Monoculture Classrooms


Walk to class. Sit in the same seat next to the same people. Turn in a standard worksheet. Listen to a powerpoint presentation. Pack up your bag. Leave class in the same unenthused state as you entered.

This is what it means to be in a monoculture classroom. Every student is fed the same information and expected to grow at the same rate. But if you have ever driven past a corn field you will know that the age old saying “knee high by the Fourth of July” does not seem to fit with every stalk. Some of the corn on the edges just can not keep up. This can also be said for some students in every classroom.

When expecting every student to learn the same, you are setting some students up for an uphill learning battle.

By moving your class to the margins, you can make an interesting place for learning.

What does it mean to be in the margins? Here are six characteristics of margins:

  1. Activity in the margins enriches the places they surround
  2. New types of life are being created all the time
  3. Richness of the margins may not be seen easily
  4. Margins can be dismissed as being unimportant
  5. Areas of risk or chance
  6. A place where difference, diversity and change can be fostered

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Does this sound like margins in nature or in a classroom? The answer is both. Each of these six characteristics can be applied in either setting. Here is how each of the six can apply to a classroom:

  1. Activity in the margins enriches the places they surround
    1. Activities outside of the norm can help enhance learning for all student and allow them to learn in different ways that might make more sense for them.
  2. New types of life are being created all the time
    1. New connections to the materials are being made at all times. Each student will find something that helps them connect to the material and retain it better.
  3. Richness of the margins may not be seen easily
    1. You have to be in the margins to see the benefit of the margins. It can take a lot of work, but once you enter the area of the margin, you can see how it impacts the students in a positive light.
  4. Margins can be dismissed as being unimportant
    1. Many teachers will throw out the margins because of the work it requires. They feel that using orthodox teaching methods are easier and get the results needed.
  5. Areas of risk or chance
    1. Something might not work. It is a risk anyone takes when they choose to move the class into the margins.
  6. A place where difference, diversity and change can be fostered
    1. Margins allow students to be more creative, explore parts of a topic that interest them, and express their learning in a new way. Compared to an orthodox classroom, there is much more diversity in the learning.

Now that you know what it means to be in the margins and some of the benefits, lets talk about how to get your class to be in the margins.

  • Listen to your students interests. They will tell you what interests them and you can feed that into your lessons
  • Watch the news. You will not want to pass up on an opportunity in pop culture to discuss in class.
  • Get your students out of the classroom! These will be some of the most memorable things for students in science. Take them to the zoo, take them to the creek, take them somewhere that is not in front of a projector.
  • Get some classroom critters that students can observe.

This is a reminder: You cannot have margins without the center. This means that lectures and worksheets have a place in the classroom, but the margins can help enhance them. If you are always at the margins it will become the center and the activities that are typically special become mundane and expected.


Here are some real life things teachers are doing to bring their classes into the margins:

Teachers are building school gardens where students can monitor how the plants are growing and possibly run any experiments they want on the plants. This can also give students real life experiences where they can learn to love gardening and want to pursue that at their own homes.

You can have your class ask scientists about their work. This will allow students to ask experts their biggest questions that a teacher could never answer.

Many teachers are bringing pets into their classroom. Bringing pets into the classroom can impact students in many ways:

  • Improve students social abilities. Many students will learn to interact with the animal which can help them interact with their peers.
  • Give students experiences they may never see. Many students you encounter may not be able to afford going to zoos and may never see animals like this other than in your classroom. Many of these student may never have a pet to care for, but if you allow them to care for your pet, they can feel responsibility for its life.
  • Pets can open up different teaching options. You can have students learn observation and other scientific skills.

Here is an example of a margins activity I plan on doing with my class:

  1. Students will pair up in groups of two (three if needed)
  2. Students will be paired up with another group of students
  3. One group of students will be pro, the other will be con
  4. Between the two groups they must decide on a scientific issue that interests them (if groups can not agree on an issue, groups can be reformed so students are working on something they are interested in
  5. Pairs will research their topic and the side that they are on. Pairs can share their research with the pair doing the opposite side if they wish
  6. After research is complete, pairs will begin a debate on the topic
  7. The debate will take place in class. There is no debate winner
  8. The students presenting can provide any visuals they wish and have full access to the projector for PowerPoints or any computer generated graphics
  9. After the debate is complete, any students are allowed to ask questions to either side
  10. If a student does not want to participate in the debate in a verbal sense, he or she can be more in charge of the write up of talking points to be used in the debate

The purpose of this assignment is to allow students to research something in science that is highly debated. I did this in high school and was able to look deeper into the idea of GMOs on both sides. It also helps students understand that there can be positives to both sides of a debate and it is useful to look into both before any judgements are made.  <- I know you can’t see the pin directly but please click on it. It rocks.

Now you may be thinking, this topic seems very closely related to exemplary teaching. You’re right. Teaching in the margins can help make you an exemplary teacher.

Now get out into those margins and reach all your students!


  1. I love that you gave specific linkage to the classroom from the characteristics of the margins; this gives a very clear understanding of what the margins are when put into a classroom setting! Your ideas for how to use the margins, as well as a specific lesson plan you would use is a really good idea. The more ideas you can give to people for how to open their doors to the margins, the more willing they will be to do it! The section on class pets is my favorite though. The whole idea behind getting the pets opens the margins up to students without them ever leaving the class. The video on pets was super interesting, and outside of a science classroom I never thought about a class pet, but now I know they are good in so many different kinds of classes. Nice post!

  2. The thing I liked most about this post was the way in which you laid out the six characteristics of margins, and then followed them up by giving ideas on how to apply them to a classroom. This really gives a good synopsis of what it takes to move out of that comfort zone and into the margins.
    Another thing I enjoyed about the post was the emphasis you put on bringing a pet into the classroom. Any sort of “real life” experiences that can be brought into the classroom are great, and what better way than bringing in a pet for the class to watch over. Like you said in the post, pets open up all sorts of different teaching options, whether they be how the animal behaves, or simple life skills such as how to take care of and be responsible for something such as a pet.

  3. I love how you discuss owning classroom pets; it may not always be practical to be able to get students outside of the classroom, but you can always bring the margins into the classroom!
    The student garden seems like a great way to get students involved. My community center back home has a community garden that children in the after school program look after and care for. The great thing about the community garden is that the children get to bring home fresh fruits and vegetables that are picked from the garden! For low-income schools especially, these gardens can be extremely beneficial beyond the classroom.
    Great correlation between the rows of corn and the rows of desks. Not all children are uniform. If they can’t grow in rows, we need to modify our fields!

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