When I was preparing to be a corporate technical trainer, my mentor introduced this concept to me. A couple of years later, I read the same phrase in a speech by US President Barack Obama during the controversy surrounding the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates in 2009.
Let me quote Obama's use of this phrase:
"My hope is, is that as a consequence of this event this ends up being what's called a "teachable moment", where all of us instead of pumping up the volume spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute
to more unity."
Obama's use of this phrase generated a lot of interest in the media and among language and training experts.
So what is a "teachable moment" ?
WikiPedia defines a teachable moment as
"A teachable moment, in education, is the time at which learning a particular topic or idea becomes possible or easiest."
Robert Havighurst in his 1952 book, Human Development and Education, explained that, "A developmental task is a task which is learned at a specific point and which makes achievement of succeeding tasks possible. When the timing is right, the ability to learn a particular task will be possible. This is referred to as a 'teachable moment.' It is important to keep in mind that unless the time is right, learning will not occur. Hence, it is important to repeat key points whenever possible so that when a student's teachable moment occurs, s/he can benefit from the knowledge."
This is a very insightful comment. When a concept is first presented to a trainee, learning may not occur. The trainee might not be motivated enough, or s/he may simply not be paying attention. This is one of the reasons why repetition is important.
In my opinion, it is very important to capitalize on teachable moments especially when teaching adults.
Another thing I have noticed in my personal experience is that, a teachable moment can occur when the learner is away from the trainer or from the learning environment. The mind can regurgitate a concept from its database anytime. For example, a concept you learnt in a training session can recede into the depths of the subconscious mind, and later surface when you are on a train. And suddenly your mind can become receptive to learning and you might experience a teachable moment when you can teach yourself effectively.