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Threshold Concepts & Troublesome Knowledge. Ray Land University of Strathclyde Glasgow UK Jan H.F. Meyer University of Durham UK. ISSOTL 10, 22 October 2010. An eclectic approach. ‘....Land and Meyer may be seen as promiscuous mongrels who care not with whom they sleep...’ (Cousin 2006).

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threshold concepts troublesome knowledge
Threshold Concepts & Troublesome Knowledge

Ray Land

University of Strathclyde Glasgow UK

Jan H.F. Meyer

University of Durham UK

ISSOTL 10, 22 October 2010

an eclectic approach
An eclectic approach

‘....Land and Meyer may be seen as promiscuous mongrels who care not with whom they sleep...’

(Cousin 2006)


Real learning requires stepping into the unknown, which initiates a rupture in knowing...

By definition, all TC scholarship is concerned (directly or indirectly) with encountering the unknown.

Schwartzman 2010 p.38


I am part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’Gleams that untravell’d world,

whose margin fadesFor ever and for ever when I move.

Tennyson ‘Ulysses’

  • A brief introduction to thresholds
  • Extending the boundaries: recent scholarship
  • The expanding framework
  • Projects
  • Thresholds as a form of pedagogical research (Cousin 2008)
  • Thresholds as a tool of cultural analysis
      • The ‘Singing Revolution’: Crisis in post-Communist Estonian national identity (Kutsar & Kärner 2010)
      • Interdisciplinarity (Land 2010)

There are…





…that lead toa new way of understanding, interpreting or viewing something, a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view…

without which the learner cannot progress


Threshold concepts provide us with a new analytical lens to focus on critical, and perhaps previously neglected, aspects of variation in student learning


…a lens through which to reconceptualise student progression and ‘stuck places’



Object oriented programming

Equal temperament




Reactive power





Sa/V ratio





Laplace transform




The expanding framework

3) The expanding framework

78 disciplinary/subject categories

11 theses and dissertations

78 discipilinary/subject categories

Links to video, ppt presentations and other TCF websites

Mick Flanagan


4) Projects

Engineering thresholds: An approach to curriculum renewal

(UWA, Caroline Baillie, 2010, A$ 200,000)


Transactional Curriculum Inquiry

Glynis Cousin 2008

...the search for threshold concepts has the potential to open up discussions among subject specialists, students and educational researchers, creating forms of transactional curriculum inquiry between these three parties.


...threshold concept research does not require the academic to learn another discipline; on the contrary, it requires that she goes more deeply into her own for the purposes of formulating the best ways of teaching and learning it.


By staging the exploration at the site of the subject and of its difficulties, threshold concept research promises to harness an academic’s research curiosity for his subject with a new curiosity about how best to teach it; this promise carries with it an enhanced capacity for research and teaching to be dynamically linked.


The ‘Singing Revolution’:

Crisis in post-Communist Estonian national identity

Dagmar Kutsar & Anita Kärner (2010)


This is an attempt to look at society as a learning and teaching environment during an extremely intensive period of societal changes, when one socio-economic and political system collapses and is exchanged for another. The transitions are meaningful events, accompanied by uncertainties, learning the new, and changing identities and structures.



During the transitional period, society is overwhelmed by a liminal space – no longer what it was and not yet what it will be. The liminal space is shared by the actors of transition, the institutions, groups and individuals all filled with a mixture of new and old cognitions, emotions, myths and behavioural patterns. (p.384)


The Baltic Chain 23 August 1989

Tallin -> Riga -> Vilnius, 600 kms


Togetherness was not always accompanied by positive emotions. In the situation of rapid societal change, individuals are often unable to adapt as rapidly as changes occur. For that reason, rapid change, even positive in essence, brings emotional tensions and fears of loss of cognitive control over the situation, which results in feelings of powerlessness, dissatisfaction and alienation. (p.386)


Well-being acknowledges the possibilities as well as limitations for action. In general, the process of societal transitions in Estonia was tense for everybody involved in the manner of decreasing their perceived quality of life. (p.386)


The Communitas, using Turner’s (1969) approach, expressed the readiness for creation of the ‘anti’-structure in Estonian society.

Springing forth from the ruins of the collapsing totalitarian system and fed by opposition towards it, the Communitas was destructive towards the old system and its power structures.

dramatis personae the actors of transition

Dramatis personae - ‘the actors of transition’

The ‘Communitas’

The ‘Others’

The (Soviet) nomenklatura

The ‘Teachers’


ii Interdisciplinarity

Ray Land (2010)

threshold concepts and disciplinarity
Threshold concepts and disciplinarity

TCs & CoP research has argued that disciplinarity is a key determinant of academic identity

Probably most TC research to

date concerned with disciplinary

formation, and acquisition of

robust ‘WTP’ (Entwistle & McCune 2009)


Disciplinary identity

Disciplines have developed their own

conceptual worlds , their own WTPs

and their own learning thresholds

TCs part of the mapping & patrolling

of disciplinary boundaries.

Disciplines serve as bases of personal identity (Mary Henkel 2000).


Disciplinary subjectivity determined by these boundaries, as with urban and national identities, eg a Glaswegian, an Australian


Disciplinary practice

‘The chains of habit are generally too small to be felt until they are too strong to be broken’.

Dr Samuel Johnson

1709 - 1784


The tidiness and enclosure of disciplines

‘Whereas disciplines can attain a high degree of enclosure around self-defined concepts , methods and questions, and leave aside matters not convenient for ..[a].. disciplinary matrix, a practically oriented public servant enterprise like public administration should never adopt such a prioritisation of tidiness above usefulness.’

Gasper 2010 p.53


‘It has to draw on various types of understanding in order to tackle various types of pressing and interconnected real issues; it links material from different fields without unifying them.’

Gasper 2010 p.53

a problematique of interdisciplinarity
A ‘problematique of interdisciplinarity’

‘The complexity of policy cases frequently exceeds the grasp of discipline-based knowledge , even when brought together from different disciplines’

Gasper 2010 p.53

disciplinarity and temporality
Disciplinarity and temporality

‘Much interdisciplinarity arises in response to practical and immediate life problem situations, where we cannot wait for discipline-gained knowledge that is not yet available. Such work, oriented to life problems, might not be conventionally scientifically elegant, but it draws on sophisticated craft skills of selection, synthesis and judgement.’

characteristics of the 21 st century
Characteristics of the 21st century
  • Uncertainty
  • Speed and acceleration
  • Complexity
  • Multiculturalism
  • Mobility of the population
  • Conflict (social, military)
  • Inter-generational tension
  • Need for ethical citizenship
  • Information saturation
  • Proliferation of knowledge
  • Globalisation
  • Internationalisation
  • Private /public sector tension
  • Increasing panic
  • Unpredictability
  • Risk
  • Need for flexibility and agility
  • Entitlement v responsibility
  • Scarcity of resources
  • Austerity
  • Sustainability
  • Need for prudence
  • Transparency & accountability
  • Discontinuity and rupture
  • Shifting paradigms
  • Poverty v affluence
  • Outsourcing of jobs
  • Youthfulness
SupercomplexityRiskSpeedUncertaintyContestability‘A radically unknowable world’ Barnett 2004: 247-260

Forensics (criminal investigation)

Chemists, medics, police (SoCOs), lawyers, journalists, politicians, media, civil administrators, criminologists, counsellors, psychologists.

Public Energy Utilities(tidal barrier technologies)

Electrical Engineers, civil engineers, ecologists, biologists, zoologists, financiers, economists, computer modellers, politicians, media, lawyers, urban planners, rural & community development, tourism, journalists, policy analysts, management scientists, sociologists

Climate Change (global warming)

Environmental scientists, physicists, meteorologists, geologists, geographers, economists, statisticians, computer scientists, politicians, journalists, civil servants, policy analysts, sociologists

post normal science
Post normal science

Philosophers and practitioners of science have identified this particular mode of scientific activity as one that occurs where the stakes are high, uncertainties large and decisions urgent, and where values are embedded in the way science is done and spoken. It has been labelled ‘post-normal’ science…The danger of a ‘normal’ reading of science is that it assumes science can first find truth, then speak truth to power, and that truth-based policy will then follow.

Climate change is too important to be left to scientists - least of all the normal ones. Hulme 2007

it constitutes a form of transformational learning
It constitutes a form of transformational learning

‘Transformative learning involves experiencing a deep, structural shift in the basic premises of thought, feelings, and actions. It is a shift of consciousness that dramatically and irreversibly alters our way of being in the world.’

O’Sullivan et al, 2002, p. 11


The paradox is that this is how we became disciplinarily-minded and adept at WTP in the first place. This was how our disciplinary identity was originally constituted.

To work effectively in interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary contexts our disciplinary subjectivity needs to be reconstituted.

Our disciplinary identity needs to be loosened, perhaps weakened.


Need for a ‘required shift as from a nest of identity as an academic or professional of type T to a self-conception as pilgrim or seeker’.

Giri 1998 p.2002


Disciplinary specialists find it difficult to leave the Eden of their discipline, to cross the boundary into Interdisciplinarity. If they can’t, we are left with a group of Cyclopses, each with a separate discourse, constituting a Tower of Babel.


‘...ontological insecurity’ (Giddens 1991)

‘ ...boundariless anxiety’ (Bergquist 1995)

blank spots blind spots wagner 2010 p 33
Blank spots & blind spots Wagner 2010 p.33

Matrix of sociological inquiry

Phenomena under investigation

(ie class, gender, age, race, ethnicity)

(, household, community, collectivity)


‘I realised that I had missed an opportunity to round out my understanding of methodology by coming to grips with measurement as a valuable means of enquiry.My scholarly critiques of ‘white coat’ objectivism had allowed me to step around the judicious use of quantitative enquiry and I came to regret that gap in my knowledge, however much I was able to generate publications about the nature of knowledge and its politicisation’.

Disciplinary blind spots


This is not written as a confessional, but a simple acknowledgement that critique is a very useful means for maintaining blind spots in our learning.

McWilliam 2010 p.45

a caste mark for life
A caste-mark for life?

‘Interdisciplinarity is more achievable when people act not as representatives of disciplines but of themselves, their experiences, values and insights.’ Gasper 2010 p.55

barriers to interdisciplinarity
Barriers to interdisciplinarity
  • Organisational structures
  • Academic incentives point the other way
  • Cultures of communities of practice / bonding capital
  • Ontological insecurity / boundariless anxiety
  • Blank spots override blind spots
  • Low esteem of ‘the cafeteria curriculum’
  • Few mutual discourses / frameworks
  • Co-ordination costs
  • Too difficult - it too often fails
  • Suspicion of globalised ‘knowledge work‘ / managerial breaking of disciplinary tribes

learning for improvisation

Through Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Lave and Wenger (1991) offer a constitutive role for learning; learning for improvisation; emergent processes from actual interaction; the improbability of behaviour based on prefabricated mental schemata; learning as negotiated and strategised; and, a socially constructed contribution to the community ...

The co-participant is legitimised by the community and in turn legitimises and perpetuates the community.

(Remtulla 2010)


Interchange need not lead to consensus, indeed consensus sometimes hinders intellectual progress, but competing views should be formed in awareness of each other, not in mutual ignorance.

(Boulding 1986)

change spaces
Change spaces
  • Borderlands

Monika Reif-Hulser, post-colonial theory

  • Third space

Celia Whitchurch, organisation theory

  • Liminal space

Jan Meyer & Ray Land, threshold theory, after V.Turner

  • Phase space

Complexity theory, brings into the frame the environment as well as the system

  • Trading zones Klein 2004, ‘pidgin’, ‘creole’
  • Ecotones Ecology