Learning Styles vs. Introversion

I’ve just finished reading Susan Cain’s Quiet, which is a must-read for anyone in instructional design. (And by must-read I don’t mean you should read it because you will like it, but that you should read it because to not read it would be negligent: this book will open your eyes to an educational system increasingly demanding extroversion for success).

There’s a lot of thoughts swirling around my head right now, but one of the more interesting ones is this: why have we wasted so much time talking about learning styles (which don’t seem to matter much in practice with success at classroom activity) and made so little time for talking about the introversion/extroversion spectrum of personality, which seems, in my experience at least, to matter quite a lot?

I’m going to guess it’s because there’s money in coming up with Netflixy learning styles solutions, but there’s not much in deconstructing the assumptions inherent in group work. Other ideas?


Giulia F. takes me to task for simplifying the learning styles issue. I agree! I’ve written about this issue with more subtlety before, and was rushing to get this post done before my morning commute. In any case here is my response to Giulia:

Thanks Giulia — I often speak in a shorthand about learning styles that doesn’t always capture the complexity of the issue (witness the amazingly convoluted sentence at about them in this post). I believe, in fact, that my position on the subject is somewhat closer to Kolb’s, who I seem to remember saying at one point that of course reading literature was going to require one set of preference-independent skills and doing math another. And that’s largely the rub — the impact of those authentic barriers tends to outweigh the impact of our arbitrary ones.

That doesn’t mean that we should not address the arbitrary barriers, but that the way in which this has been presented and implemented has been just this side of astrology in many cases. The focus on “styles” trivializes deeper issues that students are having engaging with the course. We can’t deal with these issues without a fundamental rethink about what education is about.

So I agree that what we really need when we look at both accessibility and these issues of introversion and “styles” is a universal design approach. And the issue becomes how we accommodate multiple routes to participation while both incorporating smart design based on research and while preventing the complete fracturing of the educational community we are attempting to build around a common experience.

Online approaches, from the earliest Usenet groups to the latest cMOOC or ds106 experience, have some lessons for us there. And, admittedly, display some blind spots as well. I didn’t post my massive post on what universal access looks like on the intro/extro-version spectrum, but the upshot is that if you imagine a workplace that values the work of both introverts and extroverts that you can work back pretty directly to a model for teaching. I hope to cover that in a future, meatier post.

11 thoughts on “Learning Styles vs. Introversion

  1. I don’t think that’s it. Learning styles were fashionable many years before adaptive platforms became the new thing. But if you’re looking for a cynical answer, how about this one: Its invocation helps the speaker to easily create the illusion of student centricity and deep knowledge of learning without actually having either of those things. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard “But what about learning styles?” asked, eyebrow arched archly, with the same level of smug vacuousness as “But what about accessibility?” OK, what about them? Usually, the conversation ends there. It’s a shibboleth, really. Or maybe a prison tat. Occasionally, some sucker actually takes it seriously and does more fruitless research or invents a silly adaptive system based on whether you are a visual learner and whether you love or hate Fruit Loops. And that’s sad when it happens.

    Introvert/extrovert doesn’t work well as a shibboleth, for several reasons. First, psychologists already own this, so it’s not as much fun as making up your own secret language. Second, it’s binary, so there aren’t as many ways to flush out tribal outsiders. With learning styles, sure, most people know “visual,” but try throwing “kinesthetic” at them and watch them squirm! Third, most people have a visceral enough sense of what it means to be an introvert or an extrovert that they actually can have their own insights about it. Which is not the point at all. And finally, partly because the words are widely understood, they describe something that feels actually personal. Deeply so, in fact. There’s always the danger that somebody could turn the gun around and point it at you. “So, you seem pretty introverted; what do you struggle with in the classroom?” No, no, no, no. That is not the power relationship we’re looking for AT ALL.

  2. I agree with Michael there and would add: we want learning to be a BRAIN thing (as if it were all just data processing efficiency), and we are in seriously deep denial about the emotional dimensions of learning in general.

    One of the things I always joke about is that I am NFJ on the MB personality type thing, but equally divided between IE – I’m extreme on the NFJ measures, but whether I turn out E or I really depends on my mood that day. I teeter right there at the middle, which I think is what has made me so content teaching online: online is a way to be extroverted but with a strong element of introversion also. ENFJ is normally called the ‘teacher type” … but I’d be willing to nominate (I-E)NFJ as the online teacher type. 🙂

  3. Ha! Very true. The recent resurgence of learning style mush is perhaps driven by products, but you’re right, it was propagated by teachers and in-service instructors for years before adaptive learning products. In ways that would have made Kolb blush.

    I like your take on this — that the LS response allowed people to look attentive to things without really demanding change, and created power for the person using the terms; the question of introversion, on the other hand, demands we actually listen to people other than ourselves, and points out that we may be engaging in harmful activity with our students, which is not a dissonance we want to deal with.

    There’s maybe yet another (related) thing, I realize, as I write this. And that is that we’ve embedded the extroversion assumption into a lot of our goals as well as methods (“We’re going to teach our students to be leaders!”) and rethinking biases inherent in long-standing goals is harder than methods. Just last week Downes wrote about a teacher that argued the point of college was that people be able to defend ideas verbally in public on the spot. Downes brings up the very good question of why. I know many valuable people in my work that express themselves best through writing, or manage to communicate things one-on-one to people who then do the public speaking for them. Is that a failure of our system? Or is that in fact a highly functional diverse workplace at work? To cut into that question you have to trip a lot of wires plugged into a power and value system that has put many people (including professors) where they are. And that’s not as fun as the arched eyebrow hit and run comment.

  4. Right. Nobody likes to be accused of being an introvert. Especially if you’re a male. Everybody knows that introverts don’t get chicks. It’s a little like acne that way. A minor blemish that can be cured but nevertheless is deserving of pity.

    (Wow, this whole “taking a break from coffee” thing is harder than I thought it would be.)

  5. Laura, great points (although I’ll admit it’s been long time since I looked at Myers-Briggs). I think a lot of people who excel at online are people who enjoy the sort of introverted way online lets you engage in extroverted activity. In fact, I have a long draft of a post on that in the drafts folder — but, classic introvert, I nixed pushing publish because it didn’t hit the level of subtlety I wanted.

    Michael, the gender question is interesting. Quiet argues that the 19th c. ideal of a woman was one that was very introverted — but also argues that the ideal of a man in the 19th c. was considerably more balanced toward introversion as well. Of course, because of power dynamics the question becomes much more fraught for females generally, and I think that leads to your broader point that it’s not about making an introverted or extroverted classroom, but allow multiple equally valid ways to engage with classmates, and creating a culture which values that diversity.

      • I registered for a conference once for introverts. No one showed up.

        This is a great conversation, and I appreciate Michael Feldstein lighting the flames (I am anxious for the first time I can use “prison tat”).

        After doing a May storytelling large group activity with Barbara Ganley, we were interviewed by someone writing for Psychology Today who was there. She surprised that we both identified as introverts — there is supposed to be a link for that next week on an article about Storytelling for Introverts.

        For me Story*telling* has emphasis on the performance, while I am more interested in Story*making* as a creative and expressive act.

        And one I can do alone in the dark.

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