Very tight boxes

Let’s suppose that it is possible to collectively agree a set of threshold concepts which define and bound a discipline. Is this a good thing?

If through an education we learn to think like a economist/philosopher/artist/etc – indeed we become a economist/philosopher/artist/etc – will this limit our perspective so that we can only think like a economist/philosopher/artist/etc. As such, will be deny ourselves the opportunity to make new connections between disciplines and in doing so create different ways of imagining the world? In essence, are we creating dogma?

Probably not. For example, the concept of evolution, which was developed in the natural sciences has at least as many applications in other disciplines. I don’t think that understanding it qualifies me as a natural scientist makes any more than it bars me from understanding the sociological concept of surplus value. I suspect that there a several threshold concepts that exist across or outside the taxonomy of disciplines that we have developed.

For example, in some of the workshops that I teach I use an exercise to demonstrate the nature of consent. I ask everyone to stand up. I ask everyone to sit down. I then ask them why they did as I asked (to date, no one has ever refused to stand up or sit down). When prompted, students will say ‘Because you told me to’ or ‘Because you are the teacher’ or ‘Because I didn’t want to offend you’. The point of the exercise is both to demonstrate how easy it can be to get people to do what you say (in the right circumstances), and that we should always reserve the right to question why someone is asking us to do something? It was a revelation to me when I realised this, and I think it bears all of the markings of a threshold concept, but I don’t think that it belongs to any subject area.

Perhaps part of the enthusiasm for threshold concepts is that it serves to reinforce the boundaries between disciplines and makes everyone feel that little bit more special about the choices they’ve made and who they are. For me, I think that the notion of threshold concepts have made a valuable contribution to the debate, but that the importance of marking ourselves out as one thing or another is questionable. As indeed is my commands to stand up. You can sit down now.


For example…

For me, one of the crucial tests for the veracity of threshold concepts as a theory is in defining some examples. In my cycle into work this morning I tried to do just that:

  • Evolution: the idea that genetic variation affects an individual’s  likelihood of reproduction, so that ‘positive’ inherited characteristics are likely to become more common
  • Surplus value: that profit within a capitalist economy is derived from the difference between the value of labour and the wages paid for it
  • Plate techtonics: that the structure of the earth’s crust is determined by the interaction of enormous plates that shift across the mantle

These would seem to address most of Meyer and Land’s criteria. They are transformative, they are irreversible and integrative. Or at least they are for me. What happens when somebody understands a threshold theory but doesn’t agree with it? Perhaps in some cases it is because if conflicts with a strong belief (in which case is that an example of dogma?). Also, do I need to be a biologist to be able to understand evolution, a sociologist to understand surplus value or a geologist to understand plate techtonics?

I don’t think so. But being a biologist means a lot more than understanding evolution. So what are the threshold concepts in education? At present I can only think of two:

1. What the learner does is more important than what the teacher does.

This probably sounds obvious, but in my experience it is the concept that new teachers struggle with the most. You tend to worry about what you are going to say, and how you are going to say it. A former colleague tells a story of someone who asked him how to cram new material into a lecture when the old material was still relevant. ‘Talk quicker’ said my colleague ‘at double the speed you’ll get through it in no time’. I think this a perfect example of the absurdity of focusing on teaching rather than learning.

2. Learning is constructed when ideas meet experience

You can’t just pour information from a teachers head to those of the students (the ‘Little Teapot’ model). Students need to actively engage in new ideas, so that they make sense of them for themselves.

I’m sure there are more. However, even if I were to define 10 or 2o threshold concepts in education, would other educationalists agree? Does it matter that the concepts that define how one biologist views the world are different from of a colleague? Perhaps I should ask.

03: Threshold concepts

The days are lengthening. The daffodils are peeking through the wet earth. Spring may not have sprung, but it’s not far away. With this seasonal threshold close by I thought this would be the month to tackle threshold concepts.

The term ‘Threshold concept’ was coined by Erik Meyer and Ray Land to describe a pedagogical philosophy that focuses on conceptual change. In this view, the purpose of education is not to fill students up with facts and figures but to facilitate paradigm shifts in the way in which they view the world.

Meyer and Land identified 8 typical characteristics of a threshold concept:

  • Transformative: changes how you see the world
  • Troublesome: may seem perverse or counter-intuitive
  • Irreversible: can’t be unlearned
  • Integrative: helps to make links between things
  • Bounded: are conceptually distinct
  • Discursive: change how you use language
  • Reconstitutive: encourages you to revisit past knowledge
  • Liminal: can leave you marooned in a state of partial understanding

This theory is, at its heart, discipline specific. Each discipline has its own threshold concepts which define it, and help to ensure that – for example – the chemist and the historian see the world from very different eyes.

The classic example of a threshold concept is drawn from economics: opportunity cost. Put simply, opportunity cost is ‘that which is foregone’ i.e. when you buy a chocolate bar you not only pay a financial cost but you also give up the opportunity to enjoy other things with that money. You could have bought a paper. You could have bought a bag of crisps. You could have bought another type of chocolate bar, but you didn’t so you lose the money and the pleasure that the paper/crisps/alternate chocolate bar would have brought. No use crying about it now (PS the crisps taste lovely thanks).

Opportunity cost doesn’t need to involve financial transaction. It could be the choice between a restorative walk in the woods, a run in the part or a box set marathon. It is a useful example of a threshold concept inasmuch as it is a thought that it difficult to unthink. Once you start seeing the world as place of opportunities taken and lost you weigh up your choices much more carefully. In that sense it is transformative, irreversible and integrative. But it is troublesome? I’m not so sure.

I can see why threshold concepts would be seized upon by a teacher wrestling with the tyranny of a crowded curriculum. It is a seductive idea. The devil – of course – is in the detail. What are the threshold concepts for each discipline? Who gets to define them? How are these thresholds crossed? More importantly, have I got enough change for crisps *and* chocolate? Answers on a postcard please.

In summary…

As a theory communities of practice (COP) helps support the idea that learning is a process rather than a product. If working effectively, a COP does not need a fixed curriculum nor a hierarchy of teacher or student. It requires people in a collective endeavour to share stories and try new things.

From my perspective, higher education does not seem the most easy place to introduce a COP. This is for two reasons: structure and individualism. In my experience higher education tends to be a tremendously structured environment. Courses have a defined curriculum which specifies learning outcomes, learning and teaching methods and assessment processes. These are introduced to ensure that students are offered a positive student experience and to safeguard the quality of awards. Educators would have to be tremendously confident about the merits of unstructured methodologies such as COP to strip away the scaffolding around their offers and, even if they were, it is by no means certain that students would be equally willing to take that risk.

Equally, the individual nature of higher education could work against the collective ethos required for a COP to flourish. I am assessed on my work. You are assessed on yours. The bonds between students may be great but the system in which they operate discourages the pursuit of common goals. However, these are as much practical concerns as they are theoretical ones. Possibly more so.

Perhaps, as the authors suggest, we should look outside education to see how COP can best work. Take the Games Company Valve for example, whose Handbook for New Employees was recently leaked. It describes a flat structure where individual employees have no fixed job title and who can pick and choose what project they work on (to emphasise that fact, all desks have wheels on them). Among other triumphs, Valve made the astonishingly wonderful games Portal & Portal 2, thereby proving that something is going right. It’s like having your cake and eating it. PS: the cake is a lie.