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.


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