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Ah, it is magic. We can’t explain these things, they just are.

Wenesday’s ELTchat centred on the idea of ‘teachable moments’, how to recognise and make the most of them as teachers of English language. Moderators Marisa Constantinides and Berni Wall kicked of with the gambit ‘Are we talking about learning readiness’ or ‘energy levels and moments when learners are at a peak’. What we needed was to define what exactly was meant by the term ‘teachable moment’. And many of the ELTchatters had a go! Was something teachable if our students were ready to absorb the language? Were we only talking about linguistic content (grammar or vocal for example) or can teachable moments occur when we are working on skills development (say, when focusing on a particular aspect of reading or speaking)? Does everyone need to be full of energy, or can these moments manifest themselves when we are down and drained?

What was clear is that ‘teachable’ on its own lacks a context. We could have a ‘teachable student, teachable moment, teachable topic, teachable idea’ (@JoHart). Hang on a cotton-picking moment! – shouldn’t every moment be a teachable moment? Maybe we couldn’t define exactly what made something ‘teachable’, but we could describe what these moments felt like. A sparkle, something we didn’t expect, eureka moments with the motto ‘carpe diem’, becoming ‘unstuck’… But is it all just magic, and do these moments just happen, or is there a way to engineer or create moments when teaching and learning can occur?

General consensus seemed to be that, while teachable moments are serendipitous cropping up wherever and whenever, with experience a teacher could make the most them and set about creating the right conditions conducive to learning. Marisa set out her rule book:

  1. Don’t get stuck to your plan. The plan is just a guideline.
  2. If you recognise an opportunity for (more) meaningful learning, don’t be afraid to abandon your plan.
  3. Always have a plan B, in case something goes wrong.
  4. (summary writer’s note – I’m not quite sure what happened to number 4. I suggested ‘welcome the expected and unexpected’ and letting ‘the world into your classroom’)
  5. Avoid the anodyne – be funny or serious or silly or weird, but don’t be indifferent.
  6. When you do recognise a teachable moment as such, don’t let the opportunity pass you by.
  7. Build a good rapport with your students, so they open up and let you see when they are ready to learn.

What do you think? I think I personally would go along with these points, but do really feel that there is not a simple formula to magic up teachable moments. I think that experience is the key, allowing you to get a handle on your students and what they are/are not capable of. You can better sense when the mood is high (or low), and move your teaching in the appropriate direction at the appropriate pace. As always, your comments on the chat and the summary are most welcome.

Useful links and further reading:

The transcript on the ELTchat wiki:

Fiona Mauchline on motivation:

Wikipedia entry on Vygotsky:

Scott Thornbury on ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development):

Kill All Enemies by Melvin Burgess, recommended by @JoHart as a great read on empathy: Amazon links (paperback), (Kindle)