Movement Toward The Margins

Movement Toward The Margins

By: Hayley Johnson, Miami University

Think back to when you were in middle or high school. What were your favorite memories in class? What made it memorable? No matter how far out of high school you are, most of your answers will not include anything about lectures, textbooks, and tests. The activities, experiments, and projects that may come to mind when reflecting back, are what can be metaphorically seen as “margins” in the classroom.

Margins in the Classroom:

Many classroom environments consist entirely of monocultural, unidirectional regurgitation of subject matter (Sound miserable? It should.). This is viewed as the “center” of the classroom (i.e. what you see between the margins). In this case, the students are all expected to act, respond, and learn in the same way. The margins are what help the classroom break away from this and allow for diversity, risks and, consequently, individual growth.

Characteristics of Margins:

-Activities enrich the areas they connect

-Uncontrolled varieties allow for polycultures instead of monocultures in margins

-Margins must be dissected and analyzed to find their meaning and responsiveness

-Margins may be viewed as unimportant or insubstantial by some

-Margins encompass risk and uncertainty- less stable

-A place where diversity can be considered

Margins                                  vs.                         Teachable Moments

-Accidental or planned                                       -Spontaneous

-Explorable                                                           -Short-lived

-Content focused                                                 -Instantaneous

-Foster creativity                                                 -One-time thing

-Student focused


Although teachable moments can be considered a margin in a classroom, margins include much more opportunity and exploration by the students and relate to the course content.

Key Terms for “Margins”:

Explore, question, create, opportunity, spontaneity, curious, connections, students

Margins Come to Life:

Such a simple and cost efficient idea, yet it allows student to be the designers of their own experiments and relates back to the Olympics; which is familiar to students and therefore easier to relate back to concepts.

A moment where classroom content can now be incorporated and expressed in a new, visual way. The model was created by a custodian and creates new opportunities for students to learn science that can be used for years to come!

Eclipse viewing that Georgia Tech students chose to do on the first day of class that will allow for further in-class discussion. One student even says, “Education is not only limited to the classroom.”

Exemplar Lesson Plan: 

Unit 3 : Week 1        Bacteria

  1. Students take warm-up time to prepare materials (glass slides, pipettes, jar) and clean microscope stations.

2. Class then walks out back and across the parking lot to the pond behind the school building.

3. Each group takes turn collecting jar full of at least 1/2 cup of pond water in jar.

4. In the classroom, the students will pipette a few drops of water onto the glass slide and place another on top of the water.

5. Using the proper microscope settings, students will explore their samples for any bacteria

6. Students will draw pictures of what they see and then question and identify what it may be that they see under the microscope and share with other groups to compare and contrast.

How can I use margins in my classroom?

Although the margins sound like a key aspect in the student’s learning, it is important to remember the importance of the center. The margins make connections and relate to the content that originates in the center. Margins can be activities that you plan into a lesson, or margins may arise spontaneously when opportunities arise to explore and question an event or activity.

Take home thought:

Don’t overthink it: Any moment in the classroom where you break away from lecture and explore or question something in the classroom or the world around you can be a margin where students engage themselves in their learning.

A classroom should balance the “margin” moments with the “center” moments for an optimal student growth and learning environment.


  1. The post is great, but the one thing that really grabbed my attention was the list of key terms you came up with for defining margins. These words (especially the verbs) really exemplify what going into the margins is all about. In the margins, you are, quite literally, exploring the concepts in which you are learning. Upon exploration, the students use their curiosity to foster an idea to question. After exploring those questions even further, they get the opportunity to use those connections that were made to create a product regarding the learning. Those key words are all important to teaching in the margins, and I’m really glad you included them the way you did!

    • Thanks! With the blogs I try to find ways to summarize my thoughts and keep it short and simple since we are supposed to avoid paragraphs. I thought adding the key terms in the middle of my blog would help touch on the purpose of the margins before diving into my examples. Curiosity/curious are the most important ones to me because this curiosity is what fuels everything in science. Without the ability to wonder and question things that your are curious about, people would not have made the progress in science that we have today. That’s why I used the quote about curiosity right after my key terms to reiterate the importance of that term and its relation to margins and the field of science itself.

  2. I think the bacteria lab you included in here is awesome! Yes, it is kind of structured, but it lets the students figure out what the bacterium are and then share it with the class. This is so much better than sitting in a lecture and just seeing the different shapes and types.
    I loved all of the twitter posts and the video you included. I think that the eclipse video perfectly describes how it is important to be in the margins for at least some time in learning.
    You gave very clear descriptions of what being in the margins is and also other things that we discussed in this unit.

    • Thank you! I was trying to be realistic in the lab to how how even a planned activity with specific directions can still be considered a margin. There is a lot to gain from exploring and observing without the teacher giving you all of the answers. Students will then be more invested and motivated to discover and uncover what they observe in the lab. This is much more meaningful and memorable for students than watching a video clip or viewing pictures of bacteria and therefore this allows for more creativity and exploration. I really liked the eclipse video too! Most importantly, I found it very interesting that most of the students were there in their free time rather than during class, but the students talk about how important this is for science. They voluntarily spend their afternoon observing the eclipse and understand that this can allow further opportunities in the classroom as well.

  3. This is amazing, Hayley!
    I love the comparison chart you made for teaching in the moment and teaching in the margins! It’s a nice, quick way to see the difference.
    I also like how you point out that there has to be a balance between margins and the center; we can’t have one without the other!
    In your lesson plan activity, I think it’s good that students just make their own observations and share with other groups. In high school, I remember labs being overshadowed by a worksheet. These worksheets didn’t just guide us, they told us how we should be thinking, planted questions, but didn’t allow us to formulate our own. Even though labs deviate from everyday lecture, they can chain us to a center when we aren’t allowed to explore what we wanted to explore.

    • Thank you, Meghan! I am a very organized person, so the idea of allowing for etra spontaneity in the classroom worries me since I enjoy being planned out and knowing what the day holds, so the margins article showed me the true importance of these moments. I liked how it also mentions that there still has to be room for the “center” in the classroom. This is why I put the blurb at the end about finding the optimal balance of “margins” and the “center”, since this will help optimize student learning as well. The lab is definitely more open ended and allows for student interaction so I’m glad you saw that as well. Not all of the margins in the class will be this unidirectional, but sometimes activities that may seem very strict to the instructions can have surprising results or may allow the students to asks questions and allow for further exploration.

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