21 June 2008

On threshold concepts

I am writing this in Kingston, Ontario, on the evening after the conclusion of a very successful symposium on threshold concepts (for which I can claim no credit at all; I was merely a participant, but thanks are due in particular to Caroline Baillie and her team at Queen's University for a great event).

As academic conferences go, this was a small event, with about 90 participants from a range of countries, institutions and disciplines. Threshold Concepts (TCs) is/are still something of a niche market, but attracting more attention all the time. What are they? See here for my introductory take and useful links at the bottom of the page.

There were many fascinating papers, but here is not the place to attempt a report; if and when that becomes available, I will post the link. But, reflecting more broadly:

Why are TCs gaining attention and popularity? Strangely, the view was expressed several times that although theoretically elegant and practically very useful, their virtue (in the classical sense--one of the sessions I attended this morning was by a classicist) resides in what they represent to academics. This was articulated particularly convincingly by Mick Flanagan of UCL, who is an electrical engineer; and there were many engineers present, which is not usual for a teaching and learning focused event. Mick explained how the pedagogy of engineering has almost stalled over the past decades, and (I exaggerate his more nuanced account) how academics--particularly by implication hard-nosed practical engineers--resent educational/faculty developers descending on the them and telling them how to do their jobs. Proponents of threshold concepts do not come across in that patronising way. They acknowledge subject or disciplinary expertise, and simply want to encourage and support teachers in those disciplines to discover the threshold concepts in the discipline and to find ways teaching and assessing them. The model necessarily implies partnership, acknowledging the precedence of subject expertise.

But! Critical to the emerging corpus of theory and indeed speculation about threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge is the notion of "liminality". What's that? Good question.
  • Formally, it derives from the work of anthropologist Victor Turner (1967; The Ritual Process sorry I can't reference the publisher, but I am away from base...) He coined it--roughly--to describe the transitional position of participants in rites of passage and initiations, when they are moving between their previous status and their new one, venturing tentatively into the unknown. It's a good framework.

  • Practically, it is gloriously fuzzy and confused... How do I know? Because of the very unusual concluding plenary. (Actually, it is unusual now, but it was more familiar in the '70s. But that is another story.) We met in an almost circular room with bays around it each containing a table and chairs. Each table had on it several lumps of plasticine (play-dough) and some plastic utensils, and the ad hoc group which gathered around each table was instructed to use those to model, literally, their conception(s) of liminality. The sharing process after that was well done but does not matter for present purposes. I did lots of this kind of stuff thirty years ago, and approached the exercise with resentment, and did not contribute much although I learned a lot from watching and listening; so my apologies to the rest of the group.

  • The picture/image/impression/... which emerged was unmanageably rich. Get that word right; it's not "unimaginable"--far from it--but "unmanageable". And probably irreducible.
But some common features were (and here I anticipate Caroline's more detailed account based on photos and reporting back);
  • Unpredictability
  • Sensations of confusion and disorientation---
  • ---which cannot be short-cut
All of which is fascinating to me, because it has been my stock in trade for decades. But I had thought it was confined to distinctively "difficult" areas of learning. Here, there were engineers and economists (I suspect the best represented disciplinary groups) and classicists and historians and... all admitting to the same phenomenon in their students' experience.

What is the main message here? (I was tempted to say "threshold concept", but I forebore. There is a cloud on the horizon the size of someone's hand. What counts as a threshold concept? There were some papers which took a very tight view, demanding that all the published criteria be satisfied, and some which seems to accept that anything students find difficult is a TC; articulating the boundaries may be the next task for the next symposium in Sydney 2010)

The main message, I submit, is to question the view of (pardon the cliche) the "learning journey" implicit in the discourse of instructional technology.

Enough! Scripsi totum da mihi potum.

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