Monday, February 24, 2014

Introversion, Extroversion and Education: The Montessori Mafia? Kahn Academy?

Susan Cain examines the plight of the introverted children who must develop intellectually in an environment that is increasingly biased towards extroversion as the optimal personality in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. She claims that between a third and a half of all people are introverted by genetic temperament. She provides this brief description of the difference in approaches of the two personality types in social situations:

"[Introverts] listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions."

"[Extroverts] tend to be assertive, dominant, and in great need of company. Extroverts think out loud and on their feet; they prefer talking to listening, rarely find themselves at a loss for words, and occasionally blurt out things they never meant to say. They’re comfortable with conflict, but not with solitude."

Cain is worried because our preschool and elementary schools are increasingly organized to encourage and even demand a focus on learning through group activities, an arena which introverts tend to find uncomfortable and one in which they are at a disadvantage. She believes this stifles learning and creativity in the class of student that is destined to be the most creative and highest in academic performance.

When researchers study the characteristics of people that would be defined as "creative" by society, they arrive at a prototype.

"One of the most interesting findings….was that the more creative people tended to be socially poised introverts. They were interpersonally skilled but ‘not of an especially sociable or participative temperament.’ They described themselves as independent and individualistic. As teens, many had been shy and solitary."

Cain draws a conclusion from the studies of creative people.

"….there’s a less obvious yet surprisingly powerful explanation for introverts’ creative advantage—an explanation that everyone can learn from: introverts prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation."

Cain tells us that standard intelligence tests indicate little difference between extroverts and introverts. However, when it comes to academic achievement and the ability to solve complex problems differences emerge.

"Extroverts get better grades than introverts during elementary school, but introverts outperform extroverts in high school and college. At the university level, introversion predicts academic performance better than cognitive ability….Introverts receive disproportionate numbers of graduate degrees, National Merit Scholarship finalist positions, and Phi Beta Kappa keys. They outperform extroverts on the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal test, an assessment of critical thinking widely used by businesses for hiring and promotion."

If one accepts these findings, then some of our teaching practices seem to be not only ineffective, but absurd. It should then be of interest to us to investigate alternate methods of education that are more introvert-friendly.

The Montessori method of teaching, as applied to early and preschool education, has been suggested as being effective at instilling creativity in individuals. Peter Sims, in a Wall Street Journal article, pointed out the disproportionate numbers of "creative" individuals who seemed to have benefited from a Montessori education. He also seems to have coined the phrase "Montessori Mafia."

"The Montessori Mafia showed up in an extensive, six-year study about the way creative business executives think. Professors Jeffrey Dyer of Brigham Young University and Hal Gregersen of globe-spanning business school INSEAD surveyed over 3,000 executives and interviewed 500 people who had either started innovative companies or invented new products."

"’A number of the innovative entrepreneurs also went to Montessori schools, where they learned to follow their curiosity,’ Mr. Gregersen said. ‘To paraphrase the famous Apple ad campaign, innovators not only learned early on to think different, they act different (and even talk different)’."

The Montessori approach:

"….emphasizes a collaborative environment without grades or tests, multi-aged classrooms, as well as self-directed learning and discovery for long blocks of time, primarily for young children ages 2 1/2 to 7."

This approach would seem to allow introverted children more freedom to explore at their own pace and to pursue their specific interests rather than be imbedded constantly in a team activity.

The term "Montessori mafia" is suggested by the fact that the entrepreneurs responsible for creating some of the most important and innovative institutions of this day benefited from a Montessori education in their formative years:

"….Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, videogame pioneer Will Wright, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales…."

A partial list of significant Montessori students can be found here. In addition to the above, Jacqueline Kennedy, Anne Frank, and Julia Child are among the included.

Perhaps one should not be too surprised that children sent to expensive preschools by successful parents would also tend to be successful in later life. Nevertheless, as a group, they seem to attribute much responsibility for what they ultimately became to their Montessori experiences.

"When Barbara Walters, who interviewed Google founders Messrs. Page and Brin in 2004, asked if having parents who were college professors was a major factor behind their success, they instead credited their early Montessori education.  ‘We both went to Montessori school,’ Mr. Page said, ‘and I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, and being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, doing things a little bit differently’."

Here, we have some indication that freeing children from the straitjacket of team approaches can be beneficial.

While the Montessori approach is mostly applied to very young children, there is a promising attempt to apply modern technologies to allow children of all ages to pursue knowledge more effectively and at a more self-determined pace. Michael Noer describes the approach of Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy in an article in Forbes: One Man, One Computer, 10 Million Students: How Khan Academy Is Reinventing Education.

The traditional teaching approach involves a teacher conveying concepts to a group of children who are expected to absorb what is being taught. Much of actual class time must be spent compensating for the fact that children are unique and they learn in different ways and at differing rates. The Khan approach is to invert this process—"flipping the classroom" in other words.

"….the idea is that students watch [recorded] lectures and work through problem sets on their own time, at their own pace. Once they prove mastery of a concept, adaptive software will suggest new ones, much like Amazon recommends new books. Teachers are kept abreast of students’ progress through back-end dashboards. Class time once reserved for lectures would be devoted to mentoring and one-on-one tutoring."

Teachers are provided software that monitors students’ performance and alerts them to the students experiencing difficulties. They can focus their time on these students and their particular problems. This should allow both teachers and children to use their time more efficiently.

"The Khan Academy, which features 3,400 short instructional videos along with interactive quizzes and tools for teachers to chart student progress, is a nonprofit, boasting a mission of ‘a free world-class education for anyone anywhere’."

"….covers a staggering array of topics–from basic arithmetic and algebra to the electoral college and the French Revolution. The videos are quirky affairs where you never see the instructor (usually Salman Khan himself, who personally has created nearly 3,000 of them). Instead, students are confronted with a blank digital blackboard, which, over the course of a ten-minute lesson narrated in Khan’s soothing baritone, is gradually filled up with neon-colored scrawls illustrating key concepts. The intended effect is working through homework at the kitchen table with your favorite uncle looking over your shoulder."

"Over the past two years Khan Academy videos have been viewed more than 200 million times. The site is used by 6 million unique students each month (about 45 million total over the last 12 months), who have collectively solved more than 750 million problems (about 2 million a day), and the material, which is provided at no cost, is (formally or informally) part of the curriculum in 20,000 classrooms around the world. Volunteers have translated Khan’s videos into 24 different languages, including Urdu, Swahili and Chinese."

Both the Montessori and Kahn Academy methods recognize the fact that learning happens when individuals devote concentrated effort to understanding new concepts. Teachers can teach, but it is up to the individual to learn. And it is individuals who must exert the effort, not teams.

Instead of enduring incessant battles between the various constituencies over who is to blame for the sorry state of education, perhaps it is time to recognize the fact that the world has changed and methods that have been essentially stagnant for over a century are in need of a fundamental overhaul.


  1. You might read Angeline Lillard's book from 2005, called "The Science Behind the Genius". She shows through a randomized, control trial that children in Montessori schools out perform their peers at traditional schools, again, isolating the "well to do" families. Also, Shernoff makes the case for Montessori in his masterful work "Optimal Learning Environments that Promote Student Engagement", published just last summer. Montessori is the unique method that allows a child to learn at their own pace, in their own matter. No group or individual learning is ever forced or expected...the children are encouraged to self-organize in ways that allow their unique learning style to flourish.

  2. ..meant to say "isolating the "well to do" family factor.

  3. Thanks for the suggested reading material.


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