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Looking for Quiet at High Tech High

Written on February 10th, 2015

The most interesting moment for me while at the High Tech High (HTH) residency this January was the response to a question—“What is the place of introverts in the 21st century?” While there may be a lot to be excited about for educators in the Project Based Learning approach that HTH espouses, it was obvious from the response of Rob Riordan (the Emperor of Rigor) that the non-extroverted half of the population wasn’t a consideration in the approach. After musing that he expected teachers in the classroom would be mindful of the needs of introverts, he concluded with an example of a student that had been allowed to finish their time at HTH in an individual project … Given the intentionality of so much of this school’s approach, the suggestion that after 12 years of group-schooling an exception was made so a student could work quietly on their own felt to me like it fell pretty flat.

As I walked around the HTH campuses in San Diego it became even more obvious that there wasn’t room here for introverts. There are no libraries—those oasis of silence for the introverted—and no quiet places of any kind for contemplation. Moving from classroom to classroom the configurations remained the same—small pods of grouped desks that epitomize teamwork, brainstorming and group-think. I couldn’t help but wonder how a more intentionally balanced approach could be supported in this school’s architecture, to encourage that introverts participate, using their innate strengths.

Perhaps there’s a misconception at work here … With many private and charter schools now setting their mandate as fostering the next generation of successful leaders, maybe the administration has too narrow an understanding of “success”. But, as Susan Cain wrote in a New York Times article entitled, “Must Great Leaders Be Gregarious?” this has more to do with the lack of importance we place on the leadership traits of “judgement, vision, and mettle” than it does with actually being a great leader. (Both this article and Cain’s chapter on Moses in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking are insightful on the topic …).

I’ve wondered how much educators in Ontario have been thinking about this broader perspective of the introverted half of our learners as they recommission libraries as “Learning Commons”? I sometimes suspect that I survived high school because of the library space. It wasn’t the books and other resources that I loved about the space, it was the quiet. As everyone knows, being a teenager is tough, but my days in school would have been unbearable had I not had that place of quiet to be left alone with my thoughts. With the desks scattered haphazardly around the room and the books on the shelves naturally dampening the sound into a pleasing hum, the library let me be still. In that stillness I made sense of my learning and my feelings—and then returned refreshed and ready for more.

Last year when I attended the Ontario Library Association’s Super Conference I heard how Bill Derry had set up a 5 meter (16 feet) by 6 meter (20 feet) Maker Space in the centre of the Westport Library. Inside this open gallery they invited the public and local artists to use the host of tools they had assembled. The first artist was a mechanist who created large-scale steel model airplanes—which sounds amazing in almost any space except a library! As those using the grinders to shape their aircraft’s metal frames worked away, I can only imagine how the library’s sanctuary crumbled …

I think it’s ironic that a traditional way of learning grounded in introverted strengths—which is also perhaps one of Christianity’s greatest contribution to cultural formation—is now so little appreciated within many “innovative” faith-based schools. The middle ages remain a time of educational flourishing in many ways. And, although a term like “medieval” is usually applied today to a backward notion, a worldview which understood something divine as the centre of all things brought about a lot of good. But I think it’s the centrality which the middle ages and their monasteries placed on silence that we’re most in need of remembering.

Amid the present conversations about student-engagement and job-applicableness, I fear we’ve lost the vision of how sweet the learning arboretums were that we tended in our past. We talk today of the leaves of those trees as the skills being learned, and the fruits as their tangible results, but I think we’re in danger of forgetting the flowers that bloomed from silent contemplation. As St. Augustine wrote many centuries ago in his Confessions, “Fixed times must be kept free for the health of the soul … Why do we hesitate to knock at the door which opens the way to all the rest?” Augustine was writing about his mentor Ambrose, and his habit of taking daily time to be silent. To name quiet as the way to open the door of understanding is profound and I hope educators are listening. I can’t think of any institution today that can effectively create habits for fixed quiet-times than exists in our schools.

There’s a lot to celebrate for the extrovert in schools like HTH and their PBL approach, but I hope those broadly re-imagining what education can be in the 21st century can do better. If we don’t, it won’t just be the introverted students in our schools who will be impoverished. Even those most disposed to being extroverts need to grow introverted traits within themselves if they are to be healthy and truly successful. I hope we’ll not be too focused on the charisma of success and leadership found in so much of our culture today—while this may be accepted, without the thoughtful-ness and spirituality that comes from quiet, I fear such leadership devolves too easily into meaningless aggression.

Ultimately, this is more important than just being fair to the other half of the population (the introverted). It’s about adorning our children with the beautiful flowers of understanding from our past … and about empowering students to be whole, know God and create a better future for all of us.