The concept of a teachable moment is common in education. However, what it actually entails, and the conditions for it are not very well understood. Typically, teachable moments are thought of those spontaneous opportunities where we educators, be it parents or teachers, may help a learner enhance their understanding of a concept, theory, perspective, or idea. But it is not in the educator’s mind where this moment arises. It is in the mind of the learner. A teachable moment requires a stimulus that generates high interest in a learner about something, and it also requires a form of trust, where a learner recognizes that This teacher accepts and understands what I am thinking.
When we encounter such moments as educators, rather than think of how we can use the situation to change a learner’s thought, we first need to establish trust. We need to look into our own mind and how to change this to accord with the learner’s mind. We need the learner to know that we are in the same place as they are. And the, we begin the walk of learning.
Today was the first day of 2021. The wind was light and the temperature hovered just below zero, so we decided to go for a walk. We took a trail loop that was new to us, one that snaked through a forest of White Cedar, Hemlock, White Birch, and Beech. In another season the trail would have been easy walking. As it was, the icy ground beneath our feet made for some tricky moments, and concentration on foot placement was at a premium. However, once the trail reached the river flats, it was time to lift our eyes, open our ears and explore.
We came across an inunnguaq which I pointed out to John, our ten-year old son. This could have been a moment to introduce to him the idea of cultural appropriation and open his eyes to issues of the impact of the colonization of Indigenous peoples of Canada.
I waited for John to ask a question; there was nothing forthcoming. I would have liked him to have asked, but our minds were in different places. We moved on.
Crossing a rickety bridge that spanned a small creek, I noticed a spiderweb between the balusters, its silk having snared a scrap of dry cedar leaf blown about by the wind. I asked John to come and look, and he did. I waited for a question but, again, none came.
Soon enough, we came to a little clearing with room to sit and take some herbal tea which we had brought along. I put down my walking poles, retrieved the thermos from the side pocket of my pack, opened it, placed it on the ground and rummaged to find the cups that we had brought along.
Where does this herbal tea come from? John asked.
He wasn’t asking where the dried leaf comes from, or how it is made into the beverage we know as tea. He has visited tea plantations and is aware of this. He was asking about this tea, the herbal tea. Here was that moment. Of all the possible moments that may have arisen in the environment we were in.
You know I am wondering the same thing, now that you mention it, I replied. Why don’t we taste it and try to work out what is in it, and then maybe we can look up some of the herbs on the phone and see if we can work it out?
And this led to a gentle conversation and exploration of the other things that we had brought with us. Where the raw materials may have come from, where they were processed, where the items were made, and how they all got to the same place that we were at. Walking poles from Austria, boots from China, my pack from Vietnam.
We never did determine where all the different herbs and spices of the tea originated from, nor where the blend was made, packaged, and shipped from, but we did make our first real foray into global trade and our place in it.
For me, the most impactful aspect of this learning was not that he was aware of the concept of global trade, but that I could follow his mind, put myself in his mind as we played with the questions that arose.
In a previous post I wrote about the power of narrative in generating real meaning of the world around us. We didn’t have the time to do that here, but maybe next time we are out and we have a steaming cup of tea in our hands we may well do just this.
It is in settings such as these, away from classrooms and content, where learners engage in the real world. But it is not always in the ways that we educators may think. It is not always the elements of setting itself that open up the possibilities to learn, that offer teachable moments. We need to be open to this. We need to be aware that what we are thinking may well not be what a child, or adult for that matter is thinking. And if we are, and if we recognize a moment for what it is, and if we are prepared to put ourselves in the mind of that learner, we find that teachable moment.