The Introduction to ‘A Quiet Education’

01 Feb 2019



Schools are anything but quiet. Their walls reverberate with noise, with a hubbub of activity that begins long before the bell loudly dictates the start of the day. The interpersonal demands are huge: talk and communication dominate every space.

For those of us who are more inclined to quiet, it can be an exhausting experience.

To the untrained eye it may not appear obvious, but quiet temperaments are just as present inside the school walls as more gregarious ones. The adjectives that define them are ubiquitous and often anything but celebratory: shy, introverted, reclusive, sensitive, guarded, private, withdrawn and antisocial are just a few.

We often define these students as hardworking but quiet. The recipients of that dreaded conjunction are frequently prodded (by parents, by teachers, by their peers) to “come out of their shells”. How often are they perceived as inferior, intellectually and professionally, as a result of their quieter traits? How often is being quiet seen as a characteristic to overcome rather than celebrate?

Modern education, and indeed modern life, can offer little encouragement for the solitude of these individuals. The reality is that in our schools, as microcosms for society as a whole, being extroverted and outgoing is considered normal and therefore desirable. It is a mark of happiness, confidence and leadership. In classrooms, well-intentioned teachers seek frequent discussion and encourage quick, loud vocal input from students. Our young people exist in a 24-hour culture of communication and dialogue in which the message is that speaking up, standing up, will help them to succeed.

Quiet is often actively discouraged in classrooms. And when teachers do demand quiet, its relationship to punishment is made very clear for students through the subsequent enforced silence. If the adjective “quiet” is used, it is often pejorative: “Daniel is a lovely student, but he is very quiet. He really needs to speak up more.”

In this book, I will consider the psychological impact of this flippant dismissal of quiet. I will address what I feel are important questions: how can we encourage greater acceptance and celebration of quiet virtues in modern schools? How can we promote the importance of quiet virtues in building both character and learning?

This book serves as an unashamed cheerleader for all that is quiet, challenging the notion that collaboration and noise should be at the heart of what happens in schools.

I will examine the ways in which we can help quieter students to navigate this extroverted world and achieve their potential. And I will argue that the need to educate and guide our students on the value of quiet is more relevant and important now than ever.

Schools may be dominated by louder, more loquacious and more confident students, but in each classroom there are young people who may not rush to volunteer answers, who may be more hesitant and more reserved. These are the students who pass through the day without contributing verbally, quietly persevering. They, and the following questions, will be our focus in Part I: Quiet for students.

• Why should teachers be more aware of the differences between extroversion and introversion?
• How can we ensure that quieter students feel comfortable and confident in lessons?
• What can we do to improve the nature of classroom dialogue?
• Is there a place for group work in classrooms?
• How can we maximise the potential of silence in lessons?
• How can we build more effective relationships with quieter students?
• How can we help them to share their rich inner worlds?

Quiet is not, of course, limited to students. The reality is that many teachers are not naturally outgoing. Some have to channel huge amounts of energy in order to present the extroverted persona that teaching demands. They may find themselves overwhelmed at the end of the day, their energy sapped by the constant interaction that a day in school requires.

These individuals may run for cover when social events are called. In meetings and staff training, their vocal contributions may not match the level of passion and reflection they have for their profession. In fact, they may present as completely anonymous. The instruction “now get into groups and discuss” can horrify them. They might be troubled by impostor syndrome and plagued with doubts about their capacity to teach effectively. It is this self-doubt that fills them with empathy for their students and often makes them wonderful teachers.

There is no magic bullet for the perfect teacher persona and authenticity is vital to success in the classroom. But, as we will discover in this book, there is much to gain from embracing quiet virtues in our teaching and even in our leadership. Quiet leadership in schools is not, despite what some might like to loudly claim, an oxymoron. In these pages we will discover ways in which quiet leadership can thrive in schools. We will consider how quiet leaders can build meaningful relationships, and an understanding of their colleagues, in order to have a significant impact on the lives of young people.

For those of us who lack the confidence to enter roles that require a more extrovert presence, we will examine how we can take the steps without overwhelming our dispositions. Examining our motivation for working in education will be part of this process. Even Doug Lemov, the leadership guru who wrote Teach Like a Champion, has said, “I’m a huge introvert. It’s strange to me that I do what I do, and like it as much as I do.”

In Part II: Quiet for teachers and leaders, the following questions will be the focus:

What can we learn from quiet teachers and leaders?

How can we find ways to ensure that their strengths are disseminated and their qualities recognised?

What do they do in their classrooms that we can all learn from?

What might be the impact of a quieter behaviour management strategy?

What can prevent burnout among teachers?

If all teachers embraced a quieter approach to the school day, what might the result be?

What can we learn from quieter teacher improvement strategies in coaching, reflection and reading?

The learning that takes place in classrooms, where personality dynamic plays such an important role, is often underpinned by invisible and quiet skills. Solitude is a vital precursor for expert performance and for finding what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” – the conditions in which we find ourselves immersed in a task. Classrooms in which extroversion dominates, which are noisy and intense, could in fact be limiting young people’s ability to think clearly and to harness the inner dialogue that is so vital to their learning.

The reality is that any final output from our young people is produced in quiet: it is the product of their own understanding and knowledge. Just take a moment to picture the eerie and intimidating silence of an examination hall. While this is clearly not the only purpose of our teaching, are we really doing enough to equip our students with the skills to succeed in these conditions? Are we helping them to enter the world with the ability to think and act autonomously?

Quiet is a source of huge potential in developing lifelong skills that transcend the classroom. In Part III: Quiet and introspective skills, the following questions will be our focus:

• What is the secret to improved concentration, motivation and discipline for students?
• What can improve the individual practice we ask students to complete?
• How can we help them to monitor their own thinking?
• How can we improve their ability to meaningfully reflect on their learning?
• What can we do to improve their self-esteem, creativity and motivation?
• How can we cultivate the quiet qualities of listening and empathy?

I have a personal mission in writing this book. I freely admit that I embody every introverted and quiet cliché. I am happier at home reading or writing than I am out socialising, I border on invisible in staff meetings, and I find myself severely lacking in conversation after a day in school. This cocktail makes me scintillating company and can often lead to conflict with my remarkably extroverted wife! It doesn’t, however, detract from what I know is a very energetic and enthusiastic classroom presence. My students are often surprised when I refer to myself as a quiet and more introverted individual. This is an exploration for later in the book – are our personas more fluid than we think?

Quiet qualities prevail in my family. Deep in the beautiful Highlands of Scotland, surrounded by fields and inquisitive cows (and books), my mother and father live a quiet life in nature. Both encapsulate all quiet clichés, but (there is that pesky conjunction again) have devoted their lives to young people and education. My mother was a nurturing and life-changing primary school teacher for 25 years. My father continues to enthuse and inspire young people after 35 years of teaching English in the same school. I should know: he taught me and was very much an inspiration for my becoming an English teacher.

One of the aims of this book is to give voice to quiet teachers like my parents; to allow them to articulate what they do every day in the classroom with humility, patience and love. As we shall see, this collaborative drive is at the heart of what will make us stronger as a profession. Each chapter concludes by giving voice to one of these practitioners, as they seek to understand what they are doing and achieving in education. Through these “quiet reflections”, we will see just how important it is that schools and classrooms are representative of all personalities and characteristics.

This book was not written to add additional work to teachers’ already busy lives. Nor does it ask us to revolutionise our practice. Instead it is about subtle adjustments, interpersonal awareness and an increased recognition of the ways in which we can build effective relationships with all our students.

I hope to begin a dialogue that is led by a loud declaration: a quiet education will lead us to a greater understanding of our students, ourselves, our capacity for leadership and, vitally, how young people learn best.

Thank you for reading. ‘A Quiet Education: Challenging the extrovert ideal in our schools’ will be published on the 19th of February. I have been very fortunate that the following people (and some who have asked to remain anonymous) have contributed with superb reflective case studies at the end of each chapter, and would like to thank them for making the book so much richer and meaningful:

Sophie Minchell, Tom Sherrington, Joe Moran, Ellie Resner, Mary Myatt, Dan Rodriguez-Clark, Tom Rees, Adrian Bethune, Kulvarn Awal, Aidan Severs, Christopher Barnes, Peps Mccrea, Mark Enser, Doug Lemov, Zoe Enser, Jonathan Firth, Dave Grimmett, Miranda McKearney.


Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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