Echoes of the mantra “every person is unique” are heard everywhere from rock and roll to kids’ cartoons. But how much do we actually take this anthem into consideration in our everyday relations and particularly in the world of gifted education? And well, what may be at stake if we don’t?
As part of a series of interviews I have conducted on the topic of gifted young learners, I recently spoke Dr. Trevor Tebbs, PhD.
I began my interview with Dr. Tebbs in an earlier post, Gifted Learners - New Holistic Methodology and Tech, which you may wish to reference so that you can follow our entire discussion on the topic of gifted children. In this section, Part 3 of the series, our main focus is on the introverted gifted learner.
For anyone just tuning in, I’ll again introduce Trevor Tebbs.
Trained in both the U.K. and the U.S., Dr. Tebbs, PhD, has held a variety of positions in a wide range of institutions, including a stint as vice-principal in an English special school for children with severe cognitive and physical disability and on our side of the Atlantic, as Assistant Director of the University of Connecticut (UConn) Honors Program. He has, in addition, taught a diversity of college courses in the area of educational psychology as well as courses in Arthurian myths and realities in ancient texts and historical places in England and Wales, Art Education, Critical Thinking, Curriculum Development, Drawing and Sculpture.
Currently Dr. Tebbs is an adjunct professor of psychology at Castleton State College, Vermont and he offers psychological evaluation services under the name of Chandelier© Assessments in Vermont.
From this author’s point of view considerations of personality have ramifications for all levels of teaching – from elementary through to postsecondary. In truth, there is much for all of us to consider here. Having known both introverted and extraverted students of high ability and witnessed just how differently their academic and creative talent emerges, I was excited to get Tebbs’ take on the issue. While not forgetting extraverts, I flat out asked him how he believes giftedness presents itself especially with the introverts. He went directly to the issue of personality.
“The question of introversion or extraversion and how they pertain to giftedness is a great question,” says Tebbs. “Although they are two obvious and legitimate dispositions, they tend to be referenced in isolation – even separated from their true context, i.e., personality. In fact, my experience has been that personality issues are either ‘loosely’ referred to or perhaps never considered as part of the human equation in terms of what makes any of us human, particularly if the human in question is a child or adolescent, and especially if the child or adolescent is attending school.”
Tebbs sees this lack of consideration as a real problem.
“From my perspective this is close to tragic. I am aware this sounds rather dramatic, but I don’t say this lightly. Over the years I have experienced meeting with many children and young people whose personality preferences have evidently contributed powerfully to whatever concerns initiated their visit to my office in the first place. For example, more than 65% of my highly able / creative clients have presented an INFP [see definition in following paragraph] personality type as assessed by the MMTIC- a personality type indicator for children ( grades 2-12) based on Jungian psychology and similar to the well-known Myer-Briggs Personality Type Indicator[i] for adults.”
Some readers may not be sure what INFP means. Tebbs explains it like this:
“Although this is not the place to describe Jungian-based personality type in great depth, I can include some preferences (inferring choice) associated with the individual who may be categorized as introverted (I), intuitive (N), feeling (F) and perceiving (P). Such preferences can, for example, contribute to strong misunderstandings and major problems especially in a learning environment typically populated by extraverted personnel who may not have an understanding of type. It is important because the introverted (I) child responds to situations somewhat differently to someone who may be, for example, extraverted.
An individual who is INFP tends to think before acting; resist sharing thoughts and feelings with others; be quiet and experience discomfort in expressing affection and emotion to others; work in a small group and need a longer “wait time” between questions and answers.
If the child is also intuitive (N) then he or she needs or likes opportunities to be original; tasks that require imagination; new tasks rather than having to master those that are already familiar and a variety of tasks. A feeling (F) individual thrives in an environment where he or she receives feedback and praise about their performance; is not faced with conflict and confrontation and is not criticized or ridiculed, especially if the ridicule is also sarcastic. The perceiver (P) tends to act spontaneously; like freedom to move around (because too much desk work easily gives rise to boredom); work and play simultaneously and try and make the work fun and may turn in assignments late as a result of poor planning or time management.”
And so one may wonder, what happens when all these characteristic behaviors or traits are linked with giftedness?
“When combined with high ability,” says Dr. Tebbs, “and the non-conformity often associated with creativity, it is not difficult to see how a child with an INFP preference might present a challenge to a teacher – especially a teacher who may not be fully aware of the role personality plays in his or her classroom as well as perhaps possessing opposite personality type preferences, e.g., extraversion (E).
It is possible an extraverted teacher will unconsciously expect all children to be extraverted, e.g., immediately responsive, friendly, talkative, and easy to get to know. The child who does not react or naturally operate in this way is in danger of being perceived as dysfunctional – even treated as disordered in some way. All this presents a dilemma for the individual, parents, teachers and the school. For example, one particular potential problem faced by an introverted, especially perfectionistic (a common feature of the highly able) child, when under pressure to participate in some group activity, is a preference to say nothing in front of a group. A very real fear of embarrassment combines with a resentment of revealing any degree of failure, e.g., not saying or doing the right thing, or saying or doing something contrary to expectations. In these conditions it is easy to see why a predominately extraverted environment may not be a good or most comfortable match for someone who is naturally quiet, retiring, apparently “shy” and reluctant to share anything with anybody until trust is firmly established.”
And so where do teachers/instructors factor into the mix? What affect does their personality wield?
“I believe the personality of the teacher is extremely influential,” says Dr. Tebbs. “It is especially important if particular children present somewhat different – non-standard - intellectual and, or creative behaviors. An interesting study conducted some while ago (McInerny, 1995)[ii] indicated Sensing (S – opposite to the intuitive or I) & Judging (J – opposite to the perceiver or P) teachers do not tolerate misbehavior well, preferring their classrooms to be quiet and orderly. On the other hand, the Intuitive (N) and Feeling (F) types tolerated misbehavior much better. Overall teachers with a thinking preference (T and opposite of the feeler (F)) wrote more referrals for poor behavior than the feeling type.”
While Tebbs says his own is based on the work of Jung, he acknowledges other perspectives are available. He recognizes some professionals interested in personality type prefer and use alternative assessments. “It is probable the Big Five is the most notable.[iii] But, for example, many of my college level students – at least those who were interested in personality – also refer to Enneagram typing. (http://www.enneagraminstitute.com/). However, whatever mechanism is ultimately preferred and used to establish ‘type’, my experience clearly informs me it can be very important to establish. In my opinion, understanding and applying what is known about personality can make a significant difference between success and failure of a child in school or at home.”
If we are to consider ourselves taking a holistic approach to education, parenting, and life-learning, the inclusion of personality in our thinking and actions is vital. It is from this vantage point we acknowledge the individual child’s unique energetic needs at all levels. From here we help cultivate and strengthen self-awareness and make daily experiences more satisfying and meaningful. Ideally, the more we nurture such experiences, the more we can help the child develop a ‘flowing’ mindset into which she will naturally enter into again and again, learn to self-sustain and heighten her own challenges along the way.
Dr. Tebbs shares a brief, yet moving story to underscore the difference knowing, understanding and operating on that knowledge and the difference it can make to the child, to us as parents, and to the efficiency and effectiveness of educational (and really all forms of) instruction.
“Billy’s mom was very interested to learn of her son’s need for challenge during the summer vacation. She listened carefully and during the next week she discovered many activities available for children during the break. She decided on a selection of fun and meaningful pursuits for Billy and dutifully sent off her check to register him to take part in the activities. She wanted to surprise her son and so had not consulted him. When she excitedly shared with him what she had planned, she admitted to me that she was quite devastated when Billy – uncharacteristically - showed little or no enthusiasm for what the summer ahead had in store, e.g., group sports and other larger group activities. She wanted to know why.”
“Simply said, she completely forgot to take in consideration that Billy was 100% introverted, while she, on the other hand, was 100% extraverted. She had chosen every activity based on her own extraverted preference. I explained the potential cause and later, I was glad to learn that once this difference was understood, she cancelled the registrations and asked Billy to choose. He apparently had a great summer rock-climbing, walking the quiet wooded trails, writing poetry and kayaking on their local lake. This experience helped her understand Billy differently and contributed to her making better decisions.”
No matter how much has been said about the psychology of introversion lately I still recently witnessed an institution giving a workshop on how to change the introverted student – as if all introversion is the same and as if change is what is absolutely essential for an such an individual! It is so easy to conclude, for instance, that the quiet child at the back of the classroom is not interested in what is being said, or distracted, or unable to concentrate, or slow to respond, when in fact she is simply reflecting, thinking things over and making all the wonderful connections we hope for[iv].
At the beginning of this article I asked what is at stake if we ignore people’s unique personalities. My own answer is “everything.” Some individual’s unique needs are more obvious than others and it is easy for academics and families to try to deliver. But some, as with our gifted population, are more difficult and sometimes easy to ignore. For example, a teacher or parent may ask: “What more does she need? She is already getting straight A’s.” Or the individual is seen as someone who needs to be changed because of a discipline problem or as someone whose personality simply doesn’t fit. We might ask if this ‘unconsidered personality’ accounts, in part, for why the population of gifted learners is the least likely to achieve its full potential.
In June, 1997 an article appeared in Newsweek Magazine. It was written by Professor Robert Newman. The title of the article was The Virtues of Silence: Amid the Clatter of Today's Culture, Quiet Should Be a Reward, Not a Punishment. Although the article does not deal with introversion per se, it does deal with legacy of distraction and discusses the way in which “quietness” is popularly/culturally viewed – including within families and classrooms. Reading Newman’s article is like entering a zoom lens back to 1997 and a perspective on the potentially rich connectivity of quiet people and silence as a value. Newman’s having captured a moment in time back in 1997 sheds an interesting light on a path that has borne into a myriad of present concerns.
[ii] Teacher personality styles and behavior referrals Author: Sara L McInerny Publication: ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/dissertations/AAI9604423/
[iii] Big Five Personality Test, can be found at: http://psychologytoday.tests.psychtests.com/bin/transfer?req=MTF8MTI5N3wxNTE0MTEwfDF8MQ==&refempt=
Other Helpful Resources
Newman, Robert. The Virtues of Silence: Amid the Clatter of Today's Culture, Quiet Should Be a Reward, Not a Punishment. http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-19447561.html
Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t stop Talking. Broadway Books (January 29, 2013).