Limit Testing: A Look On Teaching In the Margins

“[Margins] are places where diversity in species exist, where life is often riskier for its inhabitants, and where species have the freedom to flourish and experiment. They are the areas at the edges of ecosystems and bioregions.”

Ann Haley-Oliphant

The dictionary definition of “margins” is known as the outside limit and adjoining surface of something. When we apply it to the quote and image above, a seashore would act as a textbook definition for an ecological margin, but how do we apply that concept to our classrooms? Well, as ecological margins act as a space where life is often tested to its limits, teaching in the margins involve pushing the limits of what can be done and learned in an educational setting.

For far too long, the notion of teaching has revolved around the teachers being the experts and students solely being the listeners. This creates a banking model of education where students are expected to absorb and regurgitate information without any regard for critical thinking

Teaching in the margins goes beyond textbooks, filler worksheets, and lectures. It creates an environment where both the teacher and the students are pushed to think critically and create a learning environment where creativity and flexibility thrive . This involves teachers to create and guide inquiry-based lessons that inspire discussion. It involves students to take the reins of their education and create their own questions, experiments, and inquiries.

But there is indeed a risk factor. Maybe your first attempts to teach in the margins blow up in your face and your students didn’t get much out of the lesson. But that too is okay. As the old saying goes…

The Differences Between Teachable Moments and Teaching in the Margins

Teachable Moments:

  • Results from questions that follow closely to the curriculum
  • Are moments that teachers usually know the answer to based on their own experiences
  • Can only really be reactive (e.g. the student asks a question and the teacher answers it)
  • Creates an “aha!” moment but is usually fleeting after the question has been answered

Teaching in the Margins:

  • Involves exploring concepts that go beyond what is expected by the curriculum
  • Potentially puts the classroom in the position where both the student and the teacher is learning (allows for curiosity to thrive with open-ended questions)
  • Can be both proactive or reactive (e.g. the teacher creates an open-ended inquiry lesson or a student asks a thoughtful question that sparks a guided discussion)
  • Creates more opportunities for “aha!” moments that persist throughout their education

This sounds great and all, but how do I start implementing the margins in my classroom?

I believe the first step into establishing these margins is to create a trusting relationship between you and your students. Trust in their innate creative and academic abilities and foster the growth of their self-efficacy. The ways you can encourage this mindset involves:

  • Allowing your students to create their own questions and lead their own investigations (with a little guidance if necessary)
  • Creating a space where every student has time to reflect and share their thoughts and results without fear of mistakes or judgment
  • Not shying away from current and controversial events. Discussing and debating ethics in science is a great topic that is usually ignored in the science curriculum
  • Not being afraid to “limit test” and make mistakes. The best way for your students to learn and appreciate authentic science is to encourage them to embrace mistakes as a learning opportunity. Students would rather learn alongside a humble student than a perfect robot.

Here are some activities that could promote margin-based teaching:

  • Debating the ethics of cloning animals on a scientific and societal level
  • Exploring the effects of acids and bases on small objects (of the student’s choosing)
  • Exploring how hippos and whales evolved from their common ancestor
This video provides a great example of how educators who teach by the margins make a significant impact towards their students
My thoughts on the positives of teaching in the margins! Students are more willing to break past their limits if teachers are invested in doing the same. They will recognize when their teacher is giving 110% towards their education.


  1. Jay,
    Fantastic post! I agree with Lauren how talking about controversial events and topics can be very interesting and useful for students to do in the classroom, with the teacher keeping people ‘in line’ type of thing. One thing that I think is important to remember though is that it’s important to create a safe environment for students to be willing to share their opinions. Not only a space where people can have productive conversations about difficult topics but also a sort of “what happens in science class stays in science class” type of deal where students know not to just go talking to their friends that this one student thinks ‘blank’ leading to some problems.

  2. Hey Jay! I agree with you that it’s important to let students ask their own questions and follow their curiosity in the classroom. Although, I’ve been struggling with this idea as we’ve talked about it a few times. Oftentimes, schools have a specific curriculum they must follow. Or teachers have specific ideas about what needs to be taught in their class. Do you have any ideas on how we can fuse these two seemingly opposing ideas together? Is there a way to teach what we need to while still allowing our students to investigate what they find interesting?

    • Hi Tommy,
      I honestly have struggled with this idea too. I don’t think I have the ability to create the perfect answer to that question, however I feel like it is possible for us to follow the curriculum and still add our own quirky spin into projects in labs that would make our lessons unique and educational. How we teach lessons in a classroom setting and speak to our students is completely up to us so I plan on experimenting different lesson techniques and doing my best to inspire students to follow their curiosity outside of the classroom. If there is a way for us to allow students to investigate what they find outside of the classroom, I feel like the best two ways for them to do that are to motivate them to explore topics outside of the classroom or create a creative, open-ended final project for them to investigate and perform. It is unfortunate how we have to compromise between the state standards of education and how we feel students should learn, but hopefully in the future we will not have to make that compromise.

  3. Hi Jay! Thank you for sharing your thoughts on teaching in the margins! You made many statements that I agree with and will implement in my own classroom one day. A line from your blog that really stuck out to me was when you were discussing how a teacher can implement taking their class into the margins. To quote, “Trust in their innate creative and academic abilities and foster the growth of their self-efficacy” (Chen, 2020). The trust mentioned here is often something many of us overlook – without the established trust between teacher and student, it is difficult to learn in general let alone attempting to move into the margins. Thank you again for sharing! 🙂

    • Hi Brooklyn,
      Thank you so much for the kind words. You are absolutely right! Many of us do overlook how important trust between the teacher and the student really is. Making an effort to create a positive relationship with your students allows teachers to best perform rigorous tasks like teaching in the margins and motivates students to participate in the classroom.

  4. Hi Jay,
    Great post! I found the ways you recommend implementing learning in the margins in your classroom particularly interesting, especially your point about not shying away from current and controversial events. I think both students and teachers sometimes avoid controversial topics in science because of differing opinions, perspectives, etc. However, pushing the boundaries of current understanding, listening to other points of view, and adjusting our own ideas is fundamental to scientific thinking. As a computer science teacher, what type of topics might you have your students debate regarding computer science/technology and how would you mediate such a debate?

    • Hi Lauren,
      That is a really good question. Many people store their private information in their computers, whether it is their account information to various websites, their social security number (for medical information), stored credit card information, etc. People who continue to study computer science will eventually study computer and network security where people will be able to learn how to evaluate the weakness of networks, operating systems, and software security. Computer ethics, when it comes down to hackers (both white hat and black hat), infringement of privacy, creating malware, etc., would be great topics of debate that would easily be mediated by providing students different situations of gray areas between computer and network security and allowing them to discuss among themselves in the form of Socratic seminars.

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