Stepping Outside of the Known and Into the Margins

Some of my favorite memories as a kid were family vacations at the beach. On a sunny day, we’d pack up the beach bag with towels, sunscreen, and toys, and head to the ocean. Between leaving the hotel and reaching the beach however, we’d have to walk through the grassy sand dunes, the transition space between the beach and the main land. Sometimes this space was paved with a boardwalk, other times, you would walk through the uneven sand and tall grass.

Grassy Sand Dunes On Beach by Dan Brownsword

Close your eyes and think back – do you have a memory like this one? Or maybe one similar, like approaching the edge of the woods to go for a hike?

These in-between spaces are what we call margins. They are present in nature all around us, in all types of ecosystems and environments.

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

Ann Haley-Oliphant

However, the margins are not just regions in the natural world, but it is also a rich metaphor for teaching. Margins are a space in the classroom that is full of diversity, unexpected discovery, change, and risk. There is a relationship between the “center” of the classroom and the outside margin. Part of being an exemplary teacher is stepping into that zone, so how do we do that?

Let’s Teach in the Margins

First, it’s important to define what the “center” of the classroom is if our goal is to step outside of that. Key characteristics of the “center” are:

  • A lack of individuality between students. Students simply adopt the same behavior, obedience to the teacher, and typical day-to-day procedures.
  • Constant scarcity of time. Teachers are constantly pressed for time, only wanting to complete the curriculum and lessons they have planned in advance, and give students strict chunks of time to work or explore.
  • Limited to textbook-based instruction. Have you ever been in a class where the teacher only teaches from the book? The subject matter revolves around tight guidelines and rarely goes beyond that.
  • Surface-level discussion. While there is room for discussion, they tend to be teacher-led and lack depth or authenticity.

Now, what does teaching outside of “the center” actually look like? Here’s my top suggestions for teaching in the margins in your classroom –

  • Focus on facilitation, not domination. It is so important to facilitate opportunities for students to make connections between the course content, themselves and their interests, and other disciplines. Be okay with not leading every activity and give your students a chance to express themselves in the classroom.
  • Initiate student-led discussions. Having your students practice asking scientific questions can spark new interests, spur on research opportunities, and help them grow in their ability to form arguments. Use Socratic seminars or student-created presentations that help engage the whole class.
  • Incorporate inquiry-based activities. Inquiry is critical for many areas of teaching science, but especially as you step into the margins and become student-centered, inquiry-based activities can be extremely useful to continue a stimulating, thought-provoking classroom environment.
  • Be willing to move away from planned lessons. As a teacher, leave extra room in your class periods to follow the students’ lead occasionally. If they ask a question that is a bit of a stretch from the material, explore that with them!
  • Connect science (or any subject) to the outside, real world. Use every opportunity to bring science to life for students! Physically go outside with students, bring animals and plants into the classroom, or have students explore independently at home or in the community.
10 Teaching Strategies to Help Students Listen - TeachHUB

Margins or “teachable” moments – what’s the difference?

This is often a common misconception about using this metaphor in the classroom. While both margins and “teachable” moments are present in the classroom, there is a time and space for both. The purpose of the margins is to promote learning and curiosity through investigating questions that are often student-initiated and may not have a clear cut answer. Entering into this space means that the teacher learns with the students as they cooperatively explore and engage with the course content and beyond.

On the other hand, “teachable” moments are mostly times in the classroom that there might be confusion or questions, and the teacher answers and instructs without further exploration or student input. Teachable moments often take less time or effort by the teacher and tend to answer a student’s question without examining other potential possibilities. There is less engagement with the whole class and is mostly teacher-centered.

Instagram photo from National Geographic @natgeo

This photo was posted on Instagram by National Geographic, check it out here. It shows California firefighter Brett Watkins traveling the fire line, cleaning up any unburned brush to help stop embers from spreading the fire to other sections of the Lassen National Forest. When I saw this photo, it made me think of the margin-like space on the edge of a forest that I mentioned at the beginning. However, this forest is on fire, and a brave firefighter is stepping into it.

Going to the margins can be out of your comfort zone and even frightening, but the pay off is so worth it. It can lead to conversations with students and learning opportunities students will remember forever. Being the teacher that hears students questions, engages with them, and helps them seek out the answers can have a significant impact on students’ lives.

You can go to the Margins too!

Thanks for reading, see you in the margins! I’ll be back with another post soon.

-Miss Creeden


  1. Hey Rachel! I really liked how you drew on your childhood memories of going to the beach when explaining this concept of going “to the margins.” You also used other imagery, such as a brave firefighter going to the edge of the wildfire, to further illustrate your point. It made me realize that it takes courage to go to the margins, and it does not always feel like a safe place to be. You included a lot of helpful practical tips on how to actually go to the margins within your classroom, and this helped me get a clearer idea of how I as a teacher and bring my class into this space. Your advice on focusing on facilitation and not domination was very helpful, because this is a very unorthodox view for teachers. Our goal is to facilitate learning for the students, it is a process that they must undergo themselves. We help them along on this journey, but by lecturing constantly we actually hinder their own personal learning journey. Also, your tweet with Elsa from Frozen was hilarious! I agree, we should all let go of having total control of our classroom! Great post!

  2. Hey Rachel,

    Great blog! I think you covered the margins in a really great way that makes it clear with no confusion. It seems like you really understand the material and what it means to go to the margins. I was just wondering if you found any videos of examples of teachers teaching in the margins so we can get a better idea? I loved how at the end you made the comparison to the fireman walking the line in the wild fire. It really is important that we as teachers step out of our comfort zone.

  3. Hey Steven,
    Thanks for your thoughts and feedback!! That is really great question and as I’ve been reading other blogs I have been wondering the same thing. For now, I think that I would have a structure to each class, but plan for activities and opportunities for kids to explore their curiosity- things like inquiry-based activities like POGILS, CERs, brain buster games and discussions, journaling about science topics, etc. I don’t think every single class will have moments that we will go to the margins, but I think it would be important to plan the class to have wiggle room for a discussion or educational conversation that diverges from the center of the classroom. Aside from that, I think that I would do my best for each class to be student-centered, where students are free to ask questions and ask for help, work together cooperatively, and discuss, where as a teacher I could function more as a facilitator to their learning. I would limit my time spent lecturing and questioning and have students practice asking questions themselves. Thanks for the awesome questions, they made me think!

  4. Hey Michael,
    Thanks for your comments and the great feedback, I appreciate it! I think I’m going to continue to use a similar format for my blogs going forward- using color blocks, headings, and media to break up the bulleted text seems to work well so far. Thanks for catching that grammatical error, too!

  5. Hey Rachel!
    I love how you added the tweet with the let it go gif. Thought that was funny. I see how it relates to marginal teaching as well. It’s important for us as educators to be comfortable with going out of the boundary of what we feel is the normal style of teaching. Allowing for students to express their personal interests and be themselves is crucial for their educational development. I think that your post was well-rounded and I could tell you put a lot of effort into it. I thought it was nice that you talked about the topic of control in the classroom and with marginal teaching, this is a very important topic. My question for you is how will you as a teacher allow for students to explore their curiosity but keep them on track? In essence, how will you provide structure without creating a sense of domination or control over their learning process?

  6. Hey Rachel!
    First of all: your blog looks incredible from a design standpoint. I think that having cohesive and engaging materials is so important, so it’s great to see these high-quality blogs. Beyond surface-level design, I think you do a great job of walking the reader through what it means to teach in the margins. The reassurance and “call to action” of “you can go to the margins too!” is such a great idea to drive all of your points home one last time. Do you plan on continuing this format through the subsequent blogs? There are a few minor points of grammar — namely: “Here’s my top suggestions” but that gets swept aside by the insight you provide. Overall: amazing. Keep it up!

  7. Hey Luke!
    Thanks so much for your comment! I agree, realistically, not everything can be done in the margins, however, it’s important to know what they are and when they can be explored. To answer your question, I think that “teachable moments” might resemble the margins because they can be initially unplanned or go off topic from the intended curriculum, however the teacher still has control. I feel like it’s easier for teachers to stay in their comfort zones and go off on a tangent they know a lot about, when going in the margins often means not knowing the “right” answers or responses to students’ questions or thoughts. This level of uncertainty can be scary and something I don’t know how to navigate quite yet, but is something I’m interested to know more about and lean into!

  8. Hey Rachel!
    Thanks for writing this awesome blog! I thought it was organized so well and had some great resources. I really appreciated that you defined what the center of the classroom is and how there is a time and place for it. I think sometimes we come under the misconception that everything has to be done in the margins, when in reality, that isn’t always possible. I also liked your point about facilitating versus dominating a classroom, and how we can go in the margins through being guides to our students. I also thought it was so important that you distinguished between teachable moments and the margins because they are definitely not the same, yet often are seen as such. Why do you think so many teachers think that when they digress into a “teachable moment” where they turn all attention onto them, that they are actually engaging and pushing the students into the margins?

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