Thursday, March 14, 2013

“…Magic can’t happen unless you’re in the mix. . . ”

This post’s title comes from a Wall Street Journal article by Eric Hellweg of the Harvard Business Review, who urged those attending the recent SXSW conferences and festivals to load up on networking magic and expect to stay up until 2-3 am (saying “you can sleep when you’re dead”). Being “in the mix” might be an extrovert’s paradise, but I was exhausted just reading Hellweg’s breathless commentary.

This made me reflect on how Etmooc’s stated and implied support for connectedness, sharing, collaboration, project-based learning, and even openness, might be related to a western cultural preference for extroversion—to “being in the mix” as the expected norm. I thought even more about this after browsing a link posted by Alec Couros on Twitter that explicitly challenged the assumed effectiveness of collaboration for creative practice.

So I watched When Collaboration Kills Creativity by dwlFilms and serendipitously noticed to the right of the screen a link to a TED talk by Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. A short RSA animate presentation The Power of Quiet summarizes her claim (that we need, and need to value, both approaches). These presentations on the importance of solitude for creativity and the neglected power of introversion led me to think about my own journey and what we have been exploring in Etmooc.

The introverted facilitator
Beginning in the early 1980’s, after volunteering to organize and help manage meetings of the religious and citizen action groups to which I belonged, I received requests to assist other groups in a professional capacity—to facilitate non-profit organizations’ annual meetings , spiritual retreats, leadership and team building events, anti-nuclear protests—even musical groups seeking an outside perspective in managing conflict. I took advantage of all the professional development opportunities I could find, gamely filled out personality inventories, and came to identify myself as a strongly introverted, intuitive type. I believe my preference for listening, and “checking out” with members what seemed to be transpiring in the groups, contributed much to my success as a facilitator.

Group facilitators face the challenge of ensuring all voices are heard. The extroverts claim as much space as they can (asserting, sharing, risking, imagining out loud), and the introverts hold back (reflecting, silently questioning or affirming,not sharing partly-formed ideas, often ready to speak when the extroverts have moved on). Referencing the interaction norms agreed upon at the outset of an event, I would gently but clearly interrupt a dominant talker, and let the silence leave space for others. I remember one loquacious church leader (who appeared to have agreed to the norms) objecting when I asked that he not speak again until any others wishing to speak had a chance. (Perhaps he thought that, as the leader, he was exempt). I reminded him of the agreement and he retreated with tightly folded arms.

Speaking to think vs. thinking to speak
As I recall the Myers-Briggs type-indicator, for introverts, the most real and important spaces are interior, and when considering a new problem or question the preference is to explore in private (sometimes for a long time) before presenting a well-prepared product (or more finely tuned question) to the wider world. As the saying goes, the introvert “thinks in order to speak.” This interior work is not visible to others, and thus is often not acknowledged (or may be labeled negatively as “withholding” or “being unwilling to risk”). For the extrovert, in contrast, the most real and important spaces tend to be exterior. Energized by an audience, they “speak in order to think”—testing out their theories quickly, preferring to share whatever comes to mind without needing a “finished product.” They are sometimes labeled negatively as pushing half-baked ideas on others or acting without thinking things through. Extroverts do take risks by “putting their ideas out there, “ and can face more challenges, but sometimes, if they keep talking, there may be little space for the more reflective types to even voice a challenge or reservation—with sometimes terrible consequences.

Hyperquietism disorder?
The video When Collaboration Kills Creativity critiques a version of “group think” --the negative consequences of a western cultural preference for extroverted participation--and the exaggerated (or even false)expectations for creative results to emerge from a primarily social space. Even a situation that seems to reinforce a more introverted norm can actually show how much extroverted engagement tends to be valued over more introverted reflection and quiet.

Sociologist Michael Schwalbe, author of a fine little book titled The Sociologically Examined Life, explores the power of context to shape human interaction using the example of people listening to a speaker in a large lecture hall. At the end of the presentation, the speaker asks: “Does anyone have a question?” The question is met with an uncomfortable silence (until one or two extroverts jump in). Any of us who has delivered a lecture (or attended one) has likely had a similar experience. Schwalbe asks us to consider the ludicrous explanation that everyone in the audience could be afflicted with the disorder of hyperquietism. Why else, he wonders, would the usually loud or assertive extrovert hold back? Drawing attention to an observed pattern in lecture halls, Schwalbe suggests we might find that “people sit quietly when they feel that they are being evaluated for their intelligence, are not participating as equals, and feel that by asking a question, they risk appearing foolish” (p.101).

I thought of Schwalbe’s assessment when listening to the presentation on collaboration killing creativity, in which the dwlFilms narrator identifies “evaluation apprehension” as one of the reasons why such practices as group brainstorming seldom produce quality results. This reminds me too, of some of the synchronous Blackboard Collaborate sessions in Etmooc, where the presenter asks for participation after sharing some content, and almost all of us resist “taking the mic.” We can’t all be introverts (even if 1/3-1/2 of the people queried identify as such). Could all these talented and confident professionals be filled with “evaluation apprehension”? (Several did list some form of this as a reason for not sharing their ideas more publicly). After a “Don’t be shy” exhortation (or two) someone usually does weigh in with a thoughtful observation or question and I imagine the rest of us are relieved (I am). Meanwhile, some lively backchannel chats continue, and we anonymously fill up the white board space rapidly when encouraged to do so—-sometimes without even waiting for directions. Etmooc session leaders have offered wonderful resources, and none present in a “know it all” kind of way. But still we listener/participants resist taking up “air space.” This suggests that we need better ways to engage the energy of listeners following presentations, especially as the speaker/presenter model remains a dominant way to transmit content (and often skills as well).

Context matters. Learning preferences matter. Engage the energy.
Reflecting here on extroversion/introversion in the context of connected learning convinces me of the importance of making space /time for independent reflection and engagement (for example, following any content presentation). More importantly, as I ask my students to commit to an educational adventure where “the community is the curriculum,” it is essential to really value quiet reflection and individual exploration within the framework of community. Little will be gained if teacher-focused individual student performance is exchanged for the expectation of “always being on” and required to continually participate in peer-focused group activities and performances. If extroverts’ outward-focused energies were often untapped in the former, introverts’ energies will certainly be exhausted in the latter.

We need
time for solitary exploration
time for open connection
discipline (from “disciple” -- “to follow”)
to follow what?
a big idea, a nagging question
a provocation that makes your blood boil
Gives new meaning to the magic
that can’t happen
unless you’re in the mix.


verenanz said...

I really appreciate your analysis of extroverts and introverts in online worlds. I would say that online opportunities promote the introverts though:)

I actually asked George Couros about this the other day - he was commenting on the fact that as admin hiring a new staff member, we should google them as part of the hiring process. I agree - however, I think that the introvert has an advantage online. The extroverts may not be as "busy" online and may be at a"disadvantage" in the googleability.

While I think you are remarking on the "synchronous" discussion groups/panels in the #etmooc, the blogs, projects, digi stories and many other activities have a huge introverted influence. In fact, lurking is promoted in tweet chats, the community and on the blog.

The online synchronous sessions are the only "very" extroverted activity, and even then you can lurk :)

Social media has given introverts a voice - they can create and comment in their own time - when its asynchronous.

At Educon this year, I had the pleasure of meeting many of the twitter people that I follow. Many of them were introverted. What I "expected" from their posts and tweets was not the same as what I experienced in a f2f world.

So - I learned a gin to not make assumptions :)

I really don't enjoy blogging, but I like the short burst of twitter and I am pretty extroverted...So I may be biased in my social media encourages introverts over extroverts I am very curious to hear what you have to say.

What we both agree upon, is that the Collaborate sessions - especially when we ask for immediate feedback is a "extrovert thing" and I would agree VERY western of us...:)

Thanks for the great post!

Verena :)

Rosemary Powers said...

Verena: Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I think you are right about the online space accommodating the introvert preference in many ways. It certainly is true for threaded discussions and other opportunities you mentioned that allow for thinking time (or lurking options).

Those twitter chats, however, are overwhelming to me, and I am somewhat in awe of presenters who can share content and keep an eye on backchannel chats on the Collaborate program at the same time. I usually find myself just trying to keep up with the presentation, and get distracted by the chat so don't check it much.

I admit I was thinking more about my in-person courses when reminding myself to make space for reflection, though I was also concerned about paying attention to synchronous online strategies.

I will think more about this, though. I expect that as the technology makes "real time" options more possible online, the introvert advantage you describe may be less so. Lurking is clearly possible anywhere there is no "requirement" to respond. However, if learners are to be evaluated in some way for their participation in a synchronous online (or offline) forum, I think it is important to include some sort of individual reflective experience in the forum itself.

Brendan Murphy said...

This was a great post.

I remember a session at edcampchicago February 2012, on introverts. from my post

"In a room full of introverts we did talk, we just didn’t get loud. We also seemed to type as much as we talked. Are introverts more inclined to share?"

I've known from my education program back in 1999 that allowing a back channel or online discussion forum has shown to get a lot of normally quiet students talking.

I am intrigued with the thought of finding the combination of introverts and extroverts to enhance collaboration.

Rosemary Powers said...

Thank you for your comment. I agree that synchronous backchannel options and the asynchronous online discussion forum encourage engagement by those less likely to take a public stage.

With regard to "real time" interactions, I struggle with how to address the introvert preference for having some time/space before responding--to discussion prompts or to content in general. I think this requires becoming more comfortable with respecting silence as a teaching practice. I am reminded here of a statement by Parker Palmer: “To teach is to create a space, not to fill it.”

Fenella Olynick said...

Hello, Rosemary. Thank you so much for this tremendous synthesis of information, observation, and reflection on introverts and extroverts! It seems fitting that of all the articles I scrolled through today, it was yours that spoke to me in a deep and meaningful way. You were one of my first connections in #etmooc (you commented on my reflection for the need for quiet time in the "Could it be that sometimes a change of approach and a new perspective is what we really need?" blog:, and now as #etmooc is coming to a close we once again find ourselves on the same page. You have been able to identify and explain (with some very good examples) many feelings I have experienced. However, I have found myself lacking the clarity with which you presented this piece. I hope you don't mind if I add a few more examples and thoughts to your discussion from my personal journey through #etmooc and learning in the open.

As you know from our earlier interaction, learning in the open with the steady stream of 'noise' has not been easy. It has taken me a while to slip into the murky waters, and I continue to have many of the same questions and feelings you noted in your blog. For example:

- I too have lurked through synchronous Blackboard Collaborate sessions. Although this seems to be fine to begin with, I am often left wondering why I was unable to “take the mic,” and if I was unable to share, should I be there (i.e., am I qualified enough to participate/attend, do the presenters feel disappointed when participants don't share, etc.).

- Like you, I have been reluctant to speak out because of reasons you noted – perhaps due to a combination of “evaluation apprehension” by our colleagues and of ourselves (there are so many highly qualified #etmooc-ers).

- I have yet to participate in a Twitter chat (the warnings at the beginning seem to scare me off, although I often lurk). Participation is still a goal I hope to achieve!

- I am an introverted blogger, meaning I don't publish everything I write, and sometimes a blog can stay private for a few weeks before I work up the courage to publish it (I am still working at trying to “announce” a blog release on Twitter, Google+, etc. - I suppose I write for myself at this point, and I am comfortable with that).

However, through all this 'noise,' I have been fortunate to have the support and encouragement of some fabulous #etmooc-ers and I have developed and continue to develop a PLN. For example, Alison Seaman (@AlisonSeaman) has been the nudge I needed to 'dip my toe into the water' and hit the 'publish' button for a few blogs (she does a tremendous job referencing helpful articles and noting her own experiences and vulnerabilities). That being said, blogging continues to be an area I struggle with, and perhaps it always will be. Perhaps learning isn't always visible and needn't always be visible. As you state, context matters.

Thanks once again, Rosemary, for your wisdom and insight. I have enjoyed reading your blogs throughout #etmooc, and this blog has been helpful in reiterating my personal feelings: processing time or quiet time is necessary and OK. It's nice to know others feel the same way. Wow, I've really put my thoughts out in the open now! :)

Rosemary Powers said...

Hi Fenella:
Great to cross paths with you again. I'm delighted that you added examples from your own experience about this shared journey into the digital connected learning world. As you say so well, the way forward isn't always comfortable or clear. I remember somewhere reading that the physical sensations related to anxiety and excitement are the same--we just frame the experience differently. So trying to frame this new stuff as exciting has been a good practice for me. Maybe we could set up a google hangout over these next two weeks. If you are interested, let me know at

Fenella Olynick said...

Hi Rosemary:

I really like your idea to try and frame the experience as exciting. This seems to fit well with my 'change of approach and new perspective' idea; however, your suggestion seems to provide that next step that I was missing. It makes sense!

A Google hangout sometime in the next few weeks sounds terrific. I will message you to make arrangements. Thanks for the ideas and conversation, Rosemary. I look forward to continuing the dialogue!