In an earlier post, I discussed the concept of first principles thinking and the value of learning something new or teaching it to someone else.
Traditional models of learning focus on time and linear growth over time, or a stepped process in which your thinking quickly advances when you “get it.”
Threshold Concepts suggest that learning is like a walk through hills and mountains. As you walk, you may see the slopes and steps, but not understand that it is really a series of summits. In addition, it can be frustrating to climb a hill, only to realize there is another higher peak immediately behind it.
The first peak that you conquered, the one that was hiding the next peak in your path…from a cognitive perspective…that is the threshold concept.
Adler-Kassner & Wardle indicate that threshold concepts are fundamental building blocks of thoughts and beliefs critical for continued learning and participation in an area or within a community of practice.
Metacognition (the processes used to plan, monitor, and assess one’s understanding and performance) is enhanced by a better understanding of the threshold concepts in an area. Put simply, identifying the threshold concepts ahead of time can guide the learning process by identifying the essential and “need to know” as opposed to “nice to know.”
Once these have been identified, they can serve as markers, or “jewels in the curriculum” that learners can look for, and use to measure growth over time.
Lastly, if we continue our analogy of hiking in the hills and mountains, there is no simple learning journey that moves from easy to difficult. Mastery of a concept or area includes messy journeys from peak to peak, crossing back and forth across the terrain.
Threshold Concept Characteristics
Meyer and Land indicate that threshold concepts may be perceived as manifesting through a series of transformative features and may be considered to be “akin to passing through a portal” or “conceptual gateway” that opens up “previously inaccessible ways of thinking about something.”
According to Meyer and Land, threshold concepts have several characteristics:
- Transformative. Once understood, a threshold concept changes the way in which the student views the discipline.
- Troublesome. Threshold concepts are likely to be troublesome for the student.
- Irreversible. Given their transformative potential, threshold concepts are also likely to be irreversible, meaning they are difficult to unlearn.
- Integrative. Threshold concepts, once learned, are likely to bring together different aspects of the subject that previously did not initially appear, to the student, to be related.
- Bounded. A threshold concept will probably delineate a particular conceptual space, serving a specific and limited purpose.
- Discursive. The crossing of a threshold will incorporate an enhanced and extended use of language specific to that discipline.
- Reconstitutive. Understanding a threshold concept may shift the learner’s perspective, which is implied through the transformative and discursive aspects. This may or may not be recognized by the learner.
Meyer, Land, & Baillie indicate that “grasping a threshold concept is transformative because it involves an ontological as well as a conceptual shift. We are what we know. New understandings are assimilated into our biography, becoming part of who we are, how we see and how we feel.”
Meyer and Land suggest that the understanding of threshold concepts at an early stage in the learning process can radically alter all subsequent perceptions and understandings of a discipline. Once ‘mastered’, the student is unlikely to return to previous perceptions and understandings.
The challenge is that mastering threshold concepts often requires the acquisition of troublesome knowledge. Depending on discipline and context, this knowledge might be counterintuitive, alien, tacit, ritualized, inert, conceptually difficult. The knowledge may also be troublesome as the learner remains in defence of their ideas or ways of thinking, and does not wish to change or let go of their views on the subject.
As the learner tackles threshold concepts and considers troublesome knowledge, they pass through what is known as a liminal stage. In this stage, the learner has to address some cognitive dissonance and come to terms with some of the flaws in their practice, conduct, or knowledge about a subject. If the learner can pass through this liminal stage, they can reap the rewards of a new metacognitive state as they engage with unfamiliar and new territory.