally accepted restraints and inhibitions, and the Internet is a pretty big group to belong to, let me tell you.

Recently, new "temporary" services like SnapChat and Vine allow kids to send content (primarily pictures and video content as well as messages) out to the world for a pre-determined amount of time.  Unfortunately, the safety of that format is a mirage as well.  It is quite easy to save that content forever and post it in other, more permanent formats.  So, that sexting picture that your 16-year old just sent to someone on SnapChat is just as likely to end up permanently on a message board somewhere with their name and home state attached when the relationship inevitably goes sour, as if they had posted it themselves.  It's a dangerous world, kids.

The point of this exercise should not be to judge the way our teens communicate, create and socialize but to get them to think more carefully about the online image of themselves that they are making. Management of your reputation is a lifelong challenge for anyone, but especially so for this generation who have put every moment of their lives into a medium that never really goes away even after you try to delete it.  There is always a record somewhere if someone really wants to find it.

Teaching your kids good habits now will hopefully avoid them leaving behind footprints that they will regret.  In addition it will make it more likely that they will be able to create an impression of themselves that they can be proud of when a potential employer or date searches for them or when they are parents and doing the same thing with their own children.

This video may help make the right impression for you: