08 August 2012

On the fate of educational ideas

Two things. First, I promised a friend that I would put something down about the Threshold Concepts Conference in Dublin, from about a month ago; I've been remiss in not getting round to it.

What's prodded me to address it is the second thing; I've started (with another friend and colleague, P.) on a book--a sort of de-bunking book about teaching in post-compulsory education. It's not the best way to start such an enterprise, but I decided to begin at the beginning, in order to get the tone right. The draft will doubtless be amended many times. In the preface I wrote (forgive the lengthy quote):
Forget the silly and usually distorted and diluted nostrums which go by the labels of “inclusivity”, “differentiation”, “learning styles”, “assessment for learning”, and “reflective practice”… and the rest. They are too superficial to account for the complexity and richness of learning conversations.

They are however the current legacy of very well-meaning attempts to improve teaching, in most cases. (The exceptions concern some of the more egregious efforts of some learning-styles charlatans.) What has sadly happened, as Dylan Wiliam of “assessment for learning” fame has recently noted, is that they have been only half-understood, passed on through a process of Chinese whispers, and appropriated by managers—themselves under pressure to “raise standards”—until they are unrecognisable for what they originally were. They have been reduced to their proxies [...] in the form of whatever can be counted, and as always that process has lost sight of the wood for the trees. In many cases, by misdirecting teachers’ attention to the supposed signs rather than the real substance of an idea, they have become actively counter-productive and undermined efforts to develop a more sensitive and effective service.

And it should be said that the ideas in this book may well be headed for the same fate—they are not immune. Educational ideas have a limited shelf-life, and they may become actively toxic as they get to the end of it. That is not because the ideas were no good in the first place, rather it is because the environment has changed; as Heraclitus said, you can’t step into the same river twice. Each time needs its own prophets, and its own curriculum theorists, and pedagogues, and assessment gurus, all of whom eventually become out of date.
So it occurs to me that I should adopt the same stance in relation to threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. The ideas are about ten years old by now--possibly still not common knowledge, but the conference attendance was good (particularly given the general and Irish economic conditions: 280 delegates from 138 institutions, 16 countries and 4 continents) and generally enthusiastic. It has to be said that the conference was primarily the annual gathering of the National Academy for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning, which was hosting the TC conference as its theme--so it is possible that some of those attending from Ireland came primarily for that. And a decade is long enough to speculate about possible emergent trends. But of course I didn't get to attend all the parallel sessions, so these remarks are sweeping generalisations, as ever, another participant might feel she was at quite a different event.

The ideas have not been taken up by the educational establishment to the extent that they have become liable to the processes of distortion and dilution noted above. Partly this may be because they originate in the HE sector, which is not as regimented as compulsory education, and partly perhaps because as far as I can see, they don't serve anyone's vested interests (indeed, as we argued in our short paper at the conference, they may even be subversive).

The last conference I attended on TCs was the second one, four years ago--I wrote about it here, and I've been interested to re-read those remarks; they pointed to a degree of consolidation in the TC community, and a greater pre-occupation with liminality. That trend seems to have continued--although perhaps the fact that Ray Land's opening keynote in Dublin was on liminal spaces may have focused attention on it, and indeed Patrick Carmichael's closing keynote emphasised the learning journey, using Pilgrim's Progress as a trope. It may also have been because our contribution to a parallel session was also about liminality that it appeared to me to be a stronger theme than the idea of threshold concepts themselves.

Carmichael was also thinking about the ways in which TCs were being referred to at the conference, as:
  • analytical category
  • aspect of a model of learning
  • point of departure or point of focus
  • pedagogical strategy
  • boundary making/crossing object
  • materialising practice
  • reflexive discourse
(He expands on the list 6m 05 into the lecture.) Was this versatility an indication of the strength or the weakness of the idea? Can this jack of all trades of an idea really offer anything distinctive? There seemed to be a feeling that TCs themselves were coming to be regarded as subordinate to the liminal state--that was the distinctive characteristic of meaningful learning and change, and perhaps a TC was just one of several portals into it. Rather than emphasising the "portal" quality of TCs, "stuckness" was the defining characteristic.

I wonder whether that change of emphasis might possibly be attributable to a certain sense of disappointment with the "productivity" of the TC idea. Four years ago, I had a sense of being on the threshold (of course!) of a breakthrough in curriculum development--TCs could do justice to both the epistemological (content) and the ontological (process and psychological) issues. If only we could unearth the TCs within a discipline, they would provide the scaffolding on which the rest of the curriculum could be built. They would be the way-points on the learning journey to which Carmichael referred. I get the feeling that perhaps the promise has not been fulfilled, and even that there may be a little cognitive dissonance around, as attention is displaced to liminality; it preserves the overall framework, but plays down the original idea. It will be apparent that I am being very tentative here.

In Dublin I was struck by the relative absence of reports of empirical research on what count as threshold concepts in different disciplines, and the impact of building curricula around them, but that is not surprising (and it's hard to tell from the abstracts). There seemed to be more of that at Kingston--and as any visitor to Mick Flanagan's superb bibliographic site can see, there is no shortage of papers.

In Sydney, David Perkins introduced three ways in which TCs might serve, as object (goes beyond his "inert knowledge", but the term gives something of the idea), as instrument (or analytic tool) or as action (or frame of reference, or lens), and unpicked the differences and uses of each. What I would like to think we saw in Dublin was a move from seeing TCs as knowledge objects, to their characteristics as instruments.

There was a smattering of critical papers, examining the falsifiability of the idea, for example, or its potentially uneasy relationship with other theories, which confirm that it is entering the usual academic debate, and testify to its maturity. However, those I attended which looked at it in relation to other tools, such as the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky) or developmental stages in the Perry or Piaget traditions emphasised compatibility and complementarity rather than dispute.

At least they have been spared being taken up by Ofsted; "for a lesson to be rated 'outstanding' it must contain at least three threshold concepts..." as P. caricatured it yesterday.

This post was my evaluation of our paper.

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