Publish at April 12 2022 Updated April 21 2022

What frailties teach us

Social, individual and educational fragilities

Delicate flowers

The Tao invites its followers to humility with these words, "Newborn, man is supple and frail; dead, he is rigid and hard. [...] Solidity and rigidity are the companions of death; suppleness and weakness are the companions of life"

Where does frailty come from?

While the Tao evokes weakness, this article will prefer the notion of fragility. Fragility evokes brokenness, the rift, and isn't it the rift that lets the light through rather than a solid, impervious wall?

Below the apparent fragility of water, a plant, or nascent life lies the extraordinary power to adapt and flow through the world. The word fragility is of the same origin as "fracture," both terms dating back to 13th century French. "Fragile" derives from frangere, which means "to break" and yields fraction and fragment.

Social fragilities

In an age of uncertainty and doubt, the stakes of fragility are immense. Dethier uses three images to describe contemporary social fragilities for us.

  • First he evokes the famous wave by Japanese painter Hokusai, in which a frail boat faces a surge of nature. At the age of 70, the painter shows us a world in the process of engulfing. Nature overtakes and fascinates us, and yet with this image where everyone seems to be rowing without seeing anything of their surroundings, Dethier watches us give in to the sad passions that rule our lives, disregarding what really matters.

  • The second image of fragility that Dethier mobilizes is that of the snail, a slow and fragile animal if ever there was one whose example of silent slowness might well lead us to the transformation of helplessness to power. For if time escapes us, captured by desires implanted by a commercial force, the reclaiming of slowness offers new perspectives of finding oneself and going forward with one's power to act.

  • Dethier's third metaphor for exploring social fragilities is that of the black swan, unique among his own, seeking to exist on his own and to tie himself to others through the specificities that are his engaging in denser knots and ties rather than accumulating more and more goods.

These social frailties weigh on our lives. We make do with our limits of consciousness, our desires and perspectives, our capacities to assume or not our singularities.

Open up to our frailties

That which does not kill me makes me stronger asserts the philosopher Nietzsche in "Twilight of the Idols." Going through our frailties would help us find our light. Fragility holds in common with resilience this principle of bending, of twisting, like a reed that ultimately withstands the wind even as one who is strong as an oak eventually breaks and is blown away.

The leader, the manager, the trainer who opens up about his or her frailties to others allows them by example to do the same allows everyone to expose their difficulties and learn from them. And therein lies the beginning of a possible help to progress.

This model of behavior removes the illusion of perfection due to others and engages more humanity, more sincerity. It brings beings closer together through this fragility in common that instead of being hidden supports each other. Since my boss, my trainer, my parent is fragile I too can be fragile and exposing it for all to see I can gather their help in transforming my fragility into something nourishing for my life.

The Great Balance

It is fashionable to value the fragilities we overcome. But, pedagogy of error could be harmful to the fragile. If trial-and-error learning is popular, fragility could cause damage to learners in need of guidance. For them, it would only amplify the difficulty of situating themselves or understanding instructions. Such a pedagogy would accentuate the split between students who are prepared and willing to engage in learning and others who are ignorant of the issues, uses and expectations of school.

These expectations that make Roger-François Gauthier, former inspector general of the French National Education say that the school is "turned towards a transmission under tension of formatted knowledge, adept at modes of evaluation that easily eliminate fragile students."

This is why, depending on the audience, the pedagogue will guard against too many losses of reference points that could definitively lead fragile learners astray in terms of their foundations, their motivations, or their resources. He will choose the paths according to where the learners are at rather than according to his theoretical beliefs.

Refusing fragility: a strength?

In the transactional analysis work developed by Eric Berne, one of the little voices that turns in our heads in a subliminal message is "Be strong." Men are particularly on the receiving end of this anti-fragility injunction with all the associated consequences (burdensome social roles, domineering behaviors, hidden suffering).

Nicholas Taleb describes antifragility as a "property of systems that become stronger when exposed to stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, errors, attacks, or failures." While the concept of resilience means an ability to absorb, a stress or shock and return to a previous state, antifragility instead feeds on the energy, the intention that affects it to strengthen itself.

To learn one must certainly deal with one's strengths and frailties, which presupposes a self-knowledge that school can reinforce.


The viewpoint of Roger-François Gauthier, former Inspector General of National Education

Toutéduc. Pedagogical notebooks. Error pedagogy risks breaking some fragile students

Transactional analysis

Wikipedia. Nicholas Taleb

Le Coz, P. (2015). Coaching, a symptom of fragility of the social bond. Studies, , 31-41.

General culture. Hokusai's Great Kaganawa Wave

Dethier, R. (2013). Fragilities and social cohesion. Les Cahiers Internationaux de Psychologie Sociale, 99-100, 409-424.

See more articles by this author




Access exclusive services for free

Subscribe and receive newsletters on:

  • The lessons
  • The learning resources
  • The file of the week
  • The events
  • The technologies

In addition, index your favorite resources in your own folders and find your history of consultation.

Subscribe to the newsletter

Add to my playlists

Create a playlist

Receive our news by email

Every day, stay informed about digital learning in all its forms. Great ideas and resources. Take advantage, it's free!