Liminality as Liability

(James Atherton, Peter Hadfield and Peter Wolstencroft)

This video is a recording of a short presentation at the 4th International Threshold Concepts Conference, held on 28-29 June 2012 at Trinity College Dublin. The following paper purports to be about the same topic, but in fact the emphasis is rather different. They are worth considering together, though, because savage cuts to the presentation to fit the time constraints rather emasculated it.


Liminality as liability(slides only on Slideshare)

Liminality as liability

James Atherton
Peter Hadfield
Peter Wolstencroft
(formerly or currently of the University of Bedfordshire, UK)

Keywords: liminality; post-compulsory education; teaching; vocational education

Note: the text below is lightly edited from the version prepared for the session (18.09.12)

“Liminality” is a word not often to be found on the lips of those concerned with vocational and professional education, although it could well be argued that since their focus is on initiating young people as practitioners of a discipline which will (they hope) be their occupation for years, they should engage seriously with it.

Liminality is of course an ontological state, and must not therefore be confused with disaffection or disenchantment with a course, which can have numerous unconnected causes, and yet such disaffection is a likely correlate of being in an uncomfortable liminal state, with real-world consequences for students, staff and institutions.

So were Further (FE) and Higher (HE) education professionals to use the term, it is clear that at the managerial level at least, it would be identified as a Bad Thing. It is a fault, a failing of the system, something to be engineered out of it. There are several reasons for this attitude, which has been gaining strength in the UK for two decades or so.

First: the neo-liberal agenda for the reform of public services which took hold during the second Thatcher government emphasised accountability and “economy, efficiency, and effectiveness” (Audit Commission, 2009).

In particular, since incorporation as free-standing institutions in 1992, Further Education (FE) colleges have been required to operate a full business model, utterly dependent on student numbers. The organisational mantra has therefore been ‘recruitment, retention, achievement and progression’. This has in turn meant that FE teachers have experienced unparalleled pressures, not only in recruitment and selection, but most significantly by ensuring that students do not fail and drop out, which directly affects college budgets and finances (Martinez and Munday, 1998).

This has unintended consequences such as refusing to sign a student up for the course she wants because of the possibility she may not be able to rise to the challenge—and signing her up for a lower-level qualification instead, which she will be able to complete, even if it is no use to her. But it also reaches into the “learning culture” of the institution (James and Biesta, 2006).

There are many interacting factors which may account for this of which the most powerful may well be external and not connected to the college and the course (Hall, 2001), but unsurprisingly college managements look most to those factors under their control, most particularly student support and approaches to teaching and learning.

The substantial body of material on the first-year experience in HE suggests that college authorities are aware of the the transition those students are undertaking, but the overview (e.g. Yorke and Longden, 2007) implies that the authorities’ concern is to manage and minimise its impact, rather than to engage with it.

In this view, liminality is a liability. It serves only to amplify the fragility of the student and to increase the likelihood of failure and dropout. And the image of the learner as “fragile” is a potent one, particularly in the FE sector, which has an important role as a provider of second chances for people who did not do well at school (Ecclestone and Hayes, 2009; Ecclestone, 2012).

Second: colleges and universities may be free-standing corporations, but they are tightly regulated and inspected by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). Both require clear policies and procedures to ensure the so-called “quality of student experience”, but as Collini (2012) argues, the values of a liberal education are too ineffable and vague to be measured and assessed, so the focus is displaced to the reified bureaucratic proxies—course documentation, policies and procedures. All of this has to be managed and standardised to comply with detailed requirements, and to ensure a predictable experience (Hadfield and Atherton, 2009). Underlying this model of “delivery” are assumptions about the nature of student learning, which have been explored in particular by Coffield and his collaborators (2008, 2009, inter al.). Among these assumptions is what Sfard (1998) calls the “acquisition metaphor” (as opposed to the “participation” metaphor), in which learning is seen as something to have, and it can be steadily and incrementally accumulated. Detailed schemes of work and assessment regimes and lesson plans are built on this foundation. It will be apparent that such a metaphor does not accommodate transformational learning or ontological change, and the idea of threshold concepts do not sit easily with it. In particular the disruption (or “disjunction” in Savin-Baden’s (2008) terminology) associated with entering a liminal space is not catered for. As Ecclestone (2012) puts it, “the Holy Grail [is] ‘crystal clarity’” not tolerance of ambiguity.

Over the past five years, we have been working with a large cohort of teachers in post-compulsory education in England, exploring what this has come to mean for teaching in FE. The teachers are participants in a part-time teacher training programme, with an intake of about five hundred (at ten centres), most of whom are employed in mainstream FE. The following observations are based on a range of data gathered (mainly for other purposes) from tutorials, teaching observations conducted by about forty tutors across the college network, students’ own reflective journals and discussions of practice in assessments, and posts to discussion boards on the on-line virtual learning environment (VLE), as well as notes of in-class discussions when introducing threshold concepts and associated ideas. Earlier versions of this material have also contributed to papers by Atherton, Hadfield & Meyers (2008), and Hadfield & Atherton (2009). The findings reported here are also consistent with the observations of Ecclestone (2012).

The impact of these learning cultures has been considerable. The Wolf Report of 2011 drew attention to it, concluding;

"...the Review found conclusive evidence of serious problems in current provision: problems which impact directly on young people and their futures. Large numbers of young people are not on programmes which will help them to progress either educationally or in the labour market. Moreover, far too much time and money is spent on counterproductive bureaucracy and regulation. ...[T]oo many of our young people are being short-changed." (p.44)

Our findings, at the level of the practising teacher in vocational education, suggest that many students are being instructed on the skills of evidence collection and portfolio building, rather than engaging with subject content.

In discussion after the session, he was as uncomfortable about it as the observer. Since the topic had seemed made for getting the students to share their experience of when they had been motivated or when not, or talking about the capabilities of famous coaches and managers to motivate their teams, why did he not do that? Because there was not enough time—the syllabus had to be “covered”; because he knew that discussions which involved personal experience were hard to control; and most tellingly for our concerns, because they would get confused and “take their eyes off the ball”, which was about accumulating evidence for the qualification.

In other words, they could not engage with the ideas precisely because there was a potential for some (however mild) transformatory learning and thus experiencing liminality. It transpired later that the course had not always been taught thus. The reason for the change was that retention, achievement and progression rates had not been satisfactory; since changing to the hand-holding, spoon-feeding parody of a constructivist session, completion figures had risen by 25% to 96%.

As Ecclestone puts it;

“A notable factor in instrumentalism is that fixed expectations about what students like and want from ‘learning’ have created ‘comfort zones’ that protect students by minimizing assessment stress” (2012:7)

“...the majority aim for comfortable, safe goals below their personal capacity based on high levels of instrumental compliance and coaching by tutors to ‘fill the gaps’... (2012:8)

So the students achieve the signs of learning, but not the substance.

There is another side-effect of the approach. All items of knowledge are treated as of similar significance—indeed, under such a regime, the last thing which can be recognised is the status of a threshold concept.

Again, there are sufficient examples to show that such an occurrence is far from uncommon.

Our experience in working with relatively new teachers in the sector indicates that many are not aware of what is going on, partly of course because they have themselves been socialised, as students, into believing that this mechanistically scaffolded curriculum is standard. While recognising that not all situations of confusion and disorientation in the classroom are liminal, of course, our students respond readily to being shown that the symptoms of liminality are indicative of a normal response to a learning experience which takes the students across a threshold. Far from thinking that they are losing control of the session, they and their students can be reassured that they will emerge at the end of the process with a deeper level of understanding (Cousin, 2008: 263).

But the attitude of the teacher who did not want his student to “confuse other people”, suggests a third factor which conspires with the retention and the regulatory agendas to create a mutually reinforcing culture of resistance to liminality, which is the threat of loss of control. As one of us commented to a student on his final teaching observation a few weeks ago, “You have now reached the stage where you are confident enough to take some risks with the class.” He replied, “Yes, and I’ll do that when you observe me, but if one of my managers saw that he would come down on me like a ton of bricks.”

The system represents security for the pressured staff working within it, as documented by Menzies-Lyth (1988). The “crystal clarity” to which Ecclestone (2012) refers provides such a defence against uncertainty and anxiety, not only for managers in the system, but also for staff and students and indeed the inspectors who police the system. It becomes necessary for them to believe that liminal states can be engineered out of the process of learning, even at the cost of a much impoverished quality of that learning.

And as the Grand Inquisitor puts it in Dostoevsky’s parable;

“Liberty, Freedom of Thought and Conscience, and Science will lead [the people] into such impassable chasms [...] that some of them [...] will destroy themselves; others [...] will destroy each other; while the remainder, weak, helpless and miserable, will crawl back to our feet and cry: ‘Yes, right were ye [...] and we return to you, praying that you will save us from ourselves!’” (Dostoevsky, 1880)


Atherton, J., Hadfield, P. and Meyers, R. (2008) “Threshold Concepts in the Wild” expanded version of a paper presented at Threshold Concepts: from Theory to Practice conference, Queen’s University, Kingston Ontario 18-20 June 2008 (available on-line at accessed 18 June 2012)

Audit Commission (2009) Underlining our Vital Role: annual report and accounts 2008/2009 London; The Stationery Office (available accessed 18 June 2012)

Coffield, F. (2008) Just suppose teaching and learning became the first priority... London; Learning and Skills Network

Coffield, F. (2009) All you ever wanted to know about learning and teaching but were too cool to ask London; Learning and Skills Network

Coffield, F., Edward, S., Finlay, I., Hodgson, A., Spours, K. and Steer, R. (2008) Improving Learning, Skills and Inclusion; the impact of policy on post-compulsory education. Abingdon; Routledge

Collini, S. (2012) What are Universities for? London; Penguin

Cousin, G. (2008) “Threshold concepts: new wine in old bottles or new forms of transactional curriculum inquiry?” in R. Land, J. Meyer and J. Smith (eds.) Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines Rotterdam; Sense Publishers, 2008

Dostoevsky, F. (1880) The Brothers Karamazov London; Penguin Classics and other editions.

Ecclestone, K. (2012, in press) “Instrumentalism and Achievement: a socio-cultural understadning of tensions in vocational education” in J Gardner (ed.) Assessment and Learning (2nd edition) London; Sage Publications

Ecclestone, K. and Hayes, D. (2009) The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education Abingdon; Routledge

Hadfield, P. & Atherton, J. (2009) "Beyond Compliance; accountability, assessment and anxiety, and curricular structures to help students engage with troublesome knowledge" in C Rust (ed.) (2009) Improving Student Learning: through the Curriculum Oxford; Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development pp.158-170 (Paper as delivered in 2008 available online at accessed 28 June 2012)

James, D. and Biesta, G. (2007) Improving Learning Cultures in Further Education Abingdon; Routledge

Martinez, P. & Munday, F. (1998) 9,000 Voices: student persistence and dropout in further education. (FEDA Report, Vol 2 No 7.) London: Further Education Development Agency.

Menzies-Lyth, I. (1988) "A Case-study in the Functioning of Social Systems as a Defence against Anxiety" (1967) reprinted in Containing Anxiety in Institutions (Selected Essays vol I) London: Free Association Books

Savin-Baden, M. (2008) “Liquid Learning and Troublesome Spaces” in R. Land, J. Meyer and J. Smith (eds.) Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines Rotterdam; Sense Publishers

Sfard, A. (1998) “On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing just One” Educational Researcher vol 27. No2 pp. 4-13

Wolf, A. (2011) Review of Vocational Education London; Department for Education (available on-line at accessed 19 June 2012)

Yorke, M. & Longden, B. (2007) The first-year experience in higher education in the UK York; Higher Education Academy.


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Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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