Threshold Concepts; what we don't yet know
The idea of threshold concepts (TCs) is not a formal theory; it is more of a device to help us think about how learning works. So TCs don't “exist” out there. And so when we claim that they have certain attributes, such as being irreversible, we are making no greater claim than that they appear to do so, and perhaps that we are incorporating this attribute into a definition, so that we can use terms more precisely. There is no particular reason why TCs should be irreversible, and indeed we are not sure whether they “really” are...
So we don't know whether every subject area or discipline has threshold concepts.
We don't know just how much they are features of the body of knowledge itself, or of the learner who is studying it. Clearly they are much more firmly grounded in the object of study than, for example, “learning styles” which are claimed to be properties of the student; but the troublesomeness of knowledge may well be greater for some students than for others.
We don't know whether they are always “desirable” or not. The fact that something functions as a threshold concept, that is helps organise existing knowledge, that it illuminates the path ahead, and so on does not mean that it is “true”. It may well merely be useful. For years, mythology has served as a set of threshold concepts (cf. Armstrong, 2006); myths have explained the place of people in the universe, the origins of all things, what is required and what forbidden, clean and unclean, who can marry whom, and when crops should be planted... For better or for worse, of course, they have no reasonable basis for purporting to explain all this.
So the fact that something is a threshold concept does not make it true. Still less does it make it good; it may be pernicious and/or paranoid. Indeed, one might well argue that all successful evil ideologies have to have at their heart some threshold concepts which enshrine the transformative ideas which enable them to gain converts.
Nor are threshold concepts necessarily powerful. Indeed, we have seen that even when exposed to them, some students do not “get” them. We have seen that the knowledge they embody can be troublesome and easily resisted. And even the student crossing the threshold may well persist in a state of liminality.
There are many more questions than answers, and that’s what makes it all fun!
- An introductory paper from one angle
- An introductory paper coming from a different angle
- What we don't yet know about threshold concepts
- What is not a threshold concept
- Video material on threshold concepts
And one which relates the ideas to other aspects of learning and teaching
(read after the further reading above)
- Meyer and Land on Adam and Eve
- Is "Health and Safety" a threshold concept? (Discussion paper)
- The paper based on the Study Days presented at the international conference on Threshold Concepts held in Kingston Ontario 18-20 June 08. (Acrobat file)
- A March 2009 paper introducing the expanded idea of whether there may be threshold topics in the psycho-motor and affective domains as well, with links to slides.
- A further introductory session on video, including the plenary discussion of an exercise on identifying TCs. (April 2010)
- A presentation exploring TCs in relation to professional ways of thinking and practising (November 2011)
- A presentation and paper exploring how the structure and culture of educational institutions defend against liminality and hence precule learning through TCs: Atherton, Hadfield and Wolstencroft (June 2012)
- Keynotes from the Third Biennial Symposium on Threshold Concepts in July 2010 (these do assume prior understanding of the principles, and each video is almost an hour)
- David Perkins on Threshold Experience. Some thoughts arising on my blog.
- Ray Land on Interdisciplinarity.
- Erik Meyer and Mick Flanagan on Episteme.
- Mick Flanagan's Introduction and Bibliography of Threshold Concepts.