Sunday, June 10, 2012

Quiet Persistance: A Necessary Component of Student Success

 Nowadays most men lead lives of noisy desperation.  ~James Thurber

A popular educational philosophy argues that noise in a classroom signals that students are learning in an atmosphere of cooperation and equality.

Certainly, my own classroom has evolved from one of relative quite to one alive with the hum of student voices. In fact, the scales have tipped so that students spend more time in cooperative activities than in isolated, independent study.
After reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (Crown Publishers 2012) by Susan Cain, I have begun rethinking the value of the noisy classroom.

From noisy pep assemblies with cheerleaders shouting "A little bit louder, now" to the roaring student body to the classroom where teachers prod and plead with students to talk and to share, we celebrate and give our attention to the most vocal among us. We teachers often misinterpret introversion as a sign of disinterest and/or dislike for us and our subject.

Susan Cain speaks to the ways we organize our classrooms and work environments to promote group experiences and to celebrate extroverts while marginalizing isolated thought and introverts in this TED Talk:

Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi, Steve Jobs, and many others whom we admire and revere worked in isolation before going public. Indeed, Cain speaks about quietly working on Quiet for seven years.

Yet we educators find ourselves forced to collaborate in our PLCs regardless of whether or not we have something about which we want to collaborate. Moreover, we often push our students to do the same.

As Cain argues, we need both introverts and extroverts, and we need to teach our students the power of "quiet persistence." To illustrate the importance of students' ability to work alone, Cain shares results of the TIMSS exam (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study).

Asian students (Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore) consistently score higher than American and other students from around the world on the TIMSS. After analyzing student time on task answering a lengthy and tedious questionnaire that is part of the TIMSS but not factored into student scores, researchers concluded that "quiet persistence" explains the huge discrepancy in student performance (200-201).

That is, there is a correlation between the number of questions students answer on the questionnaire and student performance on the TIMSS. The greater number of questionnaire responses, the higher the TIMSS scores.

These results hold for younger children as well. Cain describes research by cross-cultural psychologist Priscilla Blinco who found that Asian first grade students will spend more time attempting to solve an unsolvable puzzle than do their American counterparts.

Why? "Blianco attributes these results to the Japanese quality of persistence," explains Cain (201).

In our education culture of test prep ad nauseum, the concept of quiet persistence and the importance of teaching our students how to quietly persist in their work has important implications, especially since so many students enter our classrooms lacking the social skills necessary for working quietly by oneself.

One need only attend a movie, concert, theatrical performance, or other public event to observe the increasing numbers of children unable to sit in a quiet and respectful manner, and they often have parents who both excuse and promote their extroversion in these venues.

As one who embraces those quiet moments in which I get to curl up with a good book and listen to the ideas of authors and characters, I shouldn't need reminding that, perhaps, more students prefer solitary study, too.

As one who values quiet public spaces from libraries to restaurants to auditoriums, I need to consider my students' needs for more quiet in their public school.

As one who has learned to embrace the quiet in my own empty nest and who acknowledges that I need to make quiet spaces and time to write this summer if I am to experience any success with the new modes of writing I'm exploring, I must afford my students this same solitude.

In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness. ~Mahatma Gandhi


  1. Thanks for sharing!

    I often struggle to find that balance in my own classroom. I was one of those students who preferred to work alone, but as a teacher, I also know the value of working with a partner or group. I try, as much as possible, to mix up the activities in class so I have a mix of noise and silence, but it's still an everyday challenge for me (and my students).

    1. I, too, preferred quiet classrooms. I think sometimes I allow noise so that I don't have to constantly deal w/ the talkers. Am I copping out?

    2. You know, sometimes I feel that way too. I don't remember my classrooms as a student being as loud and talkative. When a teacher said "quiet," we were quiet. Sometimes I wonder what is going through my students' heads when they insist on chatter while working.

  2. Glenda --

    I think technology can play a role for those kids who tend me to be a bit more introverted and introspective. If they can somehow make their contributions electronically, that might allow access to those thoughts that sometimes get lost among the flurry of automatically raised hands and those "old reliables" who always keep class discussion on track.

    One more thought: A lot of classroom games seem to be focused on creating more excitement than learning. Excitement is good and has a place in classrooms, definitely, but sometimes the running around and competition completely overwhelms the learning goals, and the introverts are the first ones to lose interest in those kinds of activities.

    Just added this book to my must-read list. Thanks for pushing it to the top.


    1. I agree w/ all you've said, Gary. I actually ordered the book at the request of a student. The part of the book that resonated most w/ me is the info about persistence. I see too many students who want to give up after very little time on task. I actually shared pp 200-201 w/ my speech class and began pushing this idea after reading the book.