Set your sights on the Margins

Imagine yourself aboard a large vessel traveling across the grand sea. A mild breeze blows through your hair as it pushes the ship across tiny waves that gently tap the underside of your boat. As the ship continues to drift it becomes engulfed under the shadow of a storm of curiosity. Waves of questions and curiosity soon rise up to meet you as the ship rides up and down trying to stay afloat. The crew jumps into action acting on the ship with all their knowledge and experiences to make sure it does not succumb to the perilous waters of disappointment leading to becoming self-demotivated.

Picture the classroom in this manner, the sea represents the material needed to be learned by the class and how it is presented to them. If a teacher leans toward the “center”, meaning all they do is lecture, require completion from assignments out of the book, and only give non-visual examples, they’re not really engaging with the students. They may as well talk to a brick wall, record it, put it online, and send all the kids home to simply watch the video. This is like the wind lazily pushing the ship along. There’s not much to do, the sun is beating down on you the whole time, it just makes you cranky and bored. Where on the other hand in the “margins”, the storm of the sea, students have to use experience and knowledge they have obtained to stay afloat. It is more engaging and draws the students into it, rather than letting them sit on the sidelines.

Setting the Classroom in the Margins

Looking at the metaphor for the relation between our ship and sea. One might get the impression that to get students to focus their attention into the lesson, it means that we have to bring in high energy and chaos to really challenge them. This could not be further from the truth.

The activity of the sea in the example simply represents the opportunity brought to the students. Doing things by the book while lecturing does not give the students much thinking room as they simply try to process the information thrown at them only so they can regurgitate it at a later date. Setting the students in the margins provides a diverse environment where new and unplanned opportunities pop up and present themselves without the teacher ever even considering that as a challenge. Being in the margins is such a great environment because it is constantly flooded with stimuli, sometimes unforeseen, that grabs the students’ attention and gets them thinking.

Below we can see a great example of how teachers get their students into the margins which brings out their inquiry ability as they use their skills for what could be real world application.

The video showcases how students have to come up with methods to distinguish the differences between egg and seed pods. The students are given many different ways to develop their methods such as seeing if the pods sink or float, burying them to see if they’ll grow, or experimenting with different household objects to invent the best paint. These opportunities, of a surplus of stimuli, is what really motivates the students to participate as they try to come up with the best test in seeing which is which.

I hear it, I forget; I see it, I remember; I do it, I understand (Chinese Proverb)

The Reason Behind Engagement in the Margins

Now the reason why students become so willing to participate and engage when in the margins is simply because it succeeds in giving them motivation. It does simply because it meets the three needs people, let alone students, need to feel motivated in a project. According to Julien Bureau, associate professor at Université Laval in Quebec, three psychological needs must be met in order to stimulate motivation. Those being competency, students need to feel that they are capable of doing the work and that it is neither too far above or below their capabilities, belonging, the sense that they are part of a community that supports them in which they can pursue truths alongside their classmates, and autonomy, the sense that they have the ability of self-government.

Now the goal as a teacher is to help students learn but as they say, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”, so teachers have to naturally create an environment where the above needs are met to increase motivation. The ways in which teachers can do this is by first assessing the level at which all their students are in the material, so as not to place curriculum out of reach for students. Next they can assign teams to give students a sense of belonging, just as we saw in the video, and those students can be given roles so that they are specifically contributing to the team, which also helps with belonging. Now the autonomy part is the most difficult and to help students feel a sense of self-government it’s best to direct it towards their self-persuasion. Doing this would be having the students predetermining their behavior before activities begin. Such as, asking the students to write out goal cards for how they will contribute and behave withing the group then having them look over their goals after the activity. One could also have the students uniformly create rules and goals which again contributes to that sense of belonging, but also holds them accountable as not only do they not want to disappoint themselves but also fellow classmates. This helps give them a sense of autonomy.

So is teaching in the margins a collection of teachable moments?

No, simply because the margins simply define the environment not the experience that unfolds inside of it. For example, in the metaphor say the teacher represents the captain and as the crew works together to make it through the storm. The captain is yelling out commands to keep the ship on course to help guide it through rough waters. Then say there is a large rock jutting out of the water’s surface near an unmarked island, which the ship will soon collide with. Now the captain (teacher) could simply grab the helm and steer the ship around the rock, but by giving the crew an opportunity to demonstrate their skill a new possibility may arise. Say the crew decides to try using the cannons to blow the rock out of their path and in the outcome shrapnel collides with a face of the island and reveals a secret entrance to some hidden treasure. That is why we want to teach in the margins, to give students the opportunity to find all the hidden treasure they can in their own abilities.

To check if we are teaching in the margins we have to assess the environment we have created. In order to place the classroom in the margins it has to be evaluated to see if:

  1. Evidence that the lesson enriches the learning experience
  2. That throughout the lesson new opportunities for learning present themselves.
  3. Students immerse themselves in the lesson to combat the challenge presented.
  4. The experience may appear trivial in the beginning, but reveals its beauty when in practice for new understanding.
  5. Opportunities of risk and chance present themselves in a way that is beneficial to the learner.
  6. The environment created provides a relatable experience to the student where change, diversity, and difference can be explored.

A Future Classroom

As a future life sciences/chemistry teacher it’s my responsibility to plan at how I will steer my future classes through the margins. Some ways in which I could do this are:

  • Giving students the opportunity to observe local fauna and flora around the school.
  • Designing labs that students will have to team up to collectively brainstorm to achieve a suitable conclusion that fits the activity or arrive at the correct answer.
  • I could do titration experiments to demonstrate the relation between acids and bases.
  • Lastly, we could study the inhabitants of local waterways and discuss whether they are beneficial or harmful. Then maybe we could expand on that and discuss how to remove the harmful inhabitants which could also tie into an ethical discussion.

The main point to all of these examples is getting the students into areas where they feel motivated while being properly challenged to demonstrate their knowledge and ability to learn. It is our duty as teachers to bring out the best in our students meaning it is our responsibility to steer the boat away from the center. Remember to always be looking for the next storm.

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