Greenberg et al. 2016 – TEACHABLE MOMENT – for CHEP conference

Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research

Feb 20 2016

8th Annual Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy, Virginia Tech., Blacksburg VA 

 The Natural History of the Teachable Moment:

Exploring Practices that Enhance Profound Learning Experiences

 Neil Greenberg, Katherine Greenberg, Kristina Plaas, Brenda Murphy, Brian Sohn, & Sandra Thomas[i]

 The University of Tennessee, Knoxville 

Phenomenology in Education Research Team

University Studies Colloquy on Phenomenology

Abstract:  Effective teachers want to make a difference in the lives of their students[NBG1] .  They want to provide opportunities for learning experiences that are profound in nature and enhance students’ movement from knowing course content to realizing such knowledge in a manner that transforms worldviews far beyond the college and university classroom[NBG2] . They want to create teachable moments. The biological domains of development, ecology, evolution, and physiology (DEEP) provide helpful insight leading to pedagogical practices that can further this important teaching/learning goal. In this session we will outline DEEP variables as they apply to the teachable moment, share pedagogical practices from our own and other research that connect to DEEP, and explore with participants ideas for creating teachable moments within their courses.

 Literature Review

  The teachable moment can be most simply defined as the opportunity for a profound learning experience[ii]. During this moment, any of several kinds of events can catalyze enduring, personal change.  Teachable moments often appear unpredictable because the biological and phenomenological circumstances that converge to create them are not fully considered. It is, however, possible for teachers to reflect upon these circumstances in planning learning activities that can lead to teachable moments.   

     Through mindful and focus on contributing variables that are always before us, instructors can facilitate teachable moments. The teachable moment can be fruitfully understood by considering the interconnected biological domains of development, ecology, evolution, and physiology, known as DEEP biology (Greenberg, 2008). It is important to note that while DEEP domains are highly interrelated, they are traditionally studied in isolation from each other to simplify research paradigms. But phenomena in the real world are not so simple and we can anticipate complex ever-changing influences of multiple biological variables on learning in the real world.[iii]


DEVELOPMENT refers to both biologically programmed changes as well as individual experiences within one’s lifespan.  A common view leads many to believe that little affects development after early childhood, but Vygotsky and his followers demonstrated that mediated learning actually leads to development. A large body of literature supports the idea that opportunities to learn how to learn in concert with high quality mediation are potent at any age (Feuerstein, 1985). While it may be difficult if not impossible for teachers to become knowledgeable about each student’s development, higher education students reported transformational learning occurred when they were engaged in personal reflection (Franklin, Dellard, et al. 2014; Taylor, Cranton, & Associates, 2012). Further, research demonstrates the feasibility of providing students with a repertoire of metastrategic knowledge from which they can develop and adapt personal learning strategies to overcome challenges in learning (Greenberg, 2014).   

 ECOLOGY also impacts the teachable moment by means of both the physical and social environments in which learning takes place. Evidence shows that the aesthetics of the learning environment are significant, whether it concerns comfort within a classroom (Lei, 2010) or an undisturbed environment for online learning (Kirkwood & Price, 2005). But research also indicates that the social environment is a particularly powerful variable largely because of its bearing on the establishment of safety and trust amongst students and with the teacher (Holly & Steiner, 2005). While it appears that most teachers in higher education pay attention to these factors, this is not always the case. We were amazed at the lack of safety and trust reported by African American students at a prominently white university (Davis, Dias-Bowie, et al. 2004). In this study, for example, the African American students often felt hyper-visible or invisible—both of which stood out to them and reduced the availability of teachable moments.

EVOLUTION The domain of evolution emphasizes the transmission of biological and cultural information across generations. Only recently has affect, among the most ancient of these variables been implicated in emergence of a teachable moment (Haidt, 2012). Amongst the adaptive traits that have evolved in humans is a sometimes insatiable pursuit of information and narratives that enable them to cohere in possible cause and effect relationships. This points to adaptive behavioral traits that engage and integrate the perceptual skills of experience and the conceptual skills of argument to establish the most coherent narrative possible with the facts at hand. The world we experience is one in which it is impossible (except by theoretic retrospection) to disentangle the contributions of intellect from those of sense, as described by William James (1911). Thus, in order to enable profound learning experiences, the teacher needs to allow space for shared descriptions of relevant information prior to any explanation of course content (Greenberg N., Greenberg, K, Patterson, and Pollio, 2015).

 PHYSIOLOGY,  the fourth domain of DEEP, provides insight into the teachable moment at several levels.  Certainly, acquisition of content and insight at a particular moment in time is framed and formed in conjunction with everything else the organism experiences. Organ systems including the brain are exquisitely balanced and integrated with memory as well as anticipated outcomes of actions. Controllable and uncontrollable physiological stress responses powerfully affect a diversity of cognitive functions (Greenberg, Carr, & Summers, 2002). Embodied cognition, in which sensations from the body participate in cognitive functions, also plays an important role in learning (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). Similarly, intuition involves access to cognitive resources of which an individual is unaware and typically precedes conscious reasoning (Haidt 2012). 

 Goals and Objectives for the Practice Session

 In this session we will provide an overview of the four domains of the DEEP model which, in concert with each other and the uniqueness of the student can enable a teachable moment.  We will connect these findings to examples of pedagogical practices that enhance the opportunity to reach more students more often by incorporating existential practices. Participants will then work in small groups to explore ways they can utilize such practices in courses they currently teach.


Description of Practice

Biological Domains

Learning Goals

Reflections on Teaching

Development—change within a person’s lifespan attributable to maturation and experience and their interaction.   Important to understanding an individual’s competencies as they relate to teaching and learning.

Personal Change—Students compensate for weaknesses and capitalize on strengths and cultivate life-long human competence as they experience course content.

Think of a time when you were able to build upon expressed student needs to assist them in learning more effectively.  Describe this experience. Examples.[iv]

Ecology—the physical and social climate in which development.  Important to understanding the biological needs that individuals must meet to maximize effectiveness in teaching and learning



ContextStudents collaborate with each other and the instructor to create a safe and comfortable atmosphere that enables honest, spontaneous sharing of thoughts and feelings.

Think of a time when you and your students created a powerful learning community. Describe this experience.  Examples[v].

Evolution—change between generations: building on ancestral evolution; contributing to future descendants.  Important to understanding the influence of genetics and culture on teaching and learning.

Go BeyondStudents recognize inherited attributes, while focusing on culturally derived influences and impediments that affect their learning competence and their world-views related to course content and beyond.

Think of a time when you and/or your students shared personal experiences that led to an “aha” about course content.  Describe this experience.  Examples.[vi]

Physiology final common path for thoughts and actions; integrates environment and body states; coordinates organ systems to maintain stability (“homeostasis”).  Important to understanding  the influence of stress and emotion; embodied cognition, and intuition on teaching and learning

Stress control—Students identify positive and negative stress in ways that increase attention and acknowledge the role of intuition in their learning experiences.

Think of a time when your students shared surprising emotions or intuition that you could build upon to help them realize a teachable moment. Describe this experience.  Examples.


This session models the practices we want participants to consider in their own teaching.  Participants will be encouraged to enter the discussion throughout the session.  After we present an overview, small groups will be encouraged to make space for all members to share ideas—with one member serving as a recorder, another as a reporter to the large group, and a third member as the facilitator of their dialogue.  Participants will be given handouts providing in-depth information related to our model description, examples of application in higher education courses, and suggestions for reflection within their small groups.


Davis, M., Dias-Bowie, Y., Greenberg, K., Klukken, G., Pollio, H. R., Thomas, S. P., & Thompson, C. L. (2004). “A fly in the buttermilk”: Descriptions of university life by successful black undergraduate students at a predominately white southeastern university. The Journal of Higher Education, 75(4), 420–445. doi:10.1353/jhe.2004.0018.

Feuerstein, R. (1985).   Instrumental Enrichment: An intervention program for cognitive modifiability. Scott Foresman.

Franklin, K., Dellard, T., Murphy, B., Plaas, K., Skutnik, A., Sohn, B., Williams, M., Greenberg, K., Greenberg, N., Pollio, H., and Thomas, S.  (February 5 – 7, 2014). A transformational twist on learner-centered teaching: experience and existential phenomenology. Paper presented at the Sixth Annual Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Friesen, Norm, Henriksson, Carina., Saevi, Tone.  (2012)/ Hermeneutic Phenomenology in Education. Boston, Sense Publishers.

Greenberg, Katherine. (2014). Cognitive Enrichment Advantage: An Integrative Approach to Meeting Hidden Needs of Students and Teachers in L. Green (Ed.) Schools as Thinking Communities. South Africa: Van Schaik.

Greenberg, Neil.  (2008) DEEP ethology: white paper on the integrative biology of behavior.  Published on-line at neilgreenberg.utk.edu

Greenberg, Neil. Carr, James A. & Summers, Cliff H.  (2002) Cause and consequences of stress.  Integrative & Comparative Biology.  42,508-516.

Greenberg, N., Greenberg, K., Patterson, R., & Pollio, H. Patterns in Transformative Pedagogy: Ethological Perspective. (February 4-6, 2015). Poster presented at the Sixth Annual Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Haidt, Jonathan (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Vintage Books.

Holley, L. C., & Steiner, S. (2005). Safe space: Student perspectives on classroom environment. Journal of Social Work Education, 41(1), 49–64.

James, William (1911) Some Problems of Philosophy. London: Longmans, Green

Kirkwood, A. & Price, L. (2005). Learners and learning in the twentyfirst century: what do we know about students’ attitudes towards and experiences of information and communication technologies that will help us design courses? Studies in Higher Education, Vol 30, #3, pp. 257-274. DOI: 10.1080/03075070500095689.

Lei, S. A., 2010, Classroom physical design influencing student learning and evaluations of college instructors: a review of literature. Education 131(1), 128-134.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Philosophy of Perception.  London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Pacifici, Linsa, and Jim Garrison (2004) Imagination, Emotion and Inquiry: The Teachable Moment Contemporary Pragmatism.  Vol. 1, No. 1 (June 2004), 119-132.

Sohn, Brian., Plaas, K., Franklin, K., Dellard, T., Murphy, B., Greenberg, K., Greenberg, N., Pollio, H. & Thomas, S., (in press). Freedom to connect: insight into the existential dimension of transformative learning in a graduate seminar. Journal of Transformative Learning.[vii]

Taylor, E. W., Cranton, P. & Associates (2012). The handbook of transformative learning: Theory, research and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


[i] The authors are faculty and advanced graduate student participants  in an interdisciplinary colloquy that has been meeting weekly for more than 20 years.  The colloquy focusses on phenomenology, which in qualitative research gives voice to research subjects that can help professionals more effectively meet their needs. For example, the text, Listening to Patients, written by members of this group, received an award for its important contribution in helping those in the nursing field to better understand their hospitalized patients experiences.  More than 30 dissertations and other research have taken place using our methodology in the fields of education, nursing, sports psychology, counseling psychology, forestry, nutrition, child and family studies and business.  Several of us more recently began a project to look at phenomenology in education—especially its application to education in the college and university setting. This led to a comprehensive case study focused primarily on interpretation of the lived experiences of students and instructor in a graduate seminar.  In recent years, nine presentations have shared at this conference over the last three years—including a practice session this afternoon by Brian Sohn, who will report on his dissertation research on classroom climate and student experiences of other students in our case study. Neil Greenberg has been helping in particular with his ethological approach to classroom interaction research to determine patterns of interaction during classroom sessions that students report as providing teachable moments that enable transformative learning. Katherine Greenberg has been leading the classroom interaction team, has chaired several dissertations related to this, and is presently working with them to develop a textbook.

[ii] “The “teachable moment” is perhaps the most sought after pedagogical prize. Every teacher knows what it feels like even if she cannot name its characteristics. It is as wonderful as it is elusive. Teachers long for the moment when their class has that special quality of intimacy, openness, and creativity that provides us with what researchers have called the “the psychic rewards” of teaching (Lortie 1975). These rewards include the almost ineffable experience of getting through to our students, of connecting, and of our students learning and not just getting ready to take a test. All too often, the moment slips away before we can seize it. The teachable moment comes so suddenly and departs so quickly that many assume it is simply a gift of good fortune. Sometimes it is, but fortune does favor the prepared.”  (Pacifici, Linsa, and Jim Garrison 2004) (thanks Stephen Briscotte, 2016 CHEP Conference)

[iii] A simple model of concern for this complexity is implicit in the health clinician’s intake interview: A description of the problem being presented is considered along with the maturity of the patient and the context in which it is experienced, along with various tests indicating physiological state. Clinicians seeking the biggest picture will ask about other members of the patient’s family known to have comparable problems, indicating genetic predispositions. Qv: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK349/

[iv] DEVELOPMENT: at a given moment we are the sum of our congenital and acquired traits.  Of course given a healthy gestation we are born with a very broad repertoire of possibilities that become manifest depending in large measure by the experiences that enable or suppress them. 

[v] ECOLOGY:  physical environment and social environment: examples:

1.       the classroom was slowly going colder.  Eventually I noticed a pattern of adjustments: postural, sleeves rolled down, collars turned up, arms crossed … all affecting the individuals’ conservation heat.  Finally these non conscious or adjustments designed to be inconspicuous, were replaced by an explicit verbal appeal to adjust the thermostat.  Compensations that began with reflexive purely nonconscious local adjustments of blood flow gradually worked up the neuraxis as the need was not met at lower levels, all the way up to consciousness awareness and considered action.

2.       The firecracker in the trashcan.  While lecturing about adrenal hormones and the causes and consequences of physiological stress, street theater in our building burst into the room.  Someone ran in one door and out the other, leaving a firecracker in a trashcan.  Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to request responses of everyone in the room: we had abundant, often  dramatic personal accounts of physiological change.

[vi] EVOLUTION:  genetic and cultural transmission: this is the aggregate of genetic traits transmitted across countless generations. But also behavior that secures biological fitness, both direct (our genes in descendents) and indirect (our ideas manifest in culture that contribute to the prosperity of others with whom we share more-or-less genes).

Example: In a class discussing biology of aesthetic experience, we were fortunate to have students fluent in several languages.  German, French, Spanish, and Chinese speaking students resonated with now famous work of Lena Boroditsky. For example,  “bridge” in german is Brücke (a feminine noun) and pont  (a feminine noun) in French.  Thus we can expect (as Lena Boroditsky has demonstrated) that the private mental lives of speakers of different languages would be different (she also compares “keys” (Schlüssel) in German (hard, heavy, jagged) and  (llaves) in Spanish  are (intricate, little, and lovely).  And Germans typically represent “death” as maasculine while Russians see it as feminine.  

East Asians have been found to allocate relatively greater attention to background objects, whereas European Americans have been found to allocate relatively greater attention to foreground objects. This is well documented across a variety of cognitive measures.” (Sharon G. Goto,corresponding author1,2 Yumi Ando,3 Carol Huang,1 Alicia Yee,1 and Richard S. Lewis.  (2010) Cultural differences in the visual processing of meaning: Detecting incongruities between background and foreground objects using the N400 [event-related potential]Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2010 Jun-Sep; 5(2-3): 242–253.  Published online 2009 Sep 23. doi:  10.1093/scan/nsp038  PMCID: PMC2894690)

[vii] Sohn et al. focus on “the existential dimension of learning: ‘‘processes of human being and becoming’’ (Willis, 2012, p. 212). …

“An existential phenomenological approach to research can reveal overlooked aspects of learning and expand our understanding of what stands out for learners within a classroom climate that fosters transformative learning.” 


“While thoughtful teachers in higher education strive to help their students master course content, for many, a further goal is to help them transcend it—to help them go beyond transfer of content skills and knowledge—to a transformative understanding of the world and their place within it. Such understanding enables creative enlargement and application of the course content. This transformation is manifest in students realizing the relevance of course content in their personl and professional lives—in an aesthetic sense of gratification that imparts confidence in one’s understanding or insight—an intuitive sense of its truth and worth.


“The importance of phenomenological research, which traditionally focuses on meaning, has become more obvious in recent years (van Manen, 2014). Phenomenology allows us to capture rich descriptions of first-person experience that can reveal both rational thoughts and intuitions and emotions. As Phillips (1996) stated, ‘‘ . . . conscious, rational human behavior is meaningful, and an explanation of it will involve giving an account (an interpretation) of that meaning’’ (p. 1017). Although Phillips went on to say that meaningful behavior is usually based on reasoned motives, recent evidence strongly indicates that motives and learning are often guided by underlying, intuitive beliefs (Haidt, 2012; Marano, 2004). Increasing evidence from many fields indicates that intuition, which shares significant mental resources with conscious cognition (Van Overwalle & Vandekerckhove, 2013), is a major factor in learning and yet is often neglected.”


 “In the growing body of literature about transformative learning, research has focused primarily on two important areas: ‘‘as an outcome of critical thinking (Freire, 1972a, 1972b; Mezirow, 1978, 1991) and as enriched by nonrational thinking (Boyd & Myers, 1988; Cranton, 2006; Dirkx, 2000, 2001)’’ (Willis, 2012, p. 212). But Willis discussed the need for research in a third area, what Phillips (1996) termed the prima facie of research focused on human beings: the lifeworld meaning of transformative learning to individuals.”


 [NBG1]Many teachers want to go beyond the formalities and minutiae of their discipline to make a difference in the lives of their students.

 [NBG2]“Knowing” is a cognitive formality, “realizing” incorporates  affective components that enlarge the personal meaning of knowledge.   We can know many things quite well, but never necessarily realize them.  It invoke Goethe’s belief that to fully understand anything, we must first love it.

Professor Emeritus, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.