Teaching in the Margins – Getting There

Remember those times in the classroom where you were totally invested in what you were learning? Those times when you lost a sense of time and space and felt like you were actually a part of something? You felt something out of the ordinary from what you were used to doing or being a part of in the classroom?

Those times were probably when your teacher was teaching in the margins. 

What are the margins?

The margins are the times when you move away from the center to explore things outside of the norm and try creative, new things in teaching.

Image result for forest and field

This threshold between field and forest is an example of how in the margins exists the most diversity and interaction. Between the field and forest, this is an area of discovery and a difference from the center. When teaching, you should be striving to reach for that diversity and interaction between students and the curriculum, each other, and the world around them.

But how do you teach in the margins?

Teaching in the margins is all about breaking out of the typical class structure.  This could include things like:

  • allowing the class to spend that extra time answering the questions that students are genuinely interested in figuring out
  • letting students figure concepts out by themselves
  • helping students connect with the material in a personal way
  • working on the edge of the curriculum to investigate concepts not directly stated, but relevant to their learning
  • releasing control of the set structure of the class to allow for more valuable open communication.

Bill Nye (the Science Guy) put it nicely when he says that “having someone do it is worth being told about it a thousand times.” He is reinforcing the concept of getting away from the typical lecture experience of many classrooms and trying something different and encouraging students to “choose” to learn something.

What does this mean for my classroom?

You can incorporate teaching in the margins by a number of different ways, and it doesn’t just mean doing a hands-on activity:

  • have a local expert in the field come into the class to help children understand more about the subject matter and how it impacts this person’s life and their community.
  • sparking a discussion about how the students feel about a particular debated scientific issue.
  • having classroom animals to learn about and take care of to help understand and connect with nature.
  • doing an activity involving collaboration, sharing of ideas, inquiry, and discovery such as creating their own lab experiment to learn about specific concepts.

An important thing to remember about the margins is that you can move in and out of them fluidly. If you choose to have a class period devoted to them, you can. But, you can also spend half the class time there, or simply drift in and out. These can be planned or unplanned times.

Teaching in the Margins vs. Teachable Moment

These things sound very similar to most people, however, they are actually quite different things.

Image result for teachable moment

A “teachable moment” is something entirely unplanned sparked by a student’s curiosity that can usually be completed in a short time frame. This is usually closely related to the material and close to the center of learning. These can be useful teaching opportunities and can lead to great moments, however, they are not the margins.

The margins can be planned or unplanned and focus more on pushing the boundaries of what the material is. Though you can move in and out of the margins, these tend to take longer than the short explanation for a teachable moment. The students are typically the ones making the discoveries instead of a short answer from a teacher.

Image result for education quote

Dr. Ann E. Haley-Oliphant puts it well in her piece entitled Exploration, Risk-Taking, and Wonderment: Traveling to the Margins of Instruction when she writes that “we would expect the margins of the classroom to be places where diversity of thought is promoted, risks are taken, dreams are fostered, and enjoyment of the material is experienced.” (1994).

Haley-Oliphant, A. E. (1994) Exploration, risk-taking, and wonderment: Traveling to the margins of instruction. In Exploring the Places of Exemplary Science Teaching, in Haley-Oliphant, A. E. (ed). Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science, p. 99-114.


  1. Margaux, I really enjoyed your post! The ways you are going to incorporate teaching in the margins are awesome. The Bill Nye video gives a good explanation on why you should allow students to have hands on participation in your classroom. I also enjoyed how you described margins with the picture of the grass meeting the tree line I believe it shows how you can go from the “center” to the “margins” so quickly. Also, how you described the differences between teaching in the margins versus teachable moments is spot on! In your post you discussed how you can move in and out of the margins as you please and they can either be planned or unplanned. Do you think teaching in the margins works better when it is planned rather than when it is not?

  2. Margaux,
    First of all, I love this post. Because you started it out with a couple of questions, it immediately got me thinking about my personal experiences. I really like the video of Bill Nye, I’ve never seen it before! (I almost want to steal it for my own blog). The video is also fairly short, so more people are probably willing to watch your video compared to a twenty minute video. I also like your ideas in the “What does this mean for my classroom?” question. I’ve never thought about bringing in an expert to my classroom being a way to go into the margins, very creative!
    If I had to give you any suggestion, it would be to maybe incorporate either a picture or video of an example of a teacher going into the margins in their classroom. This would give the reader a visual of what you’re actually talking about!
    Great post!

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