Trips, tours and random walks: using Legitimation Code Theory to understand spontaneous teachable moments

Understanding the dynamics of spontaneous teachable moments in online classrooms

Spontaneous teachable moments – often referred to as unplanned learning opportunities or critical moments (Myhill and Warren, 2005) – are those moments in your lessons where you sometimes need to depart from the planned flow to address specific student needs (Haug, 2014). The triggers for these moments arise in a variety of ways, e.g. student responses and questions or a particularly difficult sentence structure or unfamiliar lexis in a text or a link to an assessment task. If you think back to the last spontaneous teachable moment that occurred in one of your classes, you might consider how effective you felt it was in contributing to student learning.

  1. To what extent did it function as a distraction, taking up time that did not serve the needs of most students in your class?
  2. Were you able to connect back to the main aim of your lesson so that your students were aware of the learning point?
  3. Did you experience any confusion in your knowledge of the concepts you were teaching that prevented you from fully exploiting the teachable moment?

Experienced teachers are more easily able to recognize and exploit teachable/critical moments than novice teachers because their pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) has become intuitive. They are able to quickly assess the type of learning that the teachable moment might afford and whether a departure from the flow of the lesson is justified at that point. However, it is rare to observe instances of spontaneous teachable moments in formal classroom observation because a teacher has to feel very confident before departing from the lesson plan they have already discussed with their observer. The move to teaching online in response to the Covid19 crisis has enabled my colleagues, Sue Argent and Judith Gorham, and I to observe some of these moments asynchronously in the recordings of an online lesson on activating writer’s voice.

Both Haug (2013) and Myhill &Warren (2005) observed teaching in primary schools with the aim of classifying teachable/critical moments in terms of their success in building on pupils’ knowledge and understanding. In addition to successful teachable/critical moments, they also identified moments which were missed by teachers or which caused confusion or steered pupils down pre-determined paths. We have been exploring whether Legitimation Code Theory (LCT), in particular the autonomy codes (Maton & Howard, 2018) could provide a means to move beyond a static classification to better understand how spontaneous teachable moments might contribute to dynamic processes of integrative knowledge building in EAP. As well as the article by Maton & Howard (2018), we are drawing here on two blog posts which explain the use of LCT autonomy codes to connect knowledge across a curriculum or to show how target knowledge in a specific lesson can be linked to knowledge in another context, especially one that students are already familiar with.

Figure 1. Identifying autonomy codes in an online lesson on arguing frrom sources with writer’s voice.

The two autonomy codes, positional (PA +) and relational (RA +), together form a matrix with four quadrants or codes, which can be used to map a lesson as it unfolds in terms of its target content (PA) and purpose (RA). The sovereign code (PA+/RA+) describes the target lesson content and purpose while the exotic code (PA-/RA-) describes content unconnected to the target, e.g., students’ everyday experience, which provides an opportunity to link new concepts to what is already familiar. This can also form the trigger for a spontaneous teachable moment. The diagram shows that, for the lesson we are analyzing, the sovereign code (PA+/RA+) is arguing from sources with writer’s voice. The lesson consists of a procedural component, a framework for activating writer’s voice in an assignment to critically evaluate definitions of health, and an analytic component, contrasting two student texts which used sources more or less successfully to address the assignment.

The lesson builds in two planned return trips from the sovereign to the exotic code and back. The first is a review of metaphors for writer’s voice originating from subject lecturers in response to their students’ assignments. The second is a critical reflection on the health service in the students’ home countries and whether the WHO definition of health would be useful for health professionals there. The teacher must facilitate the return to the sovereign code through interactive discussion. If there is no return, e.g. to the concept of writer’s voice or to the need for a critical evaluation of definitions of health, then the trip is a random walk to no purpose because students do not grasp what they are learning and how to apply it in different situations. Most powerful of all for knowledge integration is the autonomy tour from sovereign to exotic and back to sovereign through either the projected (PA+/RA-) or introjected (PA-/RA+) codes.

Our preliminary analysis shows that while some teachers are able to exploit the planned autonomy trips out of the sovereign code and introduce their own spontaneous trips, the constraints of time and unfamiliarity with online teaching or the concept of writer’s voice mean that they were rarely able to bring their trips home or to create autonomy tours. Indeed, some lessons featured random walks into the exotic code where students were left stranded until the teacher jumped to the next phase. The most successful instances of return trips or tours were characterized by interactive student discussion with explicit labelling of high level concepts such as nuanced stance, critical evaluation and writer’s voice and clear metacognitive summaries when transitioning back to the sovereign code. We hope that this analysis and the examples of trips, tours and random walks can be used to develop teachers’ understanding of how spontaneous teachable moments can contribute to integrative knowledge building.

Haug, B.S.(2014) Inquiry-Based Science: Turning Teachable Moments into Learnable Moments, Journal of Science Teacher Education, 25:1, 79-96.

Maton, K. & Howard, S. K. (2018). Taking autonomy tours: A key to integrative knowledge-building, LCT Centre Occasional Paper 1 (June): 1–35.

Myhill, D & Warren, P. (2005) Scaffolds or straitjackets? Critical moments in classroom discourse, Educational Review, 57:1, 55-69,

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm an author and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

6 thoughts on “Trips, tours and random walks: using Legitimation Code Theory to understand spontaneous teachable moments”

  1. A thoughtful if hard read! A small useful tip to add to the post-lesson analysis is to right down any useful examples you come up with in the digression. I learned the hard way as a novice teacher that trying to give off the cuff examples of language features in these situations almost always backfires and leads to red -faced moments as you realise it is the example that doesn’t follow the general rule. I learnt to say I’ll come back to you on that in the next lesson, and use it as a warm-up for the next lesson. However, one does sometimes come up with an example or tip that students find helpful and accessible. In one lesson some students couldn’t understand why we say ‘feature identification’ not ‘features identification’. I came up with two signs they saw each day on their way to class (‘student accommodation, car park, pedestrian crossing) as examples of this usage of the singular in English noun phrases, although there are many students, pedestrians and cars). They found it helpful and so do I when I explain this to especially to computer studies students, where this is a common patter of technical nomenclature, e.g. the steps of an algorithm-based process. A good example of a really teachable moment (could we also think of them as learnable moments?) was on my A Level Zoology course, when two students brought in a dead badger and our college lecturer said ‘Let’s dissect it!’ The lesson fulfilled the target purpose (mammalian digestive organs) but with sky-high engagement levels.

    Liked by 3 people

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