What Are Teachable Moments?

Using and Creating Teachable Moments

Hero Images/Getty Images

The idea of teachable moments is not new, although, until relatively recently, it’s been a term more often used in classrooms than at home. As parents take a more active role in their children’s education, inside and outside of school, taking advantage of these opportunities is more important than ever. But what are teachable moments?

A Modern Definition of "Teachable Moments"

Technically, the term teachable moment refers to a stage in a child’s development when he is most receptive to learning a certain concept or skill.

Over time the phrase has taken on a less literal and more modern meaning.

A teachable moment can be thought of as a quick moment in time when your child’s interest in a specific subject is at its highest, usually because of a conversation or immersion in a situation that brings on intense curiosity.

For example, if you’re watching the news with your child and he’s riveted to a story about the destruction created by a hurricane, it can be the perfect moment to teach your child more about hurricanes and the forces of nature that create them.

A More Traditional Definition

Unfortunately, this modern definition implies that if you miss a teachable moment, than you’ve lost your chance to teach your child about whatever subject has caught his interest. This is untrue, which is why it’s important to know the more traditional definition of the phrase as well.

The idea became more familiar to educators in 1952 with the publication of Robert Havighurt’s book, Human Development and Education.

He describes teachable moments in the context of children being able to learn tasks only when they reach the right stage developmentally. Havighurt said the following about teachable moments:

"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."

It’s Havighurt’s comment that learning cannot occur unless the timing is right that has made its way into the modern definition of the term. What is overlooked is that he says that it is essential to repeat the information so that when a child is developmentally ready, he can benefit from whatever you are teaching him.

Using Spontaneous Teachable Moments

Teachable moments occur spontaneously and they happen all the time. You just have to be paying attention and be prepared to find ways to make use of them. Teachable moments often happen when you least expect them.

They frequently come in the form of an innocent or half-hearted question on the part of your child. (Why are rain clouds dark? How come gas is so expensive lately? What does _______ mean?)

If you know the answer to the question, that’s your chance to shine and teach your child about weather, economics or language. If you don’t know the answer, help your child find the answer in a book, researching it on the Internet or by finding a knowledgeable expert to help you out.

Creating Teachable Moments

Despite what you might think, you don’t have to wait for your child to become interested in something to have a teachable moment. You can create them, too. Some ways to create teachable moments include:

  • Taking a learning vacation.
  • Reading books together.
  • Asking your child to tell you about the book he’s currently reading.
  • Making grocery shopping a learning activity.
  • Telling your child stories about when you were a child.
  • Looking at old photographs or genealogy charts.
  • Cooking together.
  • Listening to music and talking about the lyrics, melody, different instruments, etc.
  • Paying bills and talking about budgeting in front of your child.
  • Watching T.V. together and discussing plots, news stories or even commercials.