Vulnerability is Strength

4 mins reading and 12 mins viewing (if you’re bored)

‘That’s a good question. I’ll have a look into that and get back to you…’

These are the words that you’ll hear every now and then from an effective teacher. I’ve always considered one of the largest and earliest hurdles for any educator to overcome – no matter what their institutional or organisational context – is to be able to concede when they don’t know something. Students smell when they’re being fed BS faster than it takes them to click to their Instagram feed. There is a simple truth in that if you find yourself pretending you’re getting it right, then you’re doing it wrong.

Being able to acknowledge limitations is a handy skill – and not only for teachers. There’s clearly nothing wrong with conceding to a group of learners that you don’t know something, but vulnerability is not a quality that a teacher is (stereo)typically supposed to possess. After all, if the teacher doesn’t know, how can they expect students to??

'Classroom' by Teaching and Learning with Technology
Classroom by Teaching and Learning with Technology (CC BY 2.0)

The vulnerability of admitting to not knowing is slightly different to the kind of vulnerability I want to focus on here, which is the act of showing yourself getting things wrong. Making mistakes is par for the course when teaching; revealing those mistakes is not quite so intuitive. However, when this becomes a part of an educator’s performance (online or offline, though I’ll focus on the former here), it can be immensely powerful. Of course, the process of showing when and how one gets things wrong is not – or should not be – haphazard and random, but rather strategic and with purpose.

A pillar of my approach to teaching Digital Media is ‘learning by doing’, which privileges observation, experimentation, and trial-and-error over reading a textbook and sitting an exam. I make this explicit in my teaching in lots of different ways. I talk about getting things wrong all the time, though perhaps the best example I can give of the strategic display of stuffing up is my inclusion of bloopers in a number of teaching videos.

Bloopers were a key element of the high school videos I made with my brother in the late 1990s. Our most re-watched and re-used example of this was the surprising conclusion to one take of our parody of the old ‘Napisan Door Challenge’ TV advertisement:

So it was probably a natural development that I’d include muck-ups in my first teaching videos from 2013 onward. Within a few years I even had enough for a substantial (and far from comprehensive) blooper reel. Of course, I don’t reveal all my mistakes – those chosen are often selected for their entertainment value, and I don’t include the sometimes unending minutes of me messing up and getting genuinely annoyed with myself.

The value of showing one’s vulnerability to make errors is at least three-fold, as doing so can:

  1. Make the subject more relatable by highlighting ‘failure’ as an intrinsic part of learning and that ‘falling over’ is all part of the process;
  2. Humanise an educator in a way that might enhance student interactions with them and with their peers;
  3. Enhance the learning experience itself, not least of all by demonstrating how things that didn’t go perfectly can be improved.

We learn from mistakes – both our own and others’. They don’t have to be bloopers caught on camera to be valuable to share. Telling stories of minor or major obstacles that you’ve stumbled on could well make a difference to your audience in any number of ways. Whether it’s admitting that you don’t know something or revealing when you get something wrong, showing ‘weakness’ shouldn’t be construed as a weakness. It’s a strength.

When you’re being strategically vulnerable, you’re not really vulnerable at all.


Featured image: Data Science in the Dreamery by Teaching and Learning with Technology (CC BY 2.0)

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Cameron Ross says:

    Great blog post Adam. You are exactly right in mentioning that as educators we need to acknowledge when we in fact fail and embrace the opportunity to learn with our students. Cam


    1. Adam Brown says:

      Thanks for reading Cam – great to hear it resonated with you! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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