Threshold Concepts; where do they fit in?

The other two papers, here and here, are alternative introductions to the idea of threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge which assume no previous background, and simply prepare the reader to engage with the substantial papers listed in the bibliography. This one you may prefer to read after the proper papers; it is about the fit between TC and TK (we had to get to abbreviations eventually!) and other ideas which are discussed on the sister sites to this one.

Cousin (2006) asks if threshold concepts are simply "new wine in old bottles". In many ways they are, because many of the ideas have been heard before. However, they do organise a lot of those older ideas and show how they fit together, and that is their great strength.

The idea of threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge is not a testable hypothesis. It is what Blumer (1954) called a "sensitising concept", which has no great pretensions to "scientific" accuracy, but may nevertheless be useful. (Sorry about all these "concepts".) Such ideas are very important for the profitable discussion of practice, and you can find a brief introduction to them here.

Part of the virtue of sensitising concepts in general, and by definition threshold concepts in particular, is that they provide a frame of reference within which people (especially learners) organise their perceptions. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Meyer and Land use the metaphor of the "threshold" and "portal"; a doorway frames what you can see through it.

The change in the organisation of perception is characteristic of Gestalt learning. We have to be a little careful, though, when using that parallel. In Gestalt there is a flash of insight, often referred to as an "ah-ha!" experience, and everything falls into place willy-nilly. The threshold under discussion here is not necessarily as dramatic as that, however, and the notion of liminality points to the possibility or even necessity of hesitation in crossing the threshold.

There are plenty of models which explore the psychology of how perception is chunked and organised, for example in relation to memory, such as the notion of schemata and scripts. This approach to the psychology of learning, emphasising the active role of the learner in making sense of her or his world, falls broadly under the heading of constructivism. One of the pioneers of social constructivism, emphasising the important of language, communication and social relationships in learning, was Vygotsky; it seems that his work potentially fits with TC, but at the moment I don't think it is quite clear just how... That is of course one of the difficulties of this kind of idea—it is tempting to build a "theory of everything" at the cost of diluting the theory until it has nothing distinctive to say.

So there is discussion within the literature of "Legitimate peripheral participation" (what that? "Sitting next to Nellie" for starters); it is certainly one of the ways in which people might pick up threshold concepts, but not necessarily part of the the idea itself. Indeed, the kind of informal experiential learning to which LPP refers may need a different kind of analysis from the formally taught situations on which much of the TC and TK research has been carried out.

What Perkins calls "troublesome knowledge" is a broader idea than the issue of "supplantive learning" which was the basis of my own research almost 20 years ago, but there are some clear parallels; you can explore those parallels and divergences in a paper here.


Cousin G (2006) "Threshold Concepts: old wine in new bottles?" Closing address, Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines Symposium, Glasgow UK, 30 August—1 September 2006 [video available on-line at  accessed 5 October 2007]


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

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