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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 11/16/2009

The problem with ‘teachable moments’

By Valerie Strauss

"If I hear that overused phrase "Teachable Moment" again I may just jump in the lion cage." Posted by: mdsinc. To which BigBubba1 responded: "That would, without a doubt, be a teachable moment."

Aside from making me smile, this exchange between readers of a recent blogpost about the National Zoo stopping two lions from killing a wayward deer raises a useful issue: The bastardization of the term “teachable moment.”

I did not actually use that phrase when I wrote about the lion-deer episode, but I take mdsinc’s point: It seems that every other day, something happens that is labeled a ‘teachable moment’ and parents or teachers are expected to drop what they're doing and teach the lesson that the moment supposedly offers.

Name a major news event--especially one that involves violence, race or religious fanaticism--and odds are someone wants it to be seen as a teachable moment, an unplanned opportunity to deliver a lesson in history, tolerance or emotional well-being.

Take the Fort Hood shootings. Over at, clinical psychologist Michelle Golland writes a long piece about how parents should use the shootings at the military base in Texas last week to help their children thrive in our violent world without constant fear.

Some said last Tuesday’s execution of John Allen Muhammad, the sniper who killed 10 people and terrorized the Washington D.C. area, was a most teachable moment--even though it had been scheduled some time ago. There were also calls to use Veteran’s Day, which was last Wednesday, as ‘a teachable moment’ even though the annual holiday is hardly an unexpected event.

And protests by a hate group at Washington area schools offered another such opportunity. Guess what parents and teachers at Sidwell Friends School in the District and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Montgomery County called the protests? (Students at both schools staged counter-protests.)

Remember the July arrest in Cambridge, Massachusetts of Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates by a white policeman? That was called a “teachable moment” about race by none other than President Obama, who invited the cop and Gates to the White House to make peace.

The problem is that the “lessons” usually taught in these ‘teachable moments’ are things that should somehow be embedded in the every day school curriculum. They are too important to be left to random moments dictated by people who decide when to shake up a news cycle.

Children at all ages should be taught about, as developmentally appropriate, the violence that drives world events--and how it is actually different from the violence on their television and video screens. (No, many kids don't really know.) They should learn, in more depth than many do, about the race issues that centrally define U.S. history and its present.

There is a problem, too, with the notion that teachable moments are the time to inform students about a major news event. Every day in school kids should be talking about the news; it shouldn’t take a special, usually tragic, occasion to bring kids up to speed on what is happening in their world.

Today the phrase “teachable moment” means almost anything anybody wants it to. And if anything can be a “teachable moment,” then nothing is.

So let’s not think about teaching and learning in this fashion any more. No more “teachable moments.” Better that we take a look at what kids are being taught and make sure they are getting what they need to know to be productive and healthy adults all the time--not just every now and then, for a moment.

By Valerie Strauss  | November 16, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Tags:  teachable moments  
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TOTALLY agree! That phrase seems to have exploded in usage recently, and it's driving me batty!

Posted by: falltillfly | November 16, 2009 7:08 AM | Report abuse

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