Imagine yourself as a sailor upon a ship venturing out over the sea. You and your fellow crewmates lay about lazily as the sun beats down. A mild breeze slowly pushes the ship along while the water barely becomes disturbed. Suddenly a storm of curiosity approaches sending up waves of questions and inquiry. The crew jumps to their positions stabilizing the ship as it gets pulled in every which way. Using their knowledge and experiences to help the ship make it through the storm.
We can look at the classroom in this way. The sea represents the material and how it is presented to the class. When a teacher teaches towards the “center”, lecturing, doing assignments out of the book, providing examples, they aren’t really engaging with the students. This is the class lazily being pushed along by the wind. Whereas in the “margins” students have the opportunity to be more engaged. Their classroom is pushed along by their understandings and inquiry to get through the material. Like in a storm where the sailors participate in order to get through unscathed.
How to Truly Be in the Margins
So from our metaphor one may think that to be in the margins means to bring high energy and chaos to the classroom to bring into focus attention of the students into participation. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
The motion of the sea in our example is simply representative of each opportunity that is brought to the students. With doing things by the book and lecturing there’s not much thinking going on in students’ heads as they simply try to memorize what’s being thrown at them to regurgitate it at a later date. Being in the margins gives students a diverse environment from which opportunities present themselves because that’s what it is, flooding the environment with all kinds of stimuli that get the students thinking and engaged.
Here we can see an example of teaching within the margin that really brings out inquiry in students.
In this video we can see how the students come up with their own devices to test which pods are eggs and and which are seeds. They’re given multiple stimuli to interact with such as the water testing if the pods sink or float, testing with dirt to see which will grow, or testing different ingredients to create the ideal paint.
I hear it, I forget; I see it, I remember; I do it, I understand (Chinese Proverb)
Isn’t teaching in the moments just a collection of teachable moments?
No, simply because the margin defines our environment for learning. In the metaphor say the teacher, represented by the captain, leads the crew by calling out orders to make sure the ship still stays on course, guiding it through the rough waters. Suddenly they see a large wave about to collide with the ship. Seeing it as a teachable moment they yell to the first mate identifying the issue then retreat to their cabin and the crew come up with their own methods for avoiding the wave. The captain hasn’t abandoned the crew but has stepped back to see them demonstrate their own knowledge. They then quickly come back out, assess the aftereffects, and give out more advice.
To realize if we are in the margins we have to look at the environment to see if:
- The learning experience is enrichened by the lesson
- New opportunities for learning present themselves through the lesson
- Students are being challenged by needing to immerse themselves to understand the lesson
- The experience may be seen as trivial at first, but reveals its beauty when in practice for new understanding
- Opportunities for risk and chance manifest themselves to benefit the learner from an unpredictable environment.
- It creates a relatable experience to the student where change, diversity, and difference can be explored.
A Future Classroom
As an up and coming life sciences/chemistry teacher I’ve got to start looking ahead at how I can steer my class through the margins. Possibilities are:
- Taking students outside to document the local fauna and flora such as the insects and flowers that inhabit the area.
- Designing labs that require students in groups to collectively brainstorm in how to reach the conclusion.
- Doing titration experiments to display the relationship between acids and bases.
- Perhaps studying the effects of algae on a local pond and determining whether it is beneficial to the ecosystem or harmful. Then maybe how to remove it if harmful.
The point to all of these examples is getting the students out of their regular lecture routines and into environments where they can be challenged and demonstrate their knowledge and ability to learn. It’s our duty as teachers to bring out the best in our students. Meaning it is your responsibility to teach in the margins. Remember to always be looking for the next storm.