Exploring the Teachable Moment
by Chase Young
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The teachable moment is a wonderful thing. In my undergraduate courses, my professors told us we had to seize these magic moments, because they are rare and unexpected, but yield great promise. Later in my program, I had the opportunity to observe many classes. In some classrooms, the moments were indeed rare. In others, the moments made up most of the day. How did this happen? This completely unexpected, unprompted, highly sought after moment seemed to prevail in some classes. There had to be a reason.

Teaching is sometimes viewed as linear, driven by specific curriculum assuming that a teacher’s job is to bring the knowledge “out there” to the student. Situations like these leave little room for speculation. Learning is such a complex processes, linearity, in my mind, fails to capture it. Still, I could not believe that effective teaching is disorganized meanderings. As a part of my feeble attempts to understand the teachable moment, I have redirected my thoughts to nonlinearity.

I have come to understand that teachable moments are moments of emergence. In other words, the moments emerge when a disorganized system reorganizes into something completely new. This newness might be understood as using the known to reach the not-yet-imaginable. Fictional writers use this premise to create worlds based on common understandings, yet extend into the unimaginable.

Although learning is dependent on teaching, the learning is not determined by it. In a classic view, when I present curricula to my students, they are responsible for its content. While this may be true, the real learning is the difference (possibly the curriculum) that makes a difference (some unimaginable outcome). Another way to understand this uses Chaos Theory’s “butterfly effect.” A slight change in thinking can render undetermined results of unthinkable magnitude. You cannot assume “teaching” is what the teacher does, but should be measured by the effect on the learner.

How do we foster such complexity? Earlier I mentioned that learning is dependent on teaching, but the learning is undetermined. Learning might be understood as a self-organizing system resulting in emergence. As a teacher, my role is to set the conditions for emergence. That’s right, in some fashion, I have to create chaos in my classroom. I am not talking about paper airplanes, footballs, and dance contests (although it does happen occasionally). We must plan to create what is not yet imaginable with data that teases, educational contexts with limited boundaries, and questions that provoke processing.

For example, there is a big difference between starting a lesson with “Reading is…” and “What is reading?” I have studied reading education for 7 years, and I could not give you a definite answer. Asking this of 19 nine year olds in a classroom creates a collective chaos (public) and prompts the brain seeks some sort of order, thus moving disorganized thought towards reorganization (private). The collective helps immensely in this context. The public knowledge bounces around private complexity until the system reorganizes and you have emergence. The reorganization into emergence is where you will find the teachable moment.

This episode also illustrates how the teacher is part of the learning collective. A teacher is not a dispenser of knowledge, or a filler of brains. A teacher’s role, in my mind, is to create an environment where learners can explore existing possibilities and land in the realm of not-yet-imaginable.

Finally, the teachable moment is not a product of the teacher alone—it cannot be (unless, of course, the teachable moment is a private to the teacher resulting from reading or some other difference making device). The classroom collective is full of divergent thinkers and varying experiences, thus creating educational chaos. In the chaos, if fostered and conditioned, teachable moments have the potential to dominate. 
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© 2011 Chase J. Young. All rights reserved.