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.


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