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In Defense of Introverts

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A Playground for Leif by Designliga
A Playground for Leif by Designliga

So far, I’ve cited the merits of the playground – the loudest, craziest, most running-aroundiest environment for kids you can imagine – as a point of inspiration for school design.

I’ve espoused the potential of community-oriented schools to motivate learning and, somewhat grandiosely I’ll admit, change the world.

I think I’ve uncovered a bias. In me, and in architecture at large.

For years, Western culture has valued and rewarded natural born extroverts in its effort to breed out-going, sociable, go-get-’em type citizens. (For two intelligent, chuckle-inducing narratives on the plight of the introvert, check out Jonathan Rauch’s touchstone piece in The Atlantic and Susan Cain‘s fabulous TED Talk).

In my zeal to present solutions to the obstacles facing education, I too got caught in the trap. To rectify this situation, I will – once again – examine schools; but this time, I take a more balanced approach. Today I take into account that bullied, forgotten group: introverts.

An Extrovert’s World

© LYCS Architecture. The Office of LYCS Architecture is typically extroverted: light, open, and airy to facilitate collaboration.
© LYCS Architecture. The Office of LYCS Architecture is typically extroverted: light, open, and airy to facilitate collaboration.

The paradigm of the extrovert has become so accepted, that most people aren’t aware of its reach – or how our architecture has developed to meet its demands. David Riesman, in his book The Lonely Crowd, suggests that “the dominant economic model of each era in a sense ‘creates’—or privileges—the character type that’s best suited to it.” As our economy becomes more and more consumer-oriented, and strays further and further from its product-oriented beginnings (the agriculture and industry businesses), being outgoing becomes a necessary and valued commodity. [1]

Consider how the classroom – or the workplace – has changed in response. From students working autonomously in rows or employees in cubicles, there has been a huge push to create group-oriented spaces meant for collaboration, interaction, and conversation. As Sarah Conin notes in her TED Talk, “Our most important institutions, our schools and our workplaces, they are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts’ need for lots of stimulation.” [2]

Now, I’m not advocating a return to cubicles (from my own traumatic office experiences, I would be personally willing to burn each and every one. With glee.). And on one hand, this move towards open collaboration, completely ignored in the past, is a tremendously exciting leap forward: progress, if you will.

However, I am suggesting that we have swung the pendulum too far in the extrovert direction. If we just let introverts do what they do best – contemplate deeply, away from the crowd, free from the necessities of small talk and the expectations of saying, well, anything – they could then contribute to our society a profound kind of creativity untouched by the perils of groupthink.

We must design schools and workplaces that cater to the skill-sets of extroverts and introverts, and begin by creating classrooms that inculcate them both in students, our future thinkers.

But how?

In Defense of Private Spaces

In my previous article on what schools can learn from playgrounds, I suggest that the playgrounds’ inclusion of hidden spaces, like tunnels, allow children the sensation of solitude, a secure place to “retreat from the world and let their imaginations run wild.” [3]

© Wouter van der Sar. The calm exterior of this playground, subtly decorated with fairy tale characters, encourages imaginative play and offsets the more ‘active’ features within.
© Wouter van der Sar. The calm exterior of this playground, subtly decorated with fairy tale characters, encourages imaginative play and offsets the more ‘active’ features within.

Similarly, schools need spaces where students can separate from the group for individual learning activities. In a kindergarten, this need to “tunnel” away can be answered in the form of private reading nooks and adjustable play walls.

However, a primary or high school needs environments as conducive to private thought as interaction; they need to provide an oasis of separateness in the midst of collaboration. One solution is of course to create a breakaway space, as in the the L-shaped classrooms of the Crow Island School (where the ‘foot’ of the L is a multi-purpose workshop and the trunk contains a more traditional group-oriented layout). [4]

However, this solution has some limitations; first, the breakaway impairs the teacher’s supervision over the class, and secondly, it could create an environment of segregation, especially in a culture that already encounters introverted behavior as “abnormal.”

But this is the 21st century after all, and there is another answer to creating introverted space within an extroverted classroom: technology.

Schools of One

You may have heard of the Khan Academy, a revolutionary web site that offers videos, exams, and assessments free of charge to any one with internet access and a desire to learn. But beyond a means of instruction, the site critically offers you a way of understanding what you’ve learned, providing statistics and analysis of the concepts you’ve mastered or still need to work on.

But what the site doesn’t tell you, is how you learned. Enter the School of One.

A pilot program teaching Math in public schools in New York City, the School of One aims to create a completely individualized educational experience. Using an algorithm that tracks every assignment or exercise that you complete, the School of One’s software learns about you as you learn the material, and creates lesson plans using the learning modality you’re best suited for  (small group instruction, small group collaborative learning, online learning with software, online learning with remote instructors, or independent learning). The teacher, rather than lecturing, thus moves among students, between the modalities, to facilitate student learning.

The potential for introverts is immediately obvious – here is a system that uses technology to encourage their individualistic learning style (separating them virtually, if not necessarily physically, from the group) – but the potential for design is even greater. The School of One, which requires a flexibility of space to provide for its different modalities, guides us to a kind of design in which extroverted and introverted elements are intrinsically balanced.

The Introvert Within 

So far, the School of One has been implemented in “large, open space for students to freely move across different learning spaces.” [5] Indeed, as long as introverted elements are included, we needn’t – and shouldn’t – abandon the principle characteristics of ‘extroverted’ design: openness, transparency, and light.

The School of One depends heavily upon furniture partitions to create the optimal configuration for each modality [6], but the introvert/extrovert dichotomy leads us to design that is even more conducive to each learning style. Drawing on Cain’s idea that, at root, introverts and extroverts differ in their response to stimuli, we could separate these modalities using identity-forming markers, such as color or wallpaper, that divide atmospheres of extroverted activity (collaborative learning) from those of introverted calm (independent learning).

To avoid a stigma of segregation, lofted mezannines, like those in the Seven Fountains School in South Africa, which overlook the classroom, could house more introvert-oriented modalities while still maintaing a sense of openness and interaction with the group. Or we could use fabric to divide the classroom into clusters, as in LAVA’s Classroom of the Future open module design – a project that would perfectly lend itself to the School of One’s philosophy of modalities. [7]

Using the School of One as our model, our classrooms of the future will have to offer different paths toward creativity and productivity; to allow for human interaction as well as independent, virtual, discovery; and, for the benefit of us all in this extroverted world, keep the needs of extroverts and introverts in mind.


[1] Stossel, Sage. “Introverts of the World, Unite!” The Atlantic. .

[2] Cain, Susan. “The Power of Introverts.” TED Talks. .

[3] Quirk, Vanessa. “Forming Playscapes: What Schools Can Learn from Playgrounds.” ArchDaily. .

[4]  “Reimagining the Classroom: Opportunities to Link Recent Advances in Pedagogy to Physical Settings.” The McGraw Hill Research Foundation.>

[5] “School of One.” School of One, 2011 Brochure.>

[6] Linn, Charles. “School of One: A personalized instruction program’s needs challenge the conventional classroom.” Schools of the 21st Century, a supplement of Architectural Record . The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. .

[7] Furuto, Alison. “Classroom of the Future / LAVA.” ArchDaily. 

Cite:Vanessa Quirk. "In Defense of Introverts" 09 Mar 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <>