A Closer Look At "Teachable Moments"
President Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, referred to the firing of Shirley Sherrod as “one of those teachable moments” – the same phrase the president himself used nearly a year ago to the day regarding the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates. Well beyond Washington, however, the phrase “teachable moment” has begun to proliferate.
Recently, I've heard it used to describe everything from Phil Jackson calling a timeout after a careless turnover in the NBA playoffs, to prominent policy experts talking about the BP oil spill. What concerns me so much about the phrase “teachable moment,” is not the number of times it's used, but the hollowness of its current use and the underlying implications this hollowness carries for those of us who teach.
A teachable moment, according to an education website, is “not something you can plan for; rather it must be sensed and seized by the teacher.” The site offers, as an example, a student asking why Veteran's Day is an “off day” from school. The teacher leaves behind a rigid lesson plan and discusses the meaning of Veteran's Day. This truly is something that can't be planned for – unless, say, you had access to a calendar, or recalled a mnemonic device to remember that Veteran's Day always falls on 11/11.
This website example is presumably meant to encourage teachers to be flexible, but these days – with increasing pressure to offer by-the-book instruction – digressive instruction is often not rewarded. Even so, the example suggests that teaching moves in one direction only. The teacher has all the answers and the students bring nothing to the discussion. The teacher, for example, does not ask if anyone in the class knows someone in the military, or why the government might have started setting aside a day to honor servicemen in 1919.
More often the phrase assumes that real teaching occurs only after mistakes. But did we really need an oil spill to begin asking questions about the effect of oil on the environment? Did we need another example of racism in the media to explore the topic of race in America?
My knee-jerk response when I hear the phrase “teachable moment” is to ask, “What's NOT a teachable moment?” – including the phrase itself? Must we really just wait passively for the next fiasco before we begin to seek answers?
In Democracy in Education, John Dewey warns that the worst sort of teaching “treats each lesson as an independent whole.” But the truly teachable moment expands the minds of everyone involved – teacher and student alike – by using what we already know to understand new experiences and to use these new experiences to throw light on what we think we know.