Teaching to the Margins: Into the Unknown

Margins, What Are They?

Ecologically speaking, margins are areas that sit directly between two distinct ecological areas. Where a forest meets a beach. Where a field meets a road. Where a desert meets a mountain. These areas are studied by many scientists due to their aptitude for diversity of life as well as challenges to life.

In margins organisms are constantly being challenged in their everlasting struggle for survival. Sitting between two ecological areas means that organisms likely will get too little or too much of certain nutrients they need for life. A plant that lives on the edge of a beach and a forest may find it difficult to get their roots in soil due to large amounts of sand.

However, from this struggle, organisms adapt and change, and diversity is found. The challenges these organisms are presented with force them to make changes and grow in unique ways, unlike any other plants before.

With the concept of margins, there is also the concept of centers. Places furthest away from margins where all is the same. The best example of this would be the middle of a corn field. There’s no diversity of life in the middle of a cornfield, it’s just…corn, as far as the eye can. Although margins present challenges, centers are dangerous in their own right. A disease or bacteria that starts in the middle of a cornfield will be difficult to control because all the organisms in the field are unchallenged and never needed to adapt against such challenges.

Ok … So Why Are You Talking About This On An Educational Blog?

The concept of margins can easily be translated very easily to an educational setting. When explaining I think it best to start in the center, in our metaphorical corn field. In the center of education, students are unchallenged. Every student acts and is treated the same, every teacher acts and is treated the same, every school day is slogged through the same.

The typical class in the center of education looks like this:

  1. Students walk into class.
  2. Teacher lectures in front of them basically quoting the textbook.
  3. Students leave.


And in the same way the classroom in the center can fall apart just as easily as the cornfield. Students are given particularly difficult test, the teacher says something wrong, or (god forbid) the text book is wrong, all can lead to the class falling apart.

So what do we do? We move to the margins of the classroom. The classroom moves to the margins by investigating concepts and ideas that no one knows much about. The class follows their curiosity, they develop solutions to problems, they do their own research and studies.

That sounds really difficult to pull off, though. Which is exactly what we want. In ecology, the margins are challenging areas to live in, they require adaptation. Which is the perfect way for the class to learn. They walk into class everyday, knowing they will face something that will require them to think like they’ve never thought before. They struggle, they fail, a lot, and then finally they break through, they bloom and add to that beautiful diversity in the margin.

Notice I’ve been saying the class this whole time, not the students. The class includes the teacher. Students can’t go to the margins if the teacher isn’t there with them, otherwise it’s not really a margin. If the teacher knows all the answers then they themselves aren’t being challenged, then it just becomes multiple “teachable moments.” If the teacher is there struggling and adapting with their students, then it’s a team effort, they are growing together. In the margins everyone is taking the educational journey, including and especially the teacher.

Some Thoughts on How I Can Incorporate the Margins In My Classroom

One way I plan on bringing my class to the margins is by incorporating other subjects into lessons and activities. Instead of just lecturing about Isaac Newton, have discussion of the time period Newton made his discoveries in, why he was able to make his discoveries, what other discoveries were being made at the same time.

Another way to bring my class to the margins is by presenting students with current sciences news and discoveries. I plan to discuss these topic with my students, ask them to find solutions to problems we have, like global warming and renewable energy.

I have to say, I’m worried I won’t be able to teach my content effectively in the margins. High school physics doesn’t relate much to current sciences topics and can often come off as rigid and unchanging. However, these thoughts are exactly why I have to dive into the margins with my students. It will be difficult to figure out how to teach my students in the margins, so I’ll need to adapt along with them. Grow along with them.


  1. Hi Tommy! I love your cornfield analogy, it makes it easy and gets the point across on the idea or margins. I also agree with your tweet you made, which is wonderful by the way! Teaching in he margins will be something that can be scary and sometimes intimidating, because I feel the being in the margins is such a new concept. Great blog!

  2. Tommy,
    I absolutely loved that video of the TED talk! That was a great choice. He used so many great analogies with a good mix of saying things directly. One of my favorite terms he used was “pseudo teaching” when he referred to how he taught before his life-changing experience. He also brings up many great points about how to teach in the margins but I’ll focus on “embracing the mess”. How do you feel that you can embrace the mess of learning in your future classroom?

  3. Hi Tommy,

    As a future physics teacher, I am also worried that I won’t be able to teach my content to the margins as well. It will definitely be a hard task but I think it is not impossible. In terms of physics, I think that allowing students to predict how certain mechanics work and allowing them to defend their reasoning goes a long way in a branch of science where it seems like a lot of concepts in high school physics are cut and dry (at least when I was taught physics in high school).

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