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Experiential Learning

What is a Teachable Moment?

James Neill
Last updated:
06 Oct 2004

What is a teachable moment?

A moment's insight is sometimes worth a life's experience.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Professor at the Breakfast Table, Ch. 10

We can have in life but one great experience at best,
and the secret of life is to reproduce that
experience as often as possible.
- Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Ch. 17

Experience and learning seems to happen in fits, stops, and starts.  Sometimes it seems one is going nowhere or even backwards. Other times there is steady, plodding progress. And yet other times seem to be peak learning moments, when everything comes together.  Such crescendous learning moments are often very memorable.  As people look back over their lives they often note their watershed learning experiences - their first kiss, love, death, achievements, etc. 

Just prior to significant learning moments, one sits at the eye of the storm, having experienced the ups and downs and arounds, there is suddenly only pure curiosity and confidence in flowing with the task/problem/challenge.  This state may be experienced as flow (or optimal arousal).  In such moments, an individually is primed for discovering and developing a new understanding of a phenomena.  It is a "teachable moment".

The teachable moment may not be comfortable.  In fact it is often incredibly confronting, and unless one confronts bravely, leaving the known shore, the moment's learning potential may not be fully realized.  Or the event might be quite accidental, fortuitous, and often comes disguised as bad lack;  as John Dewey said:

Luck, bad if not good, will always be with us. But it has a way of favoring the intelligent and showing its back to the stupid.

Should we seek out teachable moments?  For the alternative educator, fostering teachable moments can become a kind of holy grail.  Gurus master the art.

A young warrior wanted to know the difference between good and evil.  He went on a long journey to find the guru who, he was told, could teach him the difference.  When the young man arrived, the guru had his eyes closed and was meditating.  He said, "Guru, I have come to know the difference between good and evil."  The guru did not reply.  The young man said, "Guru, please help me, I want to know the difference between good and evil."  There was still no reply.  The young man grew angry and drew his sword and said, "Guru, if you don't show me the difference, I'll cut your head off."  Still no reply.  The young man drew the sword above his head and said "Guru, this is your last chance to show me the difference between good and evil or you will die."  Still no reply.  The warrior brought the sword down.  As he did so, the guru opened his eyes and said, "that is evil", and closed his eyes again.  The young warrior was suddenly overcome with emotion and collapsed to the ground.  The warrior was overwhelmed by the guru's willingness to risk his life in order to demonstrate to truly demonstrated evil to the warrior.  The young warrior immediately fell into a deep depression and constant thought about the people he had killed in battle and how nearly he had killed another.  The young warrior was completely distraught by the evil he had done.  He was unable to sleep, tossing and turning all night and refused to eat or drink.  After several days of the warrior being in this state, it seemed the warrior might not recover from his extreme distress over his past actions.  The guru opened his eyes again and "that is good." (attrib. Craig Dobkin)

The teachable moment is like a butterfly which will naturally land again and again when many other more basic qualities of teaching and organisation of experience are in place.

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