Teaching in the “Margins”: You Can’t Plan to be Spontaneous!

Does this student look engaged to you??

If you said “no way!” you’re correct! This student is bored of being in the center all the time. Take your students to the margins!

First, I’ll explain what the “margins” is in real life. If you look around, you can see “margins” happening everywhere: at the edges of ecosystems and farm fields, in the ditch along the road. You see an explosion of diverse life.

Margins in Nature

  • Surround a “center.” A center is a controlled monoculture. The center in the picture above would be the farm field. Attention is directed at the center most of the time.
  • A diverse polyculture. The populations in the margins are diverse, there are many different species that dwell here.
  • Occurred by chance. The margins were not purposefully created by anyone, they were left to their own devices and created themselves.
  • Life here is messy and might not look appealing. Anything created in the margins spontaneously might not look perfect and pruned like the center. That doesn’t mean that it lacks beauty. Life in the margins is rich and diverse.

Margins in the Classroom

  • Student driven. Students are in control of their learning in the margins. Everything is student-led and student initiated. I provided a video down below about student-centered learning.
  • Inquiry-based. On a similar note, learning in the margins is facilitated by a student’s curiosity. This means that students use scientific inquiry to investigate an interest or explore something new.
  • Spontaneous. You cannot plan for the margins to happen! Students will lead you to the margins as long as you allow them to. This might feel chaotic, but when you let students investigate something they’re truly passionate about, they will take the lead.
  • Areas of risk and chance. Since the margins are not part of a curriculum or lesson plan, there is a chance that the class might get behind on something. However, what students learn from each other in the margins is just as, if not more, valuable than what you have to teach them. Embrace this risk!
  • Part of exemplary science teaching. A final point, exemplary teachers will go to the margins to make their classroom something special.

Margins versus Teachable Moment

A teachable moment is not the same as going to the margins. It’s a step above controlled hands-on lab activities, but it’s not the margins. A teachable moment is still part of the center because it is lead by the teacher and can be quickly abandoned after a point is made. It doesn’t provide opportunity for adventure like the margins does.

Why don’t teachers go to the margins?

Letting go of control over a classroom isn’t something that feels easy to most teachers. It feels out of hand, chaotic, and there may be some panic toward this idea. But as we have discussed, the class is not completely out of control. The students are in control of their learning.

Some ways you can go to the margins in your classroom

  1. Give opportunity for creative outlets. Give students a choice in what they learn by allowing them to pick what they’d like to research for a project. Then encourage them to show what they’ve learned in any way that they want – this could be in the form of an art piece, a song or poem, a video, or just a simple essay. By giving the students this creative freedom, you are encouraging them to go to the margins.
  2. Encourage collaborative learning. It’s like they always say, teamwork makes the dream work! Make sure that this is actually collaborative learning, where all team members contribute to the project and depend on each other to complete it.
  3. Allow students to have control over the classroom. Let students share their own experiences and knowledge. You could do this by having students present something that they are passionate about.

In Conclusion…

Going to the margins will keep students engaged in class and enrich the “center” of the classroom. The margins keep your class lively and diverse. They can’t be forced or planned, so let your students lead you as they investigate their interests. Don’t let your classroom be a monoculture!

For more cool posts, follow my twitter, @legabric !


  1. Hey Lydia, I loved your post. The graphics and bulleted points made it easy to understand. I like how you keep the engagement theme throughout the entire post. How do think we can teach the necessary “center” while still being engaging to our students?

  2. Hey Hannah, thanks for the comment. I think student leadership is a huge part of teaching in the margins, I think that video really sums up the idea. It’s important to allow students to take us to the margins.

  3. Hi Lydia! I loved your post. Your description of margins in nature and margins in the classroom flowed really well. I also liked how you mentioned reasons teachers might not want to go to the margins. What are some of your ideas about encouraging teachers to push through their discomfort around “losing control” of the class? Loved the post!

  4. Hi Lydia! I really enjoyed the video you included. It does a great job at explaining the importance of student-centered learning in an easy to understand way. You also did a great job of linking exemplary teaching to teaching in the margins!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.