Moving into the Margins


Think back to the most memorable moments of school. What about this memory is different from the everyday class period? Your teacher probably took you into the margins, and you should work to take your students there too.

“Why are we even learning this?” If I had a nickel for every time I heard this. Heck, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve said this.

As much as educators might hate to hear this question, this might be the most important one to consider. Why am I teaching my students this? If they aren’t going to go into science, there really is a good chance they won’t ever have to balance an equation or explain the parts of the cell. Yeah, this information might come in handy when battling out at your local trivia night contest, but that just isn’t enough.

As teachers, it is our job to help our students see that the material they learn reaches far beyond the simple facts of the matter. Beyond the end of the chapter test, beyond the four walls of their classroom, and beyond the subject itself. This isn’t an easy task, and it isn’t one that can be done by relying on traditional teaching techniques.

We must help our students reach beyond the monoculture, the center of a subject, and move into the margins, but what are the margins?

What Margins Are:

  • Unexpected Meaningful Moments
  • An exciting place to construct knowledge
  • Stresses the unknown, puzzling, debatable
  • A place where you truly converse: dwell with ideas, give and take, share interests and experiences, connect to other areas
  • Newness is found, created, and evolved
  • Explores the possibilities
  • Polyculture

What Margins Are Not:

  • Orderly and easily predictable
  • A monoculture of orderly business
  • Teachable Moments: framed, usually unplanned, but centered around the lesson
  • Correct answers only
  • Homogenous thoughts, expressions, ideas
  • Memorizable facts
  • Testing strategies
  • Lectures
  • Readings from a textbook
  • Step by step experiment

So how do I help my students move to the margins?

First, it is important to note that you cannot have moments in the margins without first having a center. There is no place between forest and cornfield without the orderly cornfield being placed first. Students need a foundation before we may ask them to wonder and go beyond the facts in their textbook.

Sometimes moving to the margins happens organically. Your student asks a question, maybe it is about something that popped in their head during a reading. Maybe it is something that intrigued them on their walk to the bus, or possibly it is some random object you have in your classroom that piques their interest. When your students ask, do not turn them away, instead lean in. Foster their interest, and explore the possibilities. Ask them to share what they think and continue to ask questions to help them form their own connections.

Other times moving to the margins can be more planned. Instead of working on an ‘experiment’ that is structured with a worksheet with fill-in-the-blanks and has every student doing the same thing and only searching for the answer, provide your students with a question, a box of items, or simply their own thoughts or questions about the topics at hand. From this, they work together to study, question, design, create, and work with what interests them. This leads the students into the margins where they learn to solve problems or find resolutions in different ways and to make connections and assumptions beyond what is simply given to them. Give your students the freedom to be creative.

Continue Learning:


  1. Hey Melinda! You did a great job making your blog captivating, I love how you use humor in your writing! It really keeps the reader engaged. You explained the process of moving into the margins very well, it is an authentic process but I feel your tips would help move a class into that direction! I love the emphasis on allowing students to explore their own ideas. Do you have any ideas of how to build off students’ interest into an assignment?

    • I think the best place to start working on building off students’ interest is by investing good time into getting to know them at the beginning of the year. If I know that I have students that really enjoy farming (I come from a farming community) I will connect my lessons with what is being done in the field of science I am teaching to the farming industry. I think the best thing about science, is that it is used in all of our everyday activities and interests.

  2. Melinda,
    This post was really insightful, I enjoyed it a lot. My favorite part of the post was definitely the bulleted list on what margins are NOT. I think it could be really easy to assume that some of these are equivalent to going to the margins so it is really useful to explain that they actually are not. I also enjoyed your outside resource edutopica, I thought it was a very relevant link to include here. One question that I have for you regarding your post is about planning activites in the margins. How do you ensure you keep all six of the qualities of margins intact when you put students there on purpose? Is this really the margins? Will you be able to foster risk taking in these situations, and how would you go about that?

    • I think you absolutely can keep all the qualities when you design a purposeful trip into the margins! But it definitely takes some deep thought and working in real-time with your students, and adapting off of what they do in the experience you build them. If I plan a trip out to a field with my students to take observations to then build an experiment over something that interests them, but I see them struggling to move into the margins in regards to having true conversation, I might plant some questions to get them thinking and to help them move in the direction of the margins.

  3. Hi Melinda! Wow was a great insight on how you interpreted margins from class and your own research. I especially liked how you included the different ways you are able to implement creativity and margins in your own classroom one day. With labs, having them be more exploratory and less as a “check list” format is a great idea! I also plan to adapt my labs to be presented in this way. I was wondering your thoughts on how you will facilitate these labs if students don’t have a clear set of instructions to go off of? Do you wish that your own teachers had structured labs in this way for you?

    • I absolutely wish my teachers had structured more labs this way. Sometimes a structured lab is important for understanding key concepts, but at other times, it is more about the experience of working with the concepts and building off them. I plan to make my experiements become less and less structured as the year goes on. Perhaps I give my students a goal. Fo example I want them to make 5 distinct layers of colored liquid that are all separate in a tube. I would supply them with the necessary items and an overall goal, but they may move from there. In this way, there are no set instructions, no clear concise way to work, but the students still have something to be working toward. I think this can help ease the transition away from the classic follow directions and answer the questions ‘right’ format of many classes.

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