I taught my children about tax by eating 32.5% of their ice cream: seizing teachable moments

Just so you don’t hate me, I didn’t really eat my children’s ice cream, but imagine how thoroughly they would have grasped the concept of taxation!

Teachers do well to consider how children learn from adults outside school, particularly how they learn from their parents. While there are times that parents use formal, pre-arranged sessions to teach something to their children, primarily they instruct by seizing teachable moments. As parents, we teach our children ‘in the moment’ far more often than in those occasional sit down talks we have with them around the kitchen table, usually after some sort of ‘incident’.

We use everyday things, tasks, interactions and encounters to teach our children. When they are little we show them how to put away their toys by helping them to do it when they have finished playing. If they protest at having to do their share we discuss notions of justice. We might ask them if they think it is fair that someone else has to clean up their mess or ask how they would feel if they had to clean up someone else’s mess. We instruct in the moment because it is effective.

When my daughter was about four years old we were feeding some ducks at a pond. She loved ducks. When the food pellets were gone she scrunched up the bag and dropped it to the ground. Rather than chastising her for littering, I wondered out loud what will happen to the bag after we leave. I asked her what she thought. She said she didn’t know. I told her to kick the scrunched up with her foot to see what happens. We watched it roll towards the pond and I asked again what will happen to the bag. She got the point. I next asked if the ducks would happy if people threw their rubbish into their home. She said it would make them sad and picked up the bag. I never had to discuss littering with her again.

This is authentic personalised learning. Teaching children, learning with children, in the moment of engagement; seizing those teachable moments! Such is life and learning without a school timetable and with a student to teacher ratio of 1:1. For teachers, we do have a timetable, with a prescribed curriculum attached, and a student to teacher ratio of 25:1 or so. Teachers don’t have the luxury of waiting until teachable moments spontaneously arise; we have to create them. Does this mean that most teaching in the classroom has to be contrived?

Teachable moments will spontaneously arise if students are mentally and emotionally engaged with curriculum. This is where our skill comes in as professional educators. We can look at the curriculum as a checklist and dish it up piece by piece to our students. This is easiest and safest for teachers. Unfortunately, it’s also encouraged by the current teacher performance review procedures. You want evidence? I’ll just whip out my test scores and show you my list of ticked off progression points! More challenging, but doable, is to blend those learning progression points with truly engaging contexts.

Can we blend required content with the events and interests our students are immersed in? Do we know what they care about? Can we tap into those things?

We need to gauge for age appropriate contexts of course, but as children get older we can escalate what we present them with, heading towards complete candor about the world we live in, the world we and our students live in, by the time they reach their senior school years. We might have ducks that are sad about us littering at age four to conservation, hunting, habitat destruction/preservation, cost, politics and so on as they get older.

Here are just a few ideas and examples:

  • Challenge students to come up with an invention that would solve an issue relevant to them. What would be involved in actually making it available for use. Eg. How could you stop people stealing other people’s lunches (Here is one solution for protecting your lunch!) The end result doesn’t matter. The learning is in the dialogue – the calculations, the ethics, the practicalities and so on. What learning progression points could you embed?
  • Ask a question that will provoke emotion. For example, why should we bother about saving koalas? I mean, what commercial value do they have anyway? Students will leap to the defense of our cute koalas and it will help them understand the clash between business and environmental issues and the different lenses people use to evaluate different situations.
  • Education in Emergencies (Yrs 7 to 10 students)
  • Meeting an F1 driver (Yr 11 & 12 Maths students)
  • International Rescue – Afghanistan comes to Alkira Secondary College (Yr 10 English students)

I have no doubt you can think of many contexts you could use to generate teachable moments. The point I want to make here is that this is what teachers must do. Don’t start with the Standards, start will contexts that are relevant to students and teach the Standards within those contexts. If teachers do this, there will always be plenty of teachable moments to seize!


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