two men at a table


“I can’t stand all of this pretentiousness!”

An exasperated friend recently shared these sentiments with me about the university where he works. He asked me how I dealt with pretentious colleagues at my high school.

I thought for a second and replied, “There’s really not much room for pretentiousness at my school.”

“Really?!” he asked, surprised by my response. It was such a stark divide that we started thinking about what could be at the root of this difference. Why was pretension so rampant at his university but almost absent from my school? We settled on one word: vulnerability.

“The university encourages us to take a defensive position in almost everything we do,” he said. “We defend our dissertation. We have our tenure defense. Our salaries and job security depend upon how impressive we make ourselves look to our colleagues. So, when we do get to share our work, it’s less about getting feedback and more about proving how amazing we are. Being vulnerable is the opposite of what I’m being asked to do.”

I work at the International School of the Americas, a public high school focused on developing students’ ability to address contemporary global issues. The school is driven by a spirit of innovation and continuous growth, and an important part of this mission is for teachers to share imperfect work with one another in order to get help with the things we struggle with the most. For instance, in our Critical Friends Groups, a monthly professional learning community, we share work that is in progress as well as deep professional dilemmas in safe and supportive ways. Growth drives our work. In this culture a teacher who practices vulnerability is celebrated and supported, and a pretentious one who purports to know all the answers would be viewed as inauthentic.

While defending work can build important skills like critical thinking and revision, a culture that only uplifts defensiveness diminishes true vulnerability. Such a culture limits innovation and connection. Instead, a culture that embraces vulnerability can change a school into an environment where PBL can thrive.

Vulnerability in PBL

A few weeks ago several of my teacher colleagues from PBLWorks shared their thoughts on using Project Based Learning, and the term vulnerability kept popping up in our discussions. After a couple of days of discussion, I asked several of them what role they think vulnerability plays in PBL. Here are some of their responses:

  • Deprivatization: When students and teachers openly share their questions and in-progress work with one another, they engage more effectively in the PBL critique and revision process, which allows them to expand their learning and improve products by gaining new perspectives.

  • Modeling: Vulnerability allows teachers to effectively model a PBL mindset. When students see their teachers engage in dialogue and reflection with colleagues and students, they are presented with models of how to reflect honestly and effectively respond to feedback.

  • Empathy: Teachers can better empathize and connect with their students’ learning in PBL if they are vulnerable in their own practice. In PBL, students are consistently asked to share their work in order to receive critique. If teachers forget what vulnerability feels like, it’s more difficult for them to support students when they are practicing vulnerability by sharing their unfinished work throughout the PBL process.

Leading for Vulnerability

Researcher Brené Brownis an expert on vulnerability. Her work demonstrates its centrality in helping people and organizations innovate and connect with others - the very things we know PBL can do for students. Schools that embrace vulnerability help PBL thrive, but many educational leaders unknowingly uphold a culture of defensiveness. For example, while my professor friend could better grow and connect with his colleagues by sharing his doubts and uncertainties, his first inclination is defensiveness, an action antithetical to a PBL mindset focused on critique and revision. 

School leaders who are building a culture for PBL should consider the following:

  1. Model vulnerability. Leaders who have studied vulnerability and are courageous enough to authentically share with teachers can transform a faculty. Teachers can gain a model of vulnerability and build their own leadership capacities by becoming more engaged in the decision-making process.

  2. Create trusting structures. In her book Daring Greatly Brené Brown writes: “Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust.“ Thus, it can be counterproductive to expect teachers to embrace vulnerability without specific structures that foster trust. Professional development experiences such as Critical Friends Groups and the use of discussion protocols like those of the School Reform Initiative can help develop a culture that supports vulnerability.

  3. Value revision and reflection. Many administrators use teacher evaluations that heavily rely on snapshot observations of classes. Such approaches can lead teachers to take a defensive stance because they feel the need to be protective of their work. Instead, leaders should foster vulnerability by increasing the weight of teacher reflection and revision during the evaluation process.

  4. Be patient and persistent. Vulnerability is difficult and is counter to how many teachers have been trained to be, so it is important for leaders to be both patient and persistent in building this culture. When I started teaching at my school, I did not like sharing my work in Critical Friends Groups. It was an unfamiliar and uncomfortable experience, so I often went into defense mode. However, after seeing my colleagues engage in the process, I gave it a shot, and this vulnerable action eventually transformed me into a more receptive and responsive teacher.

Embracing vulnerability has been core to my growth as a teacher of PBL,

but it has been a long journey, and it is still something I have to work on. Because of the extent that practicing vulnerability has changed my teaching, I’m certain it can help all teachers and leaders of PBL. I urge PBL educators to be alert when moving into a defensive stance, and instead of throwing up a protective wall, seek to share doubts and uncertainties. It takes true courage to share the work we know needs the most improvement, and this is where true connection and growth occurs.

Ryan Sprott, Director of National Faculty
Ryan is a public high school teacher at the International School of the Americas in San Antonio, TX and the recipient of the James F. Veninga Award for outstanding teaching of the humanities. In his work as co-founder of Borderland Collective and as a National Faculty member for PBLWorks, he strives to extend learning beyond the classroom walls so that students and teachers may develop greater capacities for collaboration, critical thinking, and empathy.