Marking up the Margins

A margin might conjure up images of the inch on each side of a paper where the teacher wreaks havoc with the red pen. Luckily for you, that’s not what this blog is about.

Instead, I want to propose a new definition of margins, one full of excitement, mystery, and diversity. It’s easy to see margins in nature, although we often times are not looking. We glaze over the forest’s edge to take in the well-established trees; we discount the tidal zone as we look in awe at the sun’s reflection on the ocean waves. Yet in these narrow spaces, the margins, there is such rich beauty to be discovered.

Fortunately for us, as future science educators, this metaphor can be extended to our classrooms. I want to offer four questions to help us dive into these complex educational regions.

1. What are the margins in the realm of science education?

Margins are areas adjacent to the center of the classroom (think textbooks, worksheets, lectures). They are areas of excitement and increased teacher-student interaction. Discovery and exploration take precedence in the margins.

However, margins often get a bad rap because many educators don’t see their value. They are often…

  • overlooked because they represent something outside of the main course of the classroom
  • dismissed as a waste of time because of their “off-topic” nature
  • viewed as chaotic since teachers must surrender some of their control in these situations

This grim reputation comes about because educators aren’t “in the know” about margins. They see them as potholes to avoid rather than necessary pitstops.

2. Why are margins so important in the classroom?

Margins offer a myriad of benefits in nature. They are a catalyst for species growth, an arena for diversity, a driver of ecological competition.

Don’t believe me? Take a plunge into the Pacific Ocean and learn about the margins of the coastline- the kelp forests- and their amazing importance to ocean ecology.

As much as the margins can feel like a concept swiped from a nature documentary, I promise that they are incredibly important in our students’ formation as lifelong learners. Here are some reasons why:

  • Activities in the margin enrich the regular student experience in the academic center.
  • Margins provide students a chance to take scholarly risks and explore uncharted territory.
  • Differences are not smoothed over but embraced in the margins.
  • Margins nourish the creation of new beliefs, ideas, and perspectives.

And if you still are not convinced, enjoy perusing this article published in none other than Harvard’s Education Magazine:

3. How can we move our classes into the margins?

Before wandering into the process of bringing your students to the margins, I want to clarify a common misconception that is often mistaken for a “marginal” moment.

What I’m referring to is the infamous “teachable moment”. While this phrase has a nice ring to it, in reality, these moments involve teachers pulling all the attention onto themselves to tell an often off-topic story that no student was genuinely curious about. If we are striving to create student-centered classrooms, it has the opposite effect.

Anyways, as I step down from my proverbial soapbox, let’s explore how we can move our classes to the margins. To begin, I’ll reveal a little tip: this process often involves no initiation from the teacher at all!

One of the quickest routes to the margins is through inquisitive students who want more information about anything from the origins of dinosaurs to the effects of gamma radiation.

Count on your students being curious! And instead of dodging questions or promising to return to them at the end of the unit, tackle them together.

Curious students will be engaged students and engaged students live in the margins. They take ownership of their own learning and enjoy growing in their scientific knowledge.

This doesn’t let science teachers off the hook, however. They also play a vested role in calling students to the margins. Frequently, this is done through

  • bringing in scientific experts
  • discussing current science news
  • employing inquiry-based projects
  • caring for a classroom animal (or plant!)

Watch as this middle school teacher used school funds to create inquiry learning experiences for his students and to bring them into the margins:

Also, check out this free curriculum from NSTA in partnership with NASCAR that is filled with racing-themed lessons:

Simply by relating a lesson with something a student has an interest in, like car racing, can engage this student and bring them into the margins. With the enormous amount of educational tools out there today, it is so easy to adapt lessons to student interests and push your teaching into the margins.

4. When is teaching in the margins appropriate, and when is it not?

Hear me when I say that I am not advocating for all margins all the time. The academic center of the classroom is paramount in certain situations to build the knowledge and skills needed for students to venture into the margins. Plus, without the center, there would be no margins.

Foundational information such as vocabulary, mathematical formulas, or standard processes incline themselves better to teacher-driven instruction. And these are the building blocks students require to help them step up into the margins.

Yet these lessons should be taught purposefully with the goal of eventually navigating into the margins. Because the margins are where engagement, discovery, and exploration take over, and students actually want to learn.

If you have gotten to this point in my blog, I hope that you feel more confident and assured not only in your knowledge of the margins but in your ability to instill them in your classrooms.

So cap your red pens and get out into the margins of your classroom. Hopefully, I’ll see you there!

Catch you later!

Mr. Larson


  1. Hi Ellie!
    Thanks for your question, I think it that is a real situation that sometimes happens in the classroom because what interests one student may not interest another. I think that giving each student the freedom to pursue a topic that they are passionate about could help. In addition, if you are set on doing one big project or field trip with your students, you could provide some scaffolding for students who are not used to having that much freedom in school or are still working on developing their own critical thinking skills.

  2. Hey Luke!

    Loved reading your blog post, I enjoyed how you mentioned that sometimes students pull you into the margins. I think when we have those moments of curious students it is so important to follow and help them learn about something they are interested in. Though, there are times when it can be difficult to do so. Do you have any thoughts on balancing following curious students and helping students who might feel a bit left behind?

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