Teachable moment

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A teachable moment, in education, is the time at which learning a particular topic or idea becomes possible or easiest.

In education[edit]

The concept was popularized by Robert Havighurst in his 1952 book, Human Development and Education. In the context of education theory, Havighurst explained,

"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."[1]

The concept pre-dates Havighurst's book, as does use of the phrase,[2] but he is credited with popularizing it.[3]

The phrase sometimes denotes not a developmental stage, but rather "that moment when a unique, high interest situation arises that lends itself to discussion of a particular topic."[4] It implies "personal engagement" with issues and problems.[5]

These moments can (and often do) come when least expected. Teachers and parents alike can benefit from use of teachable moments.

Political use[edit]

Sitting about a white table outdoors, three men in neckties, two in suitjackets, hold extended mugs of frothy, pale-amber beverage, clinking them together in a toast, over two small, silver bowls on a silver tray, one filled with tubed things, each twisted upon itself as might be a pretzel, with small whitish crystals attached the size and shape of rocksalt.
Gates, Obama, and the arresting officer meeting at the White House to discuss the incident

In July 2009, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested at his home; the incident garnered media attention throughout the United States. The mayor of Cambridge, E. Denise Simmons, said that she hoped that the result would be a "teachable moment".[6] U.S. President Barack Obama expressed the same hope as Simmons:

My hope is, is that as a consequence of this event this ends up being what's called a 'teachable moment', where all of us instead of pumping up the volume spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity."[7]

Obama's use of the phrase attracted considerable comment in the American media and blogosphere. Gates himself echoed the same theme, stating, "I told the President that my entire career as an educator has been devoted to racial healing and improved race relations in this country. I am determined that this be a teaching moment."[8]

On July 4, 2011, Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, used the term in an article[9] in Campus Review, describing the Australian Higher Education Base Funding Review as a rare opportunity to educate a wider public about how public tertiary education is supported. Davis argued that Australian Universities must show why Australia's public universities returned to the community the money spent providing higher education, and that this constituted a teachable moment.[9]

Pragmatic use[edit]

A teachable moment is often best demonstrated with a significant emotional or traumatic event, the emphasis being on the 'moment' versus the lesson. An example would be, after a high-speed motor vehicle accident, when the use of a seat belt has obviously saved a life, or conversely, when the lack of a seat belt has caused loss of life.

Law enforcement and first responders are often taught and encouraged to use appropriate situations to 'teach' the public.[citation needed]

Trust and the creation of teachable moments[edit]

Teachable moments are not limited to episodes following error or miscreancy, where vulnerability opens the learner to teaching. There is also much work on the mechanisms and psychology by which teachable moments are created in relationships.

Recent work by developmental psychologists Gyorgy Gergely and Gergely Csibra[10] that has been picked up by other psychologists and psychotherapists, especially Peter Fonagy and Elizabeth Allison,[11] describes a "natural pedagogical stance": this is accessed only when "epistemic trust" is created in the "learner", and epistemic trust is created when the learner experiences (recognises) his or her own mind in that "teachable moment" as having been accepted and understood by the "teacher". This is what triggers curiosity in the contents of the understanding mind of the teacher, and a readiness to generalise the information taken in from the teacher to other contexts and people. Some impressive experimental evidence supports this theory. They argue that this learning pathway is almost entirely human-specific, requiring as it does the linked psychological function of mentalization to have occurred.

The logical corollary of this line of thinking is that in creating the "teachable moment" the "teacher's" first job is not to consider how to change the learner's mind, but how to change his or her own mind, in order to better represent that mind of the learner as it is now, and create conditions (through utterances, facial expression and other cues) in which it can be recognised by the learner.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Havinghurst, Robert James, (1952). Human Development and Education, p. 7.
  2. ^ For example, "...this opportune time, this most teachable moment..." Brandenburg, Walter E. (1917). The Philosophy of Christian Being. Sherman, French, p. 84. Retrieved on 2009-08-01.
  3. ^ Wald, Barbara Frankel. Letters: "Footnote to a headline," University of Chicago Magazine. Vol. 95, No. 2 (December 2002).
  4. ^ Lozo, Fredric (2005). The Project Gutenberg eBook of Sequential Problem Solving. Originally published by Eidon Books, 1998, ISBN 0-9674166-0-4.
  5. ^ Parker-Pope, Tara. "It’s Not Discipline, It’s a Teachable Moment," New York Times. September 15, 2008.
  6. ^ CBS Broadcasting, Inc. Patrick 'Troubled' By Harvard Professor's Arrest. WBZ-TV, July 22, 2009.
  7. ^ Obama, Barack. "Statement by the President," White House Press Office. July 24, 2009.
  8. ^ Baker, Peter and Helene Cooper. "Obama Shifts Tone on Gates After Mulling Debate," New York Times. July 24, 2009.
  9. ^ a b Glyn Davis (July 4, 2011). "A teachable moment". Campus Review. Archived from the original on October 1, 2011.
  10. ^ Gergely Csibra and Gyorgy Gergely (2011) "Natural pedagogy as evolutionary adaptation" Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 366, 1149–1157. http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/366/1567/1149
  11. ^ Fonagy, Peter; Allison, Elizabeth (2014) The role of mentalizing and epistemic trust in the therapeutic relationship. Psychotherapy, Vol 51(3), Sep 2014, 372-380.


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