Traditional school heavily favors the introvert

The difference between extroverts and introverts is how they think. An introvert thinks silently, and when he has come up with an answer, he talks. An extrovert thinks out loud. The process of talking helps an extrovert think.

So guess who flourishes in school? That’s right: the introvert. And guess who runs Fortune 500 companies? The extrovert, of course. So why do we have a school system that favors people who are are not leaders? We have a school system that rewards kids for behavior that, above all, indicates that if you left the kid to their own devices they would read and think quietly on their own.

Good students read and think all the time. Independently.

Good leaders talk a lot and think out loud and need people around them who are listening.

Extroverts spend their time in school listening to the teacher talk, waiting for school to end so they can start learning.

There is not one right for for people to learn. Different people learn different ways. But school is based mostly on a single way to learn: listening and reading. Visual people are terrible listeners, because they learn by looking and listening just annoys them. People who learn by doing have very few outlets at school. It’s much more expensive to teach by doing, so schools focus on teaching by reading as a cost-cutting measure.

It’s hard to know what kind of learner you have when your learner is in preschool, but by the time your kid is seven or eight you know.  My youngest son, for example, learns by doing, in groups, which is what’s happening in this photo. It didn’t matter that he was younger than everyone in the room. It didn’t matter that he was the only kid without a fiddle playing fiddle music. He was in his learning sweet spot and he loved it.

Here’s a really good, free version of the Myers Briggs test that you might be able take for you child. Or, if that’s not working for you, you can hire someone to help you. I decided to double check what I thought I knew, and I hired Mariaemma Willis, author of Discover Your Child’s Learning Style. She consults for parents who have kids in school and people who homeschool. She helps you understand how your kid learns and helps you make a plan to allow the kid to learn that way.

Willis is much more open-minded than I am. She is willing to work with teachers to help a kid learn better.  I think the whole school thing is a waste of time. But it’s important for me to listen to people who have more open minds than I do. It makes me feel more justified in my close-mindedness about school.

24 replies
  1. Joanna
    Joanna says:

    Even though we started homeschooling because of our extrovert oldest, it’s really our introvert middle child that has benefited the most. He is drained by being in crowds and noise and we knew school would have damaged him. He needs lots of air in his day for thinking, daydreaming, reading and creating. And now the oldest is very happy in college, where he can talk a lot, think out loud and when he has to just listen, it’s to someone saying something he finds really interesting.

    • Heather Caliri
      Heather Caliri says:

      I’d agree–I can see how school would favor the quiet habits of an introvert, but as one, I found school exhausting. Forced to be with people all day, doing contrived “group” work, surrounded by noise and stimulation. When I think about it I can’t believe how many years I was in the middle of it.

      • Lori
        Lori says:

        i was going to say i agree — i think introverts suffer in traditional school. but really both introverts *and* extroverts suffer in school.

        there is some person who exists at the center of the Bell curve who loves desk work, doesn’t mind sitting all day, wants to please others, doesn’t require a lot of social stimulation, and etc. — THAT person thrives in public school.

        but both introverts and extroverts suffer from the one-size-fits-all public education that doesn’t offer the quiet focus that one needs nor the collaborative learning that the other needs.

  2. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    I agree that introverts tend to do better in school. Growing up, I judged others and was baffled by why people wouldn’t just do their work and shut up. It’s not a haven for introverts either (as you have also indicated), especially now.

    In plastering an irreparable system with bandages, school districts are pushing interactive, expressive, and hands-on learning. Funding is now going specifically into equipping teachers to create more interpersonal learning environments.

    A problem with this–even though I agree that at least half of kids need this type of environment–is that now introverted learners (including myself) are pissed at all the extroverted rubbish required of them. You can’t get out of debt by using one credit card to pay off another, so to speak.

    I don’t think the idea of public school is dead, but to overhaul it to make it philosophically coherent would require an overhaul of the federal dept. of education and various state-level roadblocks. Not gonna happen, IMO. The only way this could happen is if enough teachers realize that the “someone’s gotta do it” mentality is actually hurting kids by impeding progress.

    Now I just gotta start walking the walk and get out of schooling.

  3. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I did the “really good, free version of Myers Briggs.” At first, I disliked the video format. Then it gave textual comparison, which I prefer. Best of all, though, it asks which two traits you’re closest on, then guides you on choosing between them. The paper/book version can’t do this, so I always had this unrestful feeling I had gotten it “wrong.”
    I’m very much like a “J” but the crux of it came down to how I execute plans. I love the beginning of things, which is “P”. The “J” loves to finish; I like to start.

    So an INFP it is, actually.

  4. Jim
    Jim says:

    I’m an introvert, and school was a constant sensory overload from which I needed considerable time each afternoon to recover. I never felt like it was particulary optimized for me!

    There are more kinds of leaders than the kind that run Fortune 500 companies. The most introverted person I know is the pastor of an inner-city church. I manage 11 software testers and have built my company’s testing practice.

    The rest of your post is right, though — people learn in different ways, and school is optimized for one way.

    • Andrea
      Andrea says:

      There are a great many leaders who are introverts. When I began reading this blog post, I was shocked at the mis-led assumptions and beliefs that you were putting out there. But, this dialogue is an important one to have. So, be real, speak your truth, and know that it may not be the whole truth. There are many, many quiet leaders that the world would miss. That school is good or bad for a particular temperament might be oversimplified and narrow. There are many types of schools and teachers.. .

  5. Gareth
    Gareth says:

    I think there are two different personality types: those who buy the Myers-Briggs typology and those who don’t. Quick tests with questions like “Are you fond of stunningly simplistic generalizations? Y/N” can help determine which you are.

    School is not optimized for introverts, and is become less so by the day. One of the reasons is the current fad of “constructivism.” In the old days (too old for any present to remember), the student was left to find an answer on his own, and called on by the teacher to give it. Right answers were responded with praise, and wrong with condemnation. This was hard enough on the introvert (who might excel at finding right answers, but not wish to share them out loud).

    Today’s schools are far different from that, and in the typical attempt to “improve” the schools, they have been made worse. Students are required to work in groups almost all day long, which is more tiresome for the introvert than solitary work. The groups are not taught any method for arriving at answers beyond “everybody agree with whoever in the group shouts the loudest.” They are not even provided with textbooks they can study in solitude to find the right answers and methods.

    Instead of “Johnny, what is the answer to 5A, 2+2?” it’s “Group B, what have you all decided is a good method for determining what 2+2 might be?” Whoever is the most extroverted in the group will blurt out some nonsense (which may not, under kinder gentler rules of 21st Century Learning, be criticized), and the others will all shut up. It’s good training for future corporate idiocy, where the dumbest and most loudmouthed hires are marked for management training.

    Introverts will do far better out of today’s school.

    • Chad
      Chad says:

      So true about the “loudest in the group” wins mentality – all too common in corporate, and a terrible model for schools to follow. Fosters posturing and using others rather than learning and understanding by all.

  6. Becky Castle Miller
    Becky Castle Miller says:

    Traditional school may favor the introvert in learning style but not in environment. As an INFJ, I would have HATED public school. I would have hated private school too. Being around people all day in a noisy, bustling environment would have zapped all my strength and ability to learn. Homeschooling was great for introverted, visual-learning me – I had hours of relative quiet to learn by reading. My more outgoing and kinesthetic learning brothers also benefitted from homeschooling. They spent time building tree forts and zip lines and Lego models of historical ships and scale papier-mache solar systems. (Though the solar system is still a sore spot for me…the brother was threading meteors when he left a needle in the carpet, which broke off in my foot when I stepped on it, which led to a tetanus shot. The untold dangers of homeschooling!)

  7. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    Let’s face it, public school is something that is endured by all children. It’s designed for the teachers and parents!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yeah, I think you’re right. There really seem to be no types of learners who would enjoy being in school. Kids learn all sorts of different ways and none of them are the way schools teach.

      I’m struck by the number of people who explained how they, in particular, learn, and why school doesn’t work. This comment string ends up being such a detailed, informative discussion of why school makes kids feel like bad learners.


      • Jenn
        Jenn says:


        Last evening I spoke with my sister about this, and her daughter is an introvert and has a hard time in school, they are forced to push all their desks together and must work on everything as a group. When she asked if she could pull her desk apart and sit alone she was denied. This group work is an endless source of anxiety for my niece.

        Next year my sister will pull her out and homeschool for a year, and then send her back to public school for middle school. As my sister said, to build up her confidence and give her a rest before she jumps into another year of public school. Fortunately my sister has a job where she can take her daughter to work with her and they can be together basically all day.

        My sister has done this with both her kids, a hybrid of homeschooling and then sending the kids back to school. She just adjusts along the way depending on what she or the kids need.

        I don’t think they could 100% homeschool k-12. They had some tough years homeschooling where my sister was going bonkers, her marriage was falling apart, and the kids rebelled…..and well, sending the kids to school out of the house for a couple years helped everybody in their family for a while-and marriage survived too!

        All this reminds me of Hillary Clinton’s book It takes a Village. I have not read the book, but my sister needed help at one point, and the public schools were there to do that. Not saying they do it well, but they are always available. I think all parents need a little help from society at large now and then. Especially when families live so far apart from one another and just geographically can’t be there day to day to help each other.

  8. Andrew Gilmartin
    Andrew Gilmartin says:

    This is also true for Waldorf schools. In part is because it is school and in part because the classroom teach has little to no support during the day. The kids that remain at the end of middle school are the ones that can sit still and listen (or ignore) for long periods of time. It was very sad to see my children’s classroom empty of the high spirited boys — it is always the boys.

  9. Jana Miller
    Jana Miller says:

    I can’t say that I agree. I am a teacher’s aide for 3 -5th grade classes in Orange County, a high achieving school district in California. They all favors extroverts. It’s noisy and there’s lots of group projects. The school day moves very fast.

    As an introvert-I hate that kind of work and that pace. I think the noise alone and the class size is difficult for most introverts. So while they may get their homework done, they are wiped out after the school day.

  10. ru
    ru says:

    I remember going through public school all my life and while being an introvert, I understood it was important to ‘get out there’ and have ‘achievements’ listed on my university applications to get to the program I wanted. So I had to force myself to join things like yearbook to get there and networked throughout uni to get the job I wanted. It worked out.

    Now, post-uni, though staying at home is subconsciously my preferred method to re-energize… but given I had to compensate that introversion for extroversion all these years, i didn’t end up do enough to nurture my introversion strengths and listen to my own intuitions, I am now going backwards to find it again. This had been the source of my mid-20 crisis.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That speaks to the big bait and switch of school – that kids get rewarded for being quiet and following rules. But when you get into adult life you are penalized for that.


  11. Chad
    Chad says:

    “So guess who flourishes in school? That’s right: the introvert. And guess who runs Fortune 500 companies? The extrovert, of course. So why do we have a school system that favors people who are are not leaders?”

    Even if it were true that introverts flourish in public school (which is balderdash – see S. Cain on TED and others), why would we cater a school system to a particular 1% of a population that is already well rewarded for their self promotion and capitalizing on the ingenuity and successes of others?

  12. Julie
    Julie says:

    I have one quiet daughter and one who finds it painful to stop talking. Neither was happy in school. The talker was our “behavior problem” in school though. Teachers did love my quiet, serious, well behaved child. But both of them found school to be very anxiety provoking. And both are more confident and happy being homeschooled.

  13. Michael
    Michael says:

    The ignorance articulated here is astounding. Introverts get better grades and are more knowledgeable because they are inherently better learners. But the instructional format in schools is geared entirely toward extraverts. Their grades are partially, and sometimes largely, dependent on class participation. Students are grouped together and forced to collaborate in the learning process, when introverts would so much rather go off and study the material by themselves. In fact, introverts are considered inferior students by most teachers, because they participate less, despite the fact that they get better grades.

    As for leadership, studies show that introverts make better leaders, because they listen to other people’s ideas, and because they’re cautious and thoughtful, and conceptual thinkers. The fact that most fortune 500 leaders are extraverts is a result of the ignorance of people like you who erroneously associate talkativeness with leadership skill.

    Fortunately, not everyone is as willfully uninformed as you clearly are, so the word of our potential is getting around, despite your combative efforts to reverse progress.

  14. beez
    beez says:

    Honestly, the idea that traditional school “heavily favors” introverted children sounds quite bizarre, if not utterly outlandish, unless this traditional school you’re talking about is an entity that is quite distant from our times. Indeed, I cannot help thinking that you could benefit from actually meeting and talking with some introverted children and teens, because I have a feeling that they do not quite notice the heavy favor they are supposedly enjoying.

    The answer to your question about why we care so much about kids who will not become Fortune 500 style leaders is simply that most of us believe in uniqueness and diversity, at least in theory. We do not believe that running a Fortune 500 company is, or should be, or can be, a dream of the majority of ordinary children, extrovert or not. If I say that school “heavily favors” introverts (though it doesn’t) because they are more likely to become great scholars and scientists, while extroverts can only become shallow businessmen and cheap talkers, you’ll be justly angry, will you not?

    Also, even if we did believe that running a Fortune company is more honorouble than winning a nobel literature prize, we would still have to concentrate on kids that are “not leaders,” for the obvious reason that these are the ones that your favorite leader-children will lead. And as we all know, there you can hardly be a great leader if there’s no great follower to follow you.

  15. BeeRGuest
    BeeRGuest says:

    School sucks. But it sucks for both E’s and I’s for different reasons. Like a OSFA t-shirt, it is not tailored, so it’s a fail for most. :(

    As Godin has pointed out, it was designed to create good little factory workers. Sadly I think it’s also created good little future prisoners as well. ‘Such a disgrace…

    Our kids deserve better. Good for you if you have the resources to offer more tailored schooling for your children.

  16. Jessica Smock
    Jessica Smock says:

    I just wrote a post about how my experiences as a teacher and as a student made me realize that school environments are detrimental to introverts. And then Lisa Nielsen pointed out that you had written a post arguing nearly the opposite point of view! Don’t you think that the research on both introversion and homeschooling point to similar changes in how we structure education?

  17. Lo
    Lo says:

    You’re conflating at least five totally distinct categories with no justification whatsoever.

    1. Introversion does NOT equal being a follower, and extroversion does NOT equal being a leader. Do you think that Hitler or Gandhi were bubbly extroverts? Do you think that an average class clown is a born leader? Since extroverts outnumber introverts, it is absurd, even considered a priori, to argue that the extrovert-introvert divide can translate to the leader-follower divide, unless your definition of “leader” is so generous that leaders outnumber followers.

    2. Introversion does NOT equal following rules, and extroversion does NOT equal not following rules. This should be quite obvious after a minimum amount of observation, so I need hardly argue for it. I only note that introverted kids are usually attacked for two contradictory reasons. Some say that they are too pliant, submissive, and obedient ; some say that they are too antisocial, sulky, and uncooperative. Hence, poor introverts are supposed to be utterly bland and devoid of individuality, yet also weirdos, eccentrics, geeks, mass murderers and what not.

    3. Introversion does NOT equal learning by listening, and extroversion does NOT equal learning by doing/seeing/touching/tasting etc. This, too, should be obvious, since you can find any number of introverts who suck at school work but excel at sports/cooking etc, and any number of extroverts who are great academically but are not very talented in other areas. Granted, there is probably a meaningful difference between the two personality types in this area ; but the difference is not nearly great enough to justify the assertion that traditional school heavily favours introverts.

    4. Introversion does NOT mean being fit for school, and extroversion does NOT mean being unfit for school. While there no doubt exist some children whose proper place is school, for the vast majority of children, school sucks. So the real question is who have it worse. And I’d say that school, because of its excessive noise, its constant stimulation, its unceasing publicity, and its lack of discipline and order, is definitely worse for introverts. School may be a waste of time for extroverts ; for introverts, it can be an active torture.

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