A teachable moment is a moment in which a student is most ready to learn about a topic. It is the perfect moment to teach something.
Teachable moments may occur when:
- A student is developmentally ready to learn,
- An event occurs that acts as a catalyst for learning,
- A student has an epiphany about something, or
- A student develops natural curiosity about a topic.
Often, a teachable moment occurs on accident. It can be an unexpected event that happens in the day to day operations of the class that makes a student curious. The teacher can latch onto this event and use it to teach students something new.
However, it doesn’t have to be on accident. Through careful planning, we can generate moments where students are ripe to learn.
What is a Teachable Moment?
A teachable moment is a moment in which a student is most ready to learn about a topic. It is the perfect moment to teach something.
The term ‘teachable moment’ was popularized by Robert Havighurst in 1952. He defines it as:
“A developmental task is a task which is learned at a specific point and which makes achievement of succeeding tasks possible. When the timing is right, the ability to learn a particular task will be possible. This is referred to as a ‘teachable moment.’ It is important to keep in mind that unless the time is right, learning will not occur. Hence, it is important to repeat important points whenever possible so that when a student’s teachable moment occurs, s/he can benefit from the knowledge.” (Havighurst, 1952, p.)
Examples of Teachable Moments
Teachable moments are often unplanned. But sometimes we can bring up situations in which they will almost naturally occur. Try some of the following strategies.
1. Invite Parents to Give a Speech
Parents are a teacher’s most underused resource. If you find out that a parent has an interesting business, hobby or story, consider inviting them into the classroom to talk to students. Parents with interesting stories can spike students’ curiosities and be a catalyst for learning about something new.
2. Connect with First Nations Groups
Many people in our society has had no contact at all with Indigenous people. As a teacher, consider building a relationship with your local Indigenous community. They may be able to provide you with, sell you, or lend you interesting Indigenous cultural artifacts. This can lead to eye-opening hands-on learning scenarios where students learn about an important culture that lives among them.
3. Use a Secret Grab Bag
If you have an interesting tactile artifact, consider using it to stimulate class discussion. Bring it into the classroom but don’t just show it to your students. Leave it in a canvas bag and ask students to put their hands into the bag. Have them describe how it feels and guess what it might be. The guessing game (and use of the sense of touch to identify clues) can be a stimulating moment to spike students’ curiosities in the classroom.
4. Bring Emergency Services Into the Classroom
Most local police forces have youth liaison officers who would be willing to come into the classroom to talk to students about community safety. Similarly, paramedics and firefighters can come into the classroom or even show students their trucks and equipment to stimulate excitement. Exposure to emergency services personnel from an early age can help children and teens feel more comfortable about approaching trusted community members whose role is to serve and protect.
5. Discuss Fire Protection Week
Fire protection week occurs on the week of 9 October every year. It is an opportunity to pause and teach students about fire safety. It is recommended that during this week, parents and teachers should work with children on fire safety plans. It’s a great moment for talking about what to do during a fire, how to keep your home safe from a fire, and what escape routes children have from their classrooms.
6. Celebrate Black History Month
Black history month occurs in February every year. It is a moment for you to pause with your students and reflect on the history of Black people in the United States and Canada. Many teachers like to use this moment to celebrate remarkable African Americans such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. This is a moment to help young Black and White kids to see African American role models who show the great resilience and amazing contributions to society.
7. Watch the News
The simple act of watching the news (or reading it in newspapers) can bring up countless moments for impromptu teaching. In the past, I have sat down with my students and watched one news segment after the next and discussed each one with them. In Australia (where I grew up), we had a children’s news show called Behind the News (BTN) that students would watch to get an in-depth understanding of what is happening in their community – in a child appropriate way!
8. Prepare Activities about World Events
When remarkable world events arise (such as the Olympics), you have a great opportunity for learning something new. Whenever the Olympic games come up, I’ll do sporting events surrounding the Olympics. I will also get my students to research an Olympian who they are inspired by. Other world events include Earth Day, Ramadan, and Christmas.
9. Celebrate your Class’s Cultural Diversity
Teachers get children at influential moments in their lives. Children often have very few experiences beyond their own family and community connections. School may be the first time in a child’s life that they meet people of different cultures or backgrounds than their own. This in itself creates great moments for teaching and learning. Encourage students of diverse cultural backgrounds to each speak up in class and talk about how their culture does things. This should extend beyond cliche cooking and food elements. Consider exploring cultural, behavioral and values-based differences that make us truly diverse.
10. Embrace Diversity in Books
Ensure your book corner depicts a diversity of people. Make sure every child sees new and different cultures and societies than those they are used to. This will help students stumble upon new moments that spike their curiosity and make them want to learn about people who are different to themselves.
11. Talk about what Students did on their Weekends and Vacations
Weekends and vacations are a great topic to touch on as a teacher. They are topics that can be icebreakers at the beginning of the school year or the week. But, they also help give rise to many moments where learning happens naturally. Find a student who took a vacation or trip to somewhere interesting: Bali, a nearby theme park, whatever! Then, jump on that event and stimulate discussion about travel, tourism, Indonesia, local history – follow the conversation wherever it leads!
12. Encourage Internships
For students in high school, internships and ‘work experience’ do wonders. Countless learning moments arise when a student follows someone around their workplace all day. In fact, a whole theory called the ‘situated learning theory’ has been developed around how great apprenticeships are for learning. When you follow a practitioner around, you learn in authentic contexts where the information is relevant and applicable to real life. (If you have younger students, an option is to have them go to work with their parents for a day).
13. Invite Local Business People into School
I have found that local entrepreneurs are often very happy to come to school for talks. Business people are very aware that entrepreneurship skills are not taught in schools nearly enough. Ask a young and successful local businessperson or inventor into the classroom and ask them to give a 10 minute talk about what an entrepreneur is, what the benefits of businesses are for society, and their path to business. This might be a good activity for middle and high school students.
14. Prepare Active Learning Scenarios
Active learning occurs when students are given the freedom to learn through doing rather than through repetition (or what we in education call the ‘Banking Model of Education’). Not many natural and impromptu learning situations pop up during a passive learning situation. Students just sit, listen and memorize. By contrast, an active scenario will often lead students to thinking deeper about a topic. When they’re touching, exploring and building things questions arise about ‘how’ and ‘why’ it works like that: and this leads to important moments to teach more deeply.
15. Learn with the Seasons
There is a whole movement of people who believe learning outdoors is amazing for children’s development. It’s called the Forest Schools movement. These people believe learning in the outdoors can help stimulate physical, cognitive and social growth – as well as helping children develop risk management and critical thinking skills. Take students outside and have them play in every season so they learn from the things they stumble upon in their world: rain, hail or shine.
16. Bring in Props to Help Learning
Props can be really stimulating for learning. They can peak interest, creating moments where students are ripe and ready to learn! Props can be as simply as an apple that is cut in halves and quarters for teaching fractions. Try to think of things that students can touch, feel, hold, and manipulate to help them learn better. The more mundane and ‘normal’ in the lives of students, the better!
17. Have Show and Tell Sessions
Show and tell sessions give students an opportunity to bring objects into the classroom that they find enjoyable. When students bring in their show and tell items, follow-up the student’s presentation with a natural discussion. Ask students what they want to know about the object and encourage them to share their thoughts and curiosities.
18. Start a Garden
So many amazing moments pop up during gardening that can lead to learning and development. Children find bugs which they want to know more about. They get curious about the life cycles of plants, the conditions required for plants to grow, and the process of getting food from farm to table.
19. Buy a Class Pet
A class pet can teach students about both animals and themselves. They learn about the climates required for animals to live. They learn about the differences between reptiles and mammals. And, they also learn to care for living things. Students have to follow procedures and timeframes to ensure animals are well fed, have livable habitats, and have their tanks cleaned regularly!
20. Learn from Failure
Turn failures into an opportunity for learning. I like the idea of ‘Failure Fridays’. Sit down with your students every Friday and talk to them about the benefits of failure. Provide case studies from your own life, things that happened through the week, or famous failures. One that I like to use is J.K. Rowling’s 12 rejections before someone finally agreed to publish her books. Wow! If we work through failure and use our resilience, amazing things can happen!
21. Make Fads Educational
Every teacher has experienced ‘fads’. They’re as old as time: marbles, spinning tops, Tamagochis, Pokemon, fidget spinners … what’s next!? Instead of being a grumpy and angry teacher who bans fads, see if you can turn them into an educational moment. One great example is paper airplanes. When students are making paper airplanes, turn it into a lesson on physics and get students to compete to create the furthest flying airplane!
22. Conduct a Survey
Surveys often lead to unexpected results. A simple survey can be an icebreaker bingo game or a survey of parents and friends. When you get together with your class after the survey is completed, see what you and your students can learn from the survey you conducted. Are there any interesting or surprising findings that contradicted your hypotheses? What did you learn from the activity?
23. Embrace Situations that arise in Books
Teachers should always read books with their students. Sit your students down and read them books about the world. It’s a way to learn, but also a fantastic bonding moment with your students. When novel or amusing situations arise in the books you are reading, talk with your students about those situations and try to teach them something new through that event in the book.
24. Commemorate Armistice (Veteran’s) Day
Armistice Day falls on November 11 every year. It commemorates the end of World War I, where Germany signed the armistice. In the US, it’s now called Veteran’s day.
The day is a moment to talk to students about war and how much pain it causes to the world. I sit with my students and talk about the loss of loved ones, the causes our ancestors fought for, and the importance of keeping the peace into the future.
25. Use an Inquiry Based Approach
Inquiry based learning is an approach to education that focuses on investigation to reach conclusions. When students conduct investigations into topics of interest, they stumble upon surprising facts that peaks their curiosity. The teacher and students both have less control over where the lesson is headed. Therefore, an inquiry approach is likely to lead to many moments where you can pause and talk to your students about the surprising discoveries they made.
26. Let Students Play
Play based learning is another type of learning that leads to unexpected moments where unplanned learning can occur. This is particularly true during unstructured play. There are many different types of play based learning, but each has at its core a focus on learning through experimentation, creativity and discovery – which naturally leads to moments where learning will occur.
27. Have Students Keep a Reflective Journal
Reflective journals can be very beneficial, particularly for older students. When we reflect on our learning we use a strategy called metacognition. This means ‘thinking about thinking’. By keeping a reflective journal, students think about how they went about a task in class and ask questions like: ‘Was this the most efficient way to do it?’, ‘How will I do it differently next time?’, and ‘Why did I get this result in my tests?’ Such questions lead to ‘Ah-Ha!’ moments where students come to think of more efficient, smarter and better ways to learn.
28. Play Sports with your Class
Sports are not just about getting fit. They’re not even just about developing fine and gross motor skills. Playing sports with your class helps students stumble upon moments where they learn about interpersonal skills. They learn about how to lose gracefully, be a team player, win with class, and take leadership roles. So, while your students think they’re just playing a sport, the reality is they’re stumbling upon moments where they’re learning valuable lessons about how to be a good person.
29. Teach about World Languages
I love seeing the curiosity on my students’ faces when they see people speaking a language other than English. Try to introduce different languages into the classroom and see students reacting with surprise and deep interest. Encourage them to ask questions about the languages … and of course, teach them some words! There are even some amazing songs about languages of the world that you can teach your students.
30. Get Students to Keep Reflective Journals
A reflective journal can be a great strategy for older students. Have them write about their lives and what they are learning about. Reflection is a time when students have “Ah-Ha!” moments about what they did in class, and how they might be able to do them better in the future. We often call this a “metacognitive strategy” as it gets students to think about their own thinking and learning strategies.
31. Create Lessons around Students’ Hobbies
Students are no more ready to learn than when they are interested in a topic. Embrace students’ hobbies and use them when teaching. If students are in love with Harry Potter, why not use themes from Harry Potter in Math class? If your students are obsessed with the latest computer game, why not use its plot in a creative writing task?
Skilled teachers can turn moments and events in their classrooms and turn them into lessons.
A teaching moment can be as small as turning an argument between students into a lesson about forgiveness. It can also be a big thing, like a meaningful discussion about a moment in world history that shocked us to our core (I still recall my History teacher telling me to ‘remember where you were’ on 9/11).
As a teacher, try to embrace those moments where you can teach your students a lesson they’ll never forget – right at the moment when they’re most ready and curious to learn about it.
Havighurst, R. (1952). Human Development and Education. New York: Longmans.
Seals, G. (2019). Teaching Moments and the Science of Education. New York: Routledge.
About The Author: Hi, I’m Chris Drew (Ph.D) and I run things around here. I’m an Education expert and university professor. You can read more about me here.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]