Weekly reflection: Making the most of teachable moments

New Zealand Graduating Teacher Standard 4.a

Graduating teachers draw upon content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge when planning, teaching and evaluating.

One problem I’ve been mulling over for the last few months is making the most of teachable moments. I know that there are moments when teachers need to, in the words of my former eduction lecturer John Hattie, just shut up and let the learners learn. However there are also teachable moments in the classroom when teachers need to step forward and take an idea or question for a ride with your learners to see where it goes.

But how does a teacher know the difference?

Is it this where the idea of the natural teacher comes from? Natural teachers ‘just know’ when to shut up and listen but also when to speak up and the rest of us spend years trying to learn something that simply can not be taught.

You either ‘got it’ or you don’t?

The reason I bring this up is because on Monday afternoon it snowed in Auckland for the first time in nearly 80 years and I completely dropped the ball on a teachable moment. At the time I was busy trying to teach a handwriting lesson and the children’s backs were to the windows. The students probably wouldn’t have noticed what was going on outside had my Associate Teacher not piped up ‘look out the window children, what’s that?’

Graupel (Image used under creative comments licence)

Once handwriting was put down for a moment the room was immediately a buzz and I quickly grabbed my camera to take video footage of the snow and the children’s reaction to it. I’m glad I did because when I was reviewing the footage later, I noticed a small teachable moment amongst the excitement, ‘is that snow’ a little voice asked? As it turned out it was something called graupel.

The children’s story’s this week for writing were amazing, they were animated and used highly expressive vocabulary. The class went nuts at the video I made of the children’s reaction’s to the graupel moreover the students were hugely excited at the prospect of someone capturing their stories on video giving the possibility of a far wider audience than the readers of their exercise books.

As it turned out the graupel was a teachable moment for me. I was bogged down in the nitty gritty aspects of writing, the forming letters, that I had lost sight of the reasons why we write. I think children are no different from adults in their desire to want to share their feelings and connect with others. Yet I wonder if our education system spends way too much time focusing on the mechanics of writing at the expense of the authentic experiences and audiences that inspire all of us to write.

Despite having a great visiting lecturers assessment, I spent another week plagued by doubt. Would I ever be able to judge a teaching moment without my Associate in the room to sound the alarm ‘danger Will Robinson you are missing a teachable moment.’

And then sure enough one popped up.

I was doing a brainstorm around the language associated with the +, -, = signs. I was impressed that alongside more and give, the students managed to hit on language like fatter and upgrade for the plus sign. But then when it came to the equals sign a student piped up that  the sign meant “the answer is.”

I immediately knew that this was one of the mythical teachable moments I had been looking for. One student said it, which meant there might be more that think it. More importantly having taught algebra to a group of enrichment Year 8 students I knew that students misconceptions about what the equals sign means causes problems later on.

So I decided to have a quick mini-lesson on why equals does not mean ‘the answer is.’ I used materials, I used images and finally a moment of genius desperation I got the group to stand on one leg. By this stage the students were undoubtedly convinced that their teacher had a touch of the crazy, what on earth could standing on one leg have to do with maths? But there was a method behind my madness.

Each of the children had their arms out and when I asked them why sure enough they answered that they need to put their arms out to balance. I told them that the equals sign was like a balance, what is one side of the equals sign must be the same as the other. I then asked the students what would happen if they took the other leg off the ground and they responded that they would fallover, which I explained is kind of what happens when what is on one side of the equals sign is not the same as the other.

We started playing with our materials again when one of the children piped up that 1+1=2+0. What an awesome learning moment I sowed the seed of an important mathematical concept and maybe, just maybe, I’m not as blind to teachable moments as I thought.

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