The Vulnerability Imperative in Online Learning: A Response to Julio

Julio C. Castro in “Essential question (week 3)” (Momenta Learning 9/24/13): “A great way to help my students [put] themselves out there and at the same time, help them generate creative and innovative solutions is by inviting them to create a blog where they can express their ideas and bounce around possible solutions and scenarios with others. The discussion forums I will create for the students to manage on their own while they work on their projects, will include directions on how to set up a blog and I will add that all of the participants interact with those blogs by visiting them and comment on the posts from the author. My hope is that some of them will eventually use the blog as a creative tool later on, on a permanent basis. I will also invite them to create a profile in systems similar to LinkedIn (professional associations) because this exposes you to others that can take a look at your work and provide feedback. Creating projects that can later be shared with others online is a great creative process, at least [it] is working for me so far”1 (emphasis added).


Greg and his staff posted a quote from Brené Brown in the activity description: “I define vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty. It fuels our daily lives. And I’ve come to the belief … that vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage — to be vulnerable, to let ourselves be seen, to be honest. So let me go on the record and say, vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. To create is to make something that has never existed before. There’s nothing more vulnerable than that.”

Courage, plain and simple, means risk taking. How do we teach courage? This is a tough question. Some would argue that it’s genetic — but I disagree. I think it’s teachable. It begins with parents, but if it’s neglected in the home, then schools and colleges have the responsibility.

When I say to my students, “Have the courage to risk new ideas and to question the status quo,” I’m also saying “Think!”

In my schooling, the best teachers encouraged and became excited by students who took risks in the world of ideas. For them, it wasn’t “my way or the highway” but “take us on the freeway for a ride in your car.” The goal in discussions wasn’t “how to figure out the answer in the teacher’s head” but “to share what’s new in all our heads.”

How do we teach courage? Perhaps the simplest answer is to model it. In an earlier post, I mentioned my freshman comp teacher, A. J. Alexander. He was my first encounter with an authentic teacher, and the impact on me was life changing. He didn’t say be courageous. He was courageous. (Some might even say he was crazy.) In our first session, he sat on the desk in front of the class. Behind him, above the chalkboard, was a “NO SMOKING” sign. He lit a cigarette, smoked it, killed it on the side of the desk, walked over to the waste basket and tossed it. I don’t think I’ll ever forget his “Miss May, will you please shut up.” She sat in the front row and was quietly talking to the person next to her while Alexander was lecturing.

Shocking behavior for a teacher. But for a 17-year-old straight out of high school, it was mindblowing. And he was like this, consistently, in all phases of the course. He turned a bunch of us into English majors that fall — students who would’ve said “no way” if you asked us a few months earlier. Literature and writing suddenly became real, pulsing with life and energy — like rock ‘n’ roll — far from the dull gray words stained on yellowed paper in the outdated textbooks we used in high school.

I later learned that courage didn’t always come in piss and fire but also came in subtler packages. But the common denominator was the eyes that lit up when they heard authentic thinking from a student. That connection between student, idea, and teacher is powerful stuff.

We all have built-in crap detectors, and in students they’re probably cranked all the way up. They know BS when they hear it, and for many BS is synonymous with getting good grades. So the first step in courage making may be to be honest. Sounds simple, but hard to do when reward lies in the opposite direction.

When we’re honest, we allow others into the secret places in our minds, and we feel vulnerable. But the alternative is . . .

Being honest, taking risks, having courage — it doesn’t mean posting a photo, video, or bio or being outrageous for its own sake; and it doesn’t mean pouring your heart out or being stupid and putting yourself or others in danger. I think we all recognize it when we see it. We’re engineered by nature to value it. It’s in our DNA. So the answer is within each of us, i.e., if we care to take a look.

1 Julio is responding to the question related to the “Video of the Week“: “If vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change how can you teach your students to be more creative using the Internet?” The video: “Brené Brown: The Power of Vulnerability,” TED, YouTube, 1/3/11.

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