Going to the Margins

Teaching in the Margins

Teaching in the margins can be a very challenging concept. Margins are defined as spaces between centers where the mixture of two physical places, ideological concepts, or something else intertwine to create something unique and new. In education they are seen as areas of risk taking, where the lesson diverges from the familiar and homogeneous center of the classroom. The margins instead move the classroom into a new place that is less well-defined and more self guided than is traditional. According to Ann Haley-Oliphant’s article there are six criteria for what defines a margin:

  1. They must enrich the center areas to which they connect
  2. They must provide a new variety that is not otherwise seen
  3. They must be rich in activity
  4. They must be traditionally and often overlooked
  5. They must be areas of risk taking
  6. They must entertain the ideas of diversity and radical change

While these six criteria could be applied to any type of margin, for this post we will focus on their importance to margins in science education. In science education, allowing students to go to the margins to investigate new ideas and questions is especially crucial. More than anything else in the science classroom, educators want to foster a sense of wonder and curiosity in students. The margins are an excellent place to do this because of how engaging they tend to be. The center of the classroom where everyone completes the same tasks in the same way creates background knowledge in science students but if they do not go out and seek radical change and risk in the margins their appreciation for the science topics may not reach their full potential. 

A tide pool is a great example of a margin in nature.

“Teachable Moments”

It is important to distinguish between a teachable moment and really going to the margins in the classroom. Teachable moments occur when students ask an important question or make some sort of mistake that the teacher can then apply to the entire classroom. The entire classroom learns something as a result of this moment, but most of the criteria that truly define a margin are not met. They are defined this way because:

  1. The environment remains homogeneous
  2. Risks are not taken
  3. Radical change is not necessarily introduced to the classroom

This is not the case when a teacher really makes it to the margins. The margins are a far more in depth and intensive learning experience than any old teachable moment.

How I Plan on Using the Margins

In my own classroom, I will do my best to optimize the use of going to the margins and teaching there whenever I can. That being said, it will be crucial to balance the center of the classroom and the margins. The center will have to be used to establish background knowledge and ensure that all content standards are met and assessed. It is based on this center that I want my experiences in the margins to come from. I hope that students will bring their questions regarding the background knowledge to class and allow us to explore them in depth in the margins by creating unique experiences around them. Here are some specific goals I have for encouraging the margins in my class:

  1. Students feel comfortable raising questions
  2. People spontansously ask questions and allow for some diversions from the original plan
  3. My classroom appears engaging to allow for more questions
  4. This comes in many forms, ie classroom posters and animals
  5. Activities that may not be directly related to the standard but more towards sparking curiousity
Getting students to ask their own unique questions is crucial to get to the margins. Here is a graphic that will help to get students curious and invested.

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  1. Hi Max! I really enjoyed reading your post, it was very concise and easy to read. I liked how to explained what teaching in the margins meant. The video provided a good example of what teaching in the margins might look like. Do you have any more examples of how to foster going into the margins for your future classroom?

    • Hey Maya. I like your question about some specific examples that I may try and incorporate myself in the future. I think the most important thing is that I am open to many possibilities when it comes to opportunities to take learning to the margins. I think that going to the margins spontaneously is probably a more effective way of getting there than planning it out. That being said, I hope to encourage these spontaneous moments with curiosity driving activities such as those involving live animals, time outdoors in nature, and working with real world examples or issues that may spark students questioning.

  2. Hi Max, I enjoyed reading through your blog especially focusing on distinguishing the differences between being in the margins and having a teachable moment. Do you think there are times in which a teachable moment is presented and a teacher could take that moment and extend it into the margins?

    • Melinda,
      Yes! I definitely think the situation you outline here is possible. However I would say that this not always possible. It really depends on the moment. Some teachable moments are simply just that; they lack the potential to hit all six qualities of the margins effectively. When this is the case it is important that teacher’s simply use these moments as opportunities to assist and explain but not as moments where they completely change classroom structure and move away from the comfortable center. An example might be a simple mistake a lot of students have been making. This is a teachable moment. A moment to take to the margins might be a more complex mistake that on student made that they are immensely curious about why it is wrong.

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