Teaching in the Margins or the Center?

Imagine a forest, what do you see? You probably imagine lots of trees and a covering of dead leaves on the ground. Now, imagine some type of creature that would live here, it can be a deer, a squirrel, a salamander, an owl etc. Now imagine an owl staring down at you. You wonder what does it want? Suddenly, the owl swoops down and flies away. You race after it wondering where this creature is going. As you follow, the trees begin to lessen and more light enters the canopy. You also see more colors in the leaves on the ground and more diverse life. Finally, the owl stops on a tree limp stops, As you catch your breath you look around and wonder where you are. There are some remnants of the center of the forest but there are also new organisms not found in the dark forest, such as flowers and tall grass. There is so much to explore and yet too little time to do so. Congratulations, you are now in the margins.

While this may seem as if this makes no sense, teaching in the margins is simple asking what would my students like to learn and how? Science is most exciting when you can see it happening right before your eyes. No student will remember that lecture about acceleration and velocity but they WILL remember that time everyone built a rocket and measured its initial velocity to calculate the height of the launch. This is an example of the difference between teaching at the center and teaching in the margins.

At the center of our metaphoric forest is a very homogenous, everything is the same. This is the same as the classroom where students are taught at the center, everything is a monoculture with basic lectures and throwing material back during an exam. Simply put: its boring! But in the margins, students can take risks and explore things they may have not thought about before. Going back to our forest, the margins are diverse and full of life which is wonderful but is also risky. This is exactly what we want in an inquiry classroom where students are taught in the margins. In classes such as that, students can ask their own questions as to why things are the way they are and can take risks! This blog below is a wonderful example to how we can encourage teaching in the margins and what wonderful results our students can surprise us with.


Teaching in the margins can often be misinterpreted however. Many teachers argue they do teach in the margins when “teachable moments” come to light. But teachable moments and teaching in the margins are not the same at all. Teachable moments are two things that differentiate them from teaching in the margins:

  • Teachable Moments happen every so often: Teaching in the margins encourage questions and support the students to use critical thinking while teachable moments are lucky to stumble across a interesting concept to discuss
  • Teachable Moments are the end to the curiosity: Teachable Moments are very closed ended, after the moment is gone it is never discussed again but in the margins, these questions are built upon and the curiosity that the student had grows like wild fire.

Here is a wonderful ted talk by Ramsey Musallam discussing how we can insight this curiosity in our students in order to teaching in the margins effectively.

Teaching in the margins can be done in many ways, some ways I plan on using in my own classroom include:

  • Lots and lots of labs
  • Interactive displays
  • Live animals
  • Service learning
  • Community involvement
  • Current Events
  • Science fairs
  • And so much more! Including this Wonder Wall to begin a unit with many questions to be answered!

Finally, teaching in the margins does not only benefit the students while they take the class but it also embeds in them with skills such as research, communication, argumentative skills and thinking outside the box. Here is a video that shows how teaching in the margins and using inquiry based learning can change the way students view the world and go through life with the skills they learned through inquiry-based learning

In this video it discusses how inquiry based learning has existed for thousands of years. My only question is why did we stop?


  1. Great blog post Caitlin! I really loved the blog post that you linked in the middle about ending the pain of science fairs. I remember as a kid being excited about learning about science in a way that interested me however as we learned in Drive we learned that when things become required the passion and intrinsic motivation diminishes. I was wondering if you had an ideas or personal experiences about how to get students motivated intrinsically about going to the margins! Let me know!

  2. Hi Natalie!
    Thats a great point. However, I see the wonder wall as something that can actually become more interesting to students as the year goes on. The wonder wall starts with a single artifact. This can be anything from a picture, a hands on activity, a current event etc. Because this artifact can be anything and therefore can be related to the students own life. As a result, while the wonder wall at the beginning of the year may just be a tool to push students to ask questions by the end, if I have done my job properly as a science teacher, the wall will be a way for students to show what they have researched on their own and a way for them to tell me I am interested in this topic can we look into it deeper. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Hi Caitlin! I thoroughly enjoyed your metaphor of the forest. I thought it was a great way to introduce the topic of the margins and present in a way that could be visualized by all. Plus who doesn’t like stories involving animals? Additionally, I thought the idea of a wonder wall was amazing! What an interesting way to peak students’s interest throughout a lesson. However, do you think it is a good idea to use a wonder wall for every different unit? I fear this may get tiring, for both you as a teacher and for the students. Additionally, overuse may take to excitement and wonder out of it. Curious to hear your input!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.