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Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge A Transformative Approach to Learning

Ray Land, Strathclyde University Dundee University, Ped-R Event 20th April 2010


• First student: I understood it in class, it was when we went away and I just seemed to have completely forgotten everything that we did on it, and I think that was when I struggled because when we were sat in here, we’d obviously got help if we had questions but…..when it came to applying it….I understood the lectures and everything that we did on it but couldn’t actually apply it, I think that was the difficulty. from G. Cousin, Journal of Learning Development Feb 2010


• Well, from not knowing what it is to knowing what it is, that is the big step one. So that can be knowing how to apply the concepts that we use. • There are some things you learn, you suddenly think, wow, suddenly everything seems different…you now see the world quite differently.

from G. Cousin, Journal of Learning Development Feb 2010


‘Liminality’ Learning Thresholds involve liminality Meyer and Land have likened the crossing of the pedagogic threshold to a ‘rite of passage’ (drawing on the ethnographical studies of Gennep and Turner), in which a transitional or liminal space has to be traversed; “in short, there is no simple passage in learning from ‘easy’ to ‘difficult’; mastery of a threshold concept often involves messy journeys back, forth and across conceptual terrain. (Cousin)”.


Characteristics of a threshold concept • • • • • • •

integrative transformative irreversible bounded re-constitutive discursive troublesome


Troublesome Learning Thresholds are Troublesome: ‘Threshold concepts are likely to be troublesome for the student. Perkins has suggested that knowledge can be troublesome when it is alien, incoherent or counter−intuitive’.


Integrative Learning Thresholds are Integrative: ‘Threshold concepts, once learned, are likely to bring together different aspects of the subject that previously did not appear, to the student, to be related’


Bounded Learning Thresholds are bounded: A threshold concept will probably delineate a particular conceptual space, serving a specific and limited purpose.


Transformative Learning Thresholds are transformative: ‘Once understood, a threshold concept changes the way in which the student views the discipline’


Discursive Learning Thresholds are discursive: Meyer and Land suggest that the crossing of a threshold will incorporate an enhanced and extended use of language.


Irreversible Learning Thresholds are irreversible: Given their transformative potential, a threshold concept is also likely to be irreversible, i.e. it is difficult to unlearn.


Reconstitutive Learning Thresholds are reconstitutive: ‘Understanding a threshold concept may entail a shift in learner subjectivity, which is implied through the transformative and discursive aspects already noted. Such reconstitution is, perhaps, more likely to be recognised initially by others, and also to take place over time’ (Smith)


Venturing into strange places The student is perforce required to venture into new places, strange places, anxiety-provoking places . This is part of the point of higher education. If there was no anxiety, it is difficult to believe that we could be in the presence of a higher education. (Barnett 2007: 147)


Literacy How should we describe early literacy? At the start of the study it was suggested, and then agreed, that we take early literacy to be about taking meaning from language and making meaning with language, for different purposes, with language to include sounds, signs, gestures, body language, marks and pictures, as well as words.


More about early literacy How do the children you work with use language to: •describe and make sense of the world •remember experiences •share and reflect on experiences and feelings •shape what happens, what others do •empathise with others' feelings and perspective •anticipate and imagine what could be •enjoy playing with sounds and words for their own sake? •http://vimeo.com/28429721


Learning Threshold Concepts