Manufactured Teachable Moments

FarSideteachablemomentHave you ever had a “teachable moment”?  Do you think we can actually make them happen or are they totally arbitrary, unpredictable by nature?

First, let me explain by way of a story, what a teachable moment is.

When I was first teaching, I taught LINC, language instruction for newcomers to Canada. Basically, adult ESL for new immigrants. My classroom was on the 5th floor of a downtown skyscraper, all glass windows on the side opposite the board.

I was preceding with my regular lesson on “How to withdraw money at a Canadian bank”. As I was writing on the board, suddenly there was a series of loud “ooohs”, “ahhhs” and shrieks behind me. I turned around and wondered what the heck was happening. I saw 2 middle aged women jumping up and down, up and down like small kids. Their faces were glued to the glass and they began exclaiming, “Snow! Snow!” They were from Brazil and this was the first time they’d ever seen snow. It was just a few small flakes but they were overcome.

As the teacher, I really didn’t have much choice but to start teaching about snow and use the opportunity of “reality knocking” to teach about the weather and anything snow related.  The whole class just went that way and started asking questions to the women, “There is no snow in Brazil?” , “Is it what you expected?” “Have you seen snow on TV?” etc….

This was a teachable moment and we began talking all about snow, brainstorming snow related vocabulary etc…… It was a unique opportunity to harness student motivation and to connect the classroom with the real world. A real teachable moment.

A few other teachable moments I remember in my teaching career were:

1. A butterfly entering the classroom – which led to a lesson in science and entomology.

2. A mother coming into the class to ask a question – which led to us interviewing her about her new business.

3. A student’s broken arm – which led to a lesson on our own prior accidents and ways to prevent them.

Can you  create teachable moments or must they arise purely “by chance?”

Teachable moments are powerful “learning” moments (for teaching is learning). In many cases, unforgettable. A kind of student driven “Eureka”. An epiphany where you connect with the subject in ways that aren’t possible in the traditionally delivered, head on, step 1,2,3 lesson plan.  But can we try to make them happen? I believe we can and should as teachers.

I think there is a “Teachable Moment Spectrum” ranging from strict control and following of the lesson plan to a very liberal approach that seeks student “reality” as the generator of teachable moments. We don’t have to rely on chance!

teachable moment spectrum

In our teaching, we can use the reality that affects our students as a powerful source of both content and “teachability”. This to me is a manufactured or synthetic teachable moment – but powerful just the same!   Looking at the above examples –  The butterfly entering the room would be a natural teaching moment, an unmanufactured one. However, 2 and 3 are purely teacher created but teachable moments just the same.

As teachers, let’s not just rely on chance. We should actively try to create teachable moments all the time – connecting student reality to learning. In the language curriculum, the possibilities are endless, unlike the case of more “set” curriculum like science and history. Language oozes into everything and so we should let reality set the course and not the lesson plan.

Let’s take the untrodden paths more often and bring teachable moments into our everyday teaching…. you can, I assure you!

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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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4 Responses

  1. Great post David!

    I am a big fan of the “teachable moments”. But I wouldn’t say they’re manufactured. The essence of these moments is the teacher having the sensibility of noticing the opportunity, thinking how you can use it, what you can draw from it, and then ask the right questions to engage the students and make it become a lesson. They’re usually the best ones 🙂 because, as you said, it brings the student’s reality into their won learning. That is the most effective way of reaching effective learning, for it really makes the learner interested, it becomes learning because you’re talking and reading about something you enjoy, not reading or talking about something to learn. Does that make sense?

    Anyway, just thought I should let you know I realy enjoyed your post. 🙂

  2. ddeubel says:

    Thanks Cecilia,

    It is an important “opportunity” in the classroom and I do agree, if they are “by chance” they are that much more authentic and powerful. That makes sense to me.

    Still, I do think we can sneakily, artfully make them appear and the students are none the wiser – they just think the class went “on a tangent” and are that much more into it.

    But I also think (and didn’t mention) that “teachable moments” can fall flat. It isn’t a given, just depends on the students and their needs. We teachers have to be sensitive to that. Just because a butterfly flew into the class, doesn’t mean you need to turn the lesson into one about science. Sometimes, it is better to get it back outside and continue with the topic at hand….. just depends.

    Thanks for dropping by.


  3. DaveDodgson says:

    Hi David,

    I think your comment above hit the nail on the head – it’s all about how the ‘opportunity’, manufactured or otherwise, is used and they can fall flat on any occasion.

    One manufacutred moment I had years ago that went well was when there was a text coming up in the book about a woman aged 50+ who went back to college. It just so happened my mum was visiting at the time and she had just completed a part-time teaching diploma aged 52! I brought her in and used her as a ‘live text’ and the class loved it.

    I’ve also had a snow one with kids. They always get excited about snow so I had to go with it as there was no other way to get thier attention. ‘What are you going to do when you get home today?’ was the question with lots of snow-related answers and new vocab learned.

    One that fell flat? Once a class’s old teacher popped in to ask me something and, as we were looking at comparatives, I elicited some comparisions. She got offended as they said ‘she is older than you’ and ‘she is fatter than you’ and then, realising their faux pas they swung the other way: ‘she is friendlier than you’, ‘her lessons are better than yourd!’. Lesson learned – don’t use personal examples for comparisons!

  4. ddeubel says:


    Superb, practical examples/situations that are very insightful. I’ve been in the same situation regarding comparatives and like you, learned the hard way. Even small kids can be cruel and you really need a class that is mature to do that one….

    But I do think it worthy to try to manufacture moments – it gets easier as we get more skilled and experienced in what works and what will end up a dud.

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