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Discover Self-directed Learning and Teachable Moments

June, 2014
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The Montessori approach is child-centered and allows the unfolding of each child according to his or her own true nature in an atmosphere of cooperation rather than competition.

img_8428The phrase ‘self-directed learning’ has many different meanings, but the most basic idea is that a self-directed learner is one who is not only involved in but also leads his/her own learning process. The way that looks with at-home and experiential learning is different than it looks in a classroom. In a classroomit is related to a teaching movement known as "Self-Directed Learning" or SDL.

In a Montessori classroom, the role of the teacher shifts from being ‘the sage on the stage’ to the ‘guide on the side’ to allow for a self-directed environment. Self-directed learners appear able to transfer learning or skills from one situation to another.

My favorite words for this are ‘teachable moments’. Teachable momentsrefer to a stage in a child’s development when s/he is most receptive to learning a certain concept or skill. We also call this ‘sensitive periods’ in Montessori philosophy.

A ‘teachable moment’ can be thought of as a quick moment in time when the child’s interest in a specific subject is at its highest, usually because of a conversation or immersion in a situation that brings on intense curiosity. This is not just confined to the classroom. For example, you are watching the news with your child at home and there is a segment about hurricanes – this can give you the opportunity to discuss weather, climate change and the forces of nature that cause hurricanes (depending on the age of the child in question). These moments occur spontaneously in the home and in the classroom. We can all remember asking, why is the sky blue? Why are the clouds so dark? Remember, we don’t need to know the answer but we can guide the child to acquire it. It is important to remember that we must return to the subject frequently as repetition is paramount to the child’s learning.

img_1360Despite what you may think, you don’t have to wait for your child to become interested in something to have a teachable moment. You as a parent can create them too, just as teachers do in the classroom. Some ways to create ‘teachable moments’ include:

* Reading books together

* Taking a learning holiday

* Telling stories about when you were a child

* Looking at old photographs

* Cooking

Paying bills and budgeting in front of the child

Young children are discovering the world around them. Their natural curiosity creates many opportunities for teachable moments. The teacher/parent has to develop a teaching perspective in order to not miss out on unexpected learning opportunities. Every teacher should have an understanding of what a teachable moment is and how to look at every moment from a teaching perspective.

Hand in hand with recognizing a teachable moment is knowing when a child is ready to take something he or she is trying to do a little further. A child trying to tie a shoe can either be a teachable moment or it can simply be a time to let the child experiment with the process. Push too hard too fast and the child can easily believe he or she isn’t capable. Look for interest, but give some space to explore the process before trying to turn it into a teachable moment. By gauging the child’s readiness and interest, the child will be more successful and less frustrated in the process of learning.

Such an environment (school or home) will develop intrinsic motivation in children and lead children to become the active force in their own education, a discoverer in their own environment, able to learn through their own experiences and apply their knowledge to novel situations.


By Aileen O’ Brien,

Director of Training, Trinity Montessori Education Center,

Montessori School of Shanghai



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