Teaching in the Margins

Gravel road on the side of a cornfield Image - Stock by Pixlr

What does “teaching in the margins” mean?

The margins are places where learning and discovery take place, outside of the control of the instructor.

Traditionally in a classroom, a teacher has lesson plans that outline exactly what will be taught, with the explicit goal of teaching every student a specific concept. The teacher knows BEFORE class what the students will (hopefully) learn. And the goal is for every student to learn the same thing. All the control is in the hands of the teacher. This is only natural. Because of state standards, state funding, and standardized tests, teachers must get through all the pre-determined course material. Having total control is the only way a teacher can ensure every topic is covered by the end of the year (or by the standardized test). This sort of teaching is known as being in the “center” of the classroom. It is compared to a monoculture field, with no diversity and total control.

However, the margins are place where the teacher relinquishes control, and gives freedom to the students to learn and discover. In the margins, the teacher has no idea what the students will learn. There is diversity of thought, and students take risks. Each student’s learning journey will be unique in the margins, instead of every student learning the same thing. In this way, we see the margins as a “place” for learning, not a process or technique. The margins are compared to the transition zones in nature, places outside of human control, which are volatile and unpredictable. They are diverse places, which gives them autonomy and longevity.

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“Teaching in the margins” means being unafraid of this unfamiliar territory. It means embracing student curiosity, and being willing to go off the lesson plan to pursue students’ questions and natural inquisitiveness. However, teachers should not only be unafraid to embrace the margins when they do arise, but teach in way to encourage their development. When teachers are in the following their lesson plans, in the “center” of their classroom, the lessons should be designed to foster student wonder. This way, the students will be encourages to bring the teacher out of the center and into the margins. If the teacher is unafraid to relinquish control and pursue this learning journey, both the students and the teacher will be pleased by the results.

What’s the difference between being in the margins and “teachable” moments?

Being in the margins are not just “teachable” moments. These are times when a teacher briefly goes off the lesson plan to teach a concept that has somehow unexpectantly applied to the class. A teachable moment is very brief. After all, it is just a moment. The teacher’s goal is to return to the main lesson as quickly as possible. It is not a “place” of learning, but more like a pitstop. Also, the teacher still controls what the students will learn. They know beforehand the point they’re trying to make.

Instead, the margins are a place where the teacher relinquishes control. It is a “place” of learning, a place where the teacher should be comfortable staying for an undetermined amount of time. They aren’t trying to return to their lesson plan as fast as possible. They realize that more learning can happen in this place of discovery than any lecture. Also, the teacher has no clue what the students will learn from being in the margins. Each student is free to take their learning where ever they decide. It is unexpected and exciting.

Leap of Faith 2.0

How do you go to the margins in a classroom?

Going to the margins is a critical part of fostering student learning, and also being an exemplary science teacher. But how does one practically reach this place in a classroom? A few ideas:

  • Make your lessons interesting, personal, and relevant

This is a crucial step to reaching the margins in a classroom. You won’t start out your lesson in the margins, you will most likely start in the “center.” This is where you will be sticking to your lesson plans, more or less. When you design your lessons, make sure they make students think. This will give you a greater chance of sparking a students’ curiosity, and going to the margins. This is done by making your lessons interesting, personal, and relevant. Students must be able to connect everyday experiences to the content. These types of lessons will be more likely to spark student engagement.

  • Don’t be afraid to go off the script

Lessons plans are good, you just shouldn’t be afraid to go off of them. The purpose of lessons are for learning, and oftentimes the best place to learn is in the margins. In a way, the purpose of a lesson is to spark student conversation, so don’t shy away from it! You should be excited when your students ask questions that pull you away from the lesson, following student interest fosters learning. Any place the discussion takes the class is good regardless if the activities are outside syllabus.

  • Ask opinions of scientific issues

Asking questions is another way to bring your classroom into the margins. Oftentimes, the teacher simply discusses the material without ever asking the class their thoughts or opinions. This can be a great way to start a conversation with the class.

  • Discuss current events

Discussing current events is a great way to make your class relevant to the lives of students. If you are able to relate what you do in class to thing happening currently in the world, the students will be much more engaged when they interact with the material. This also shows them that science is relevant, and not something that has no meaning in their lives.   


  1. Hey Rachel!
    Thanks for the comments! Regarding your question, unfortunately I have not had a lot of experiences as a student where I’ve gone into the margins in a class. However, there have been a few times where a teacher has facilitated a discussion that led into the “margins.” In high school, my English teacher often let our class conversations go wherever they took us. This was especially true during Socratic seminars, when questions would be posed based on one of the books we were reading. In this format, the teacher had little control and little input, and the students had control of where the discussion was going. Unfortunately, going into the margins was less common in my science classes, probably because the nature of the class was more content and curriculum bases. However, I look forward to going into the margins with my future science classes!

  2. Hey Nathan!
    I really liked your comparison between teachable moments and the margins, especially how you described teachable moments as a “pitstop,” where the teacher is still in control and has an intended goal of the conversation. You brought up a great point in that to go to the margins, teachers need to design lesson plans that are geared towards students’ interests in the first place, I hadn’t thought of that before! I thought your blog was well-written, applicable, and thought-provoking! Have you had any experiences as a student where you’ve gone into the margins in a class? If so, what was it like?

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