What Is a Teachable Moment?

Let’s begin with what a teachable moment is not. It is not what a lot of people think it is. This is one of those phrases (like the widely abused “passive-aggressive”) that has been co-opted by folks who say things they think make them sound smart, when actually the opposite is the case.

Here is a bad example, from a recent news story. A popular hoax perpetrated on elderly people, and also upon busy and distracted adults of all ages, is the phone call that claims to be from some governmental entity like the IRS, Social Security, or the local police department. The criminal on the other end of the line wants sensitive information, and if it is not forthcoming, will resort to threatening the call recipient with immediate arrest, for anything from drug trafficking to money laundering.

Taking advantage

When a police captain in North Carolina received one of these calls — at work, no less! — she strung the caller along, pretending genuine concern about the multiple charges the scammer claimed could be filed against her. Meanwhile, she recorded the call to post on social media. The video clip was also picked up by various TV shows and used as an educational demonstration, with the hope of warning vulnerable seniors against providing any personal information over the phone.

It was a good idea that captured wide attention, and maybe even prevented some crime. The only problem is, the police captain is widely quoted as having decided to use this opportunity as a “teachable moment,” amounting to a total misuse of the term. It was a fortuitous incident that a quick-thinking officer took advantage of to issue a useful caveat that probably saved some good people from anxiety and fear. But to call it a “teachable moment” is a grotesque misnomer.

More Halloween aftermath

News archives contain an article titled “Parents can use Halloween as a teachable moment,” which implies a certain degree of, if not coercion, at least an incorrect interpretation of the concept. Writer Lizzie Hedrick quotes psychology professor Donna Spruijt-Metz, whose mother would sit with her to sort the trick-or-treat bounty:

We had a joke about how she loved the mini-Hershey bars, so she would negotiate with me for them. She would bargain with me and always say that she wanted to keep those chocolates for herself… [I]t turned into a conversation in which she made me think about what I really liked and what I liked less — and then convinced me to give up the ones I didn’t truly enjoy.

Maybe it was a valuable lesson about weighing priorities. Maybe it was just that the little girl felt queasy from eating too much candy, so her emotions were easy to manipulate — which is not quite the same thing. Hyperactive children tend to have “teachable moments” when they are sick, simply because feeling ill drains off some of their bouncing-off-the-walls energy and they sit still for once.

Closer to the true meaning of the phrase is the title of a piece by Deb Porcarelli of the AIMS Center for Math and Science Education. In “You Never Know When,” she wrote:

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

Many adults want “teachable moment” to mean, “There is an idea I want to put across, and I’ve decided that now is the time to do it.” But that is not what it means. A teachable moment spontaneously arises from within the child, manifesting as a mood that is open, receptive, approachable, malleable, curious, ready.

A sensitive teacher or parent will be alert for such unexpected intervals, and make judicious use of them. A teachable moment cannot be decreed or created, it has to be caught in the wild by a grownup who is attentive and prepared, and (this is crucial) who also is willing to recognize when the moment is over.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Police captain turns the tables on a scammer claiming to be a cop,” ConsumerAffairs.com, 08/30/19
Source: “Parents can use Halloween as a teachable moment,” USC.edu, 10/30/15
Source: “You Never Know When,” AIMSEdu.org, 09/14/17
Photo credit: Giuseppe Milo (www.pixael.com) on Visualhunt/CC BY

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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