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Teachable Moments

The Sept. 11 tragedy was, for my students at Wake Forest University, a life-changing event. For a month following it, the American media covered little else. On the evening of the 11th, our college community gathered to hear university president Tom Hearn’s magnificent, thoughtful reflections about the incident and our response. His remarks were subsequently published in our newspaper, in the NCAA News and on our university Web site.

Hearn’s reflections upon a totally absorbing incident provided a “teachable moment,” an instant when all students were focused upon a topic that could be connected to the ethical traditions, economic concepts, and lifetime skills that are the core of my teaching. Even though only 10 percent of my students attended the convocation, all had access to Hearn’s remarks on the Web site. I asked them to share their personal reactions, to identify what made Hearn’s speech so effective and how the same principles might be used in their own speeches, and to link the economic consequences of the tragedy with the concepts we were studying. Assignments were due in 48 hours. All completed one-page essays were made available at our course Web site to all members of the class. Judging by the quality of the essays and subsequent class discussion, this was this semester’s most effective activity.

Our jobs as teacher-coaches are easier when we can build on topics and concepts that our students know and care about. When something—this tragedy, sports, music, a campus controversy—already has their attention, there is that magical “teachable moment.” The quickest and most enduring learning starts from the known and then connects with the to-be-learned: for example, the importance of bending one’s knees when hitting a tennis forehand connects with bending one’s knees when swinging a golf club. Likewise, the rhythmic (Da-Da-Da-DAAA) opening of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony assumes significance when it is repeated in subsequent movements.

For educators, it is often tempting to use examples from the world we know best, to teach with the material we like most, to present material in the language that is most familiar to us. This is not all bad. Students need to be exposed to different learning methods, to develop new interests, and certainly to become familiar with previously unfamiliar subject matter. In my experience, however, the most effective teaching starts with “training wheels.” If I can use multimedia in my presentations, even though it is not my preferred medium, most students seem to be able to focus more fully upon the subject matter. If I can draw examples from current events, sports or local news, students are more likely to be able to repeat them two weeks later. By limiting the domains that are unfamiliar to students, I believe they can focus more fully upon the unfamiliar and deepen their learning.

Thank goodness for the Internet! As never before, we can connect our students to new material that matches their individual passions. It is now easier for me to find material and presentations in alternate media that will motivate students. Students can, in turn, draw upon specialized analyses, up-to-date statistics, and matching graphics to elaborate upon a newly learned idea with examples they know and love.

Also, via e-mail, we can guide and respond to students according to their individual passions and preferences. One size d'es not need to fit all. We can customize. It isn’t necessary to co-opt the time of classmates during class or to have students wait their turn in large clusters after class.

D'es it surprise anyone to learn that even though I have little expertise in either the NCAA or in basketball, because of search engines and resources available on the Internet, I am teaching a course this semester titled, “The Economists’ Way of Thinking About NCAA Basketball”?

About the Author

David Brown ([email protected]) is vice president and dean of the International Center for Computer Enhanced Learning at Wake Forest University.

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