Recognizing & Acting on Teachable Moments in Class

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has an Masters of Science in Mathematics and a Masters in Education

What is a teachable moment, and how can educators recognize and capitalize on them? This lesson defines the term and provides examples of how teachers can use teachable moments in their practice. Then, test out what you learned with the quiz.

Planned and Unplanned Instruction

Effective teachers carefully plan instruction. They use school or district guidelines to make decisions about content to teach, and they key in to students for specific instructional strategies. This way, they are able to meet the needs of all students as the proper content is being covered each year. When lessons are planned with intention and attention to detail, teachers are prepared, and students receive quality instruction.

Sometimes, though, something unexpected can occur during a lesson that offers the teacher a chance to teach students unplanned, yet truly important and impactful, informtion. We call these teachable moments. You can't plan for them or figure out an easy way to make them happen. Rather, teachers need to be aware of when teachable moments happen, how to properly respond to them, and how to make the most of these magical moments.

Spotting Teachable Moments

Teachable moments can be brief explanations of content that weren't planned for, or they can be so engaging and important they lead to whole units. Teachable moments happen during a regular class time when a side interest seems to seize the attention of the majority of students. For example, during a lesson on types of clouds, a student asked a question about the changing climate. Sally, a seasoned and gifted teacher, answered the question, prompting more from other students. Sally noticed the students' genuine interest in this topic, and told them she would find a way to work the concept into their unit on weather.

Sally made the snap decision to take the teachable moment and fit it into her current lessons on climate. She knew it was a teachable moment because:

  • Many students asked questions about the topic
  • Most students were interested in the conversation, both questions and answers
  • The answers she provided prompted deeper questions
  • Students had some background knowledge of the topic
  • When she attempted to guide the conversation back to the planned lesson, students were disappointed
  • Students were eager to learn more

Sally knew this was a teachable moment because one off-topic question led to more. Though only a few students asked questions, most were interested, and all had some idea of what climate change was. They knew enough about the topic to ask questions, but not enough to fully grasp the concept. Sally knows she's experiencing a teachable moment when students are hungry for more information on a topic. Their natural curiosity and interest in the topic helped her to see it as a topic she could help them understand.

Flexibility in Planning

In order to be able to recognize and act on teachable moments, a teacher needs to be flexible during instruction and planning. When teachers are flexible, they easily modify or adjust plans to meet the needs of students. When Sally noticed her students' interest in climate change, she may have been inflexible, shutting down the students' curiosity and sticking rigidly to her original plans. Doing this, however, does not allow students the opportunity to learn material they find engaging.

When teachers are flexible, they are responding to student need and interest. We saw Sally jump at the chance to add to her students' understanding of climate; she recognized the opportunity to build on their current energy and interest in the topic and adjusted her lesson to respond to their questions. After the class, we see her planning for future student learning that enhances their understanding. Because she was flexible and responsive, students' interest in and level of engagement is high.

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