Let’s Listen to the Quiet Ones: How Quiet Students Thrive in Remote Learning

By: Professor Heidi K. Brown (Brooklyn Law School)

A new book for introverted shy and socially anxious lawyers

Midway through pandemic lockdown in New York City, my television was tuned to CNN one Saturday morning while I exercised in my kitchen. My ears perked up at hearing an elementary school principal in Washington, D.C.—Dr. Sundai Riggins—relay in an interview how students who were not talkative in in-person classes were expressing themselves more frequently in distance learning. I thought, Wow, I wish every educator (and politician) could hear that message!

 When the law school where I teach switched to “emergency remote learning” in March, I too noticed students who rarely raised their hand in our live classroom quickly embracing online communication tools such as the “hand-raise” and “chat” features in Zoom. These electronic functions enable quiet students to signal a desire to contribute without having to interrupt their more voluble classmates or teacher to be heard. (Introverts resist interruption—to themselves and others.) This got me thinking, Are other educators across the country noticing an uptick in participation by quiet students during the pandemic?

 As an introvert, and someone who has grappled with public speaking anxiety throughout a 29-year arc from law student to construction litigator to law professor, I often falter when “cold-called” (questioned without advance notice) in live classrooms and meetings, though I am prepared. I have always needed time to reflect on and process complex principles before speaking aloud. I do not thrive when put on-the-spot. Even as a tenured professor now, I blush and my heart races when I am quizzed in public settings (faculty meetings, for example). Contrary to what some (extroverted or confident) educators may believe, this does not mean I am unprepared or disengaged, or “just need to be pushed out of my comfort zone.” It also does not mean I was not “cut out for the law,” which is what I erroneously believed for many anxiety-ridden years. Instead, I—like many of our quiet students—simply need a pause for contemplation before jumping into the fray. And trust me, when I do speak, it’s because I have something to say, and I have thought it through. I never speak just for the sake of speaking.

In blogs, Facebook posts, news articles, and emails from educator friends, teachers across multiple levels of education have reported an increase in participation and communication by quiet students in remote classrooms. Teachers in elementary schools, high schools, colleges, and graduate schools have shared that quiet students are thriving in remote classrooms that offer multiple “modalities” of communication—rather than just the usual expectation to answer spontaneous questions in front of their peers. Quiet students are contributing ideas and insights through “chat” features in online platforms, discussion boards, polls, reflection assignments, and emails.

When I hear politicians decrying remote learning as “an across-the-board disaster,” I bristle. Once again, it is as if our quiet students—and their momentum and enfranchisement in this new setting—are invisible or less important than the comfort of loud, gregarious students who miss the jolt of social interaction. Let’s heed the lessons our quiet students are illustrating. One-size-fits-all education can change; our students are showing us how.

Traditional approaches toward mandating and measuring class “participation” underserve quiet students. The blanket approach of requiring all students to wave their hands in the air to prove “engagement” favors only extroverted and confident students. The loudness bias in education overlooks the value of quietude and silence in learning, and in life.

Remote learning has offered a prime opportunity to alter our definition of “participation” in the classroom and help our quiet students amplify their voices authentically. We instructors (and loud students) have so much to learn from the quiet ones.

Introverted students think before they speak. Many prefer writing over “performing” through speech. Introverts naturally vet and test their nascent ideas internally, then enjoy articulating insights in a medium that allows for thoughtful selection (and revision) of words and phrases. In a different vein, shy students grapple with fear of judgment, criticism, exclusion, and rejection. Prodding introverted or shy students to mirror the behavior of extroverted or confident students to “push quiet students out of their comfort zone” is never going to help them amplify their voices in a healthy, meaningful, or lasting way. Also, we need their quiet thinking, not more noise.

For decades as a litigator, I tried applying (well-meaning) advice from mentors to “fake it till you make it!” That never worked. When I finally stopped trying to fake extroversion and instead honored my quiet, studious approach to legal communication, my thoughts and words accrued power and impact. Instead of forcing our quiet students to be louder, we should create space and listen.

Remote classrooms offer four important augmentations for these students: (1) reduction of overstimulation and distractions present in live classrooms that can disrupt quiet students’ thinking; (2) a decrease in social pressures and intimidation that can hinder quiet students from participating; (3) a wider range of communication channels to demonstrate engagement; and (4) asynchronous learning opportunities, nurturing quiet students’ need for independence and contemplation before sharing their ideas (preferably in writing).

As introversion expert Susan Cain illuminated in her renowned TED Talk, The Power of Introverts,“[o]ur most important institutions, our schools and our workplaces, are designed mostly for extroverts.” Indeed, as Katherine Schultz wrote in her impactful book Rethinking Classroom Participation: Listening to Silent Voices (Teachers College Press 2009), “[t]eachers often define classroom participation as a verbal response that fits into a routine or a teacher-established pattern of classroom discourse.” Schultz urges us to realize that silence is a form of student participation; it can symbolize reflection, contemplation, thoughtfulness, strategic timing, and creativity—activities our society sorely needs right now.

Two points merit further emphasis. First, providing and truly valuing multiple modalities of “participation” will be transformational for quiet students; this is the opposite of letting students “opt out” or “take a pass.” Let’s adopt a Field of Dreams “if you build it, they will come” approach. Let’s construct diverse communication pipelines for students to experiment with their voices in lower-stakes settings. There, they will develop trust and confidence in their voices, eventually stepping into public performance arenas with increased fortitude.

Second, it is a mistake for educators to believe that universal cold-calling (randomly calling on all students) equals inclusivity and belonging in the classroom because every student is eventually “heard,” not just the dominant ones. This approach only serves to nurture the ego, well-being, and comfort level of the already loud, confident students. Cold-calling all students—without proper understanding of and empathy for our students’ diverse personalities, learning styles, and stressors—further marginalizes quiet students who arrive at our classrooms with little historical or institutional guidance and support for navigating this type of public performance. Rather than pushing quiet, thoughtful students to mirror loquacious students’ dominant behavior, we should teach the students monopolizing airtime how to self-regulate; their purposeful silence makes space for diverse voices.

As we shift to more intentional online (and in-person) teaching, let’s build communication systems and structures that truly foster inclusion and belonging, rather than further entrenching outdated educational models that only favor garrulous students. Let’s listen to the quiet ones. They will change the world.

How do you create an inclusive learning environment for introverted students? Share your good ideas at teachlawbetter.com, and we might just post them!

Share our content!