Just the other day while browsing the Twitterverse, I came across several discussions on the concept of a teachable moment. According to the fruitful discussions that occupied some of the main ELT discussion forums, a teachable moment is a time when a person seems most receptive to learning something.
I must confess my skepticism concerning the idea because, after all, our job is to teach, any time, any place. But I was forgetting the fundamental element of the teaching-learning experience: no matter how hard I try, my efforts will be a waste of time if the conditions do not foster learning.
In other simpler words, if the student's interest is not there in the first place, then we're just uselessly punching a knife.
So, the big questions for the teacher are:
How to be on the lookout for these teachable moments?
How do we spark the interest in our students when it's not there naturally?
How to make the most of this moment, i.e., what are the next steps?
The last question is most urgent given that most of the cases in which these magical moments (this is another term used in language teaching to refer to situations that come and go in a flash, thus the name magical) take place, they are not directly related to the content we had planned to teach on that particular day. So the temptation is overwhelmingly strong to think something like this: great, great, I answered your questions, but let's move on, shall we? If not, we are going to fall behind schedule.
It is up to the teacher to decide where the buck stops; in other words, the teacher has to draw the line. Want an example? Earlier today, I walked into my classroom visibly with immense difficulty. I had twisted my ankle the day before and it had gotten swollen and sore. The unexpected happened: I was bombarded by questions about
how to talk about injuries, bruises, pains and aches in sports;
the difference between pain and ache;
the difference between swollen and bloated as in bloated fish;
the types of injuries that occur in certain sports;
the names of medical creams used to treat injuries;
the names of football positions in English.
All of this in less than ten minutes.
So what next? Some suggestions would be several lists: common injuries in sports, collocations with the word "ache", "pain" and "sore"; names of football players in English.
This takes me back to my original misgivings about teachable moments: now that I have "taught" these new language items, when will the students be able to use them?
How useful will this kind of language be for them?
Will they even vaguely remember this moment of spontaneous learning?
The final and most likely underlying question here is: do we usually learn more from a magical moment or from planned, formal learning?
Which one works/has worked for you more?