Stop the conveyor belt, I want to get off

August 17, 2007

Academics need a new, less managerial model to develop their teaching skills, insist Jan Meyer and Ray Land.

Many highly qualified and, indeed, distinguished academics feel they have gone straight to the bottom of the class when asked to undertake courses to develop and enhance their teaching skills.

Sessions on the "student-centred" approach, drawing on an educational research literature that emphasises active learning and "deep" approaches, often take lecturers outside their comfort zone by requiring them to learn an elaborate new discourse of education. Feedback indicates that unless such courses are carefully managed they run the risk of making academics feel infantilised and disempowered. In addition, many view with suspicion definitions of quality in teaching and learning that seem to serve managerial agendas by emphasising "outcomes" and "flexibility".

Learning within a managerialist perspective might be likened to that of students as eggs travelling along the same conveyer belt, being subjected to various forms of scrutiny and possible rejection, before reaching the final quality control check of the graded learning outcomes. If they meet the outcomes they can then be packaged into boxes that reflect their degree classification, with grade 2:1 eggs being particularly sought-after.

An alternative and innovative approach to professional development is that of "threshold concepts", offering a different model that respects the academic's disciplinary knowledge and plays to his or her strengths. Unlike the linear or industrialised model described above, this approach views learning as a form of journey, during which the student not only gains insights great and small, but is also changed as an individual by new knowledge. The learner begins to think more "like an economist" or to practise more "like an engineer", gradually acquiring the identity of a particular community of practice.

The "threshold concepts" model offers a new way of engaging busy academics by encouraging them to resolve students' learning problems from within their discipline. The academic's knowledge and status, long neglected by "student centred" approaches, are restored within a more balanced transaction between teacher and learner.

Conceptual thresholds are transformative (both of understanding and of the individual) and integrative (they bring previously unconnected ideas into a new and powerful formation). Once these gateways have been passed through, there is no going back.

Frequently, however, the new knowledge or concept is "troublesome" and the student will find it difficult to cross the threshold.

Knowledge can be troublesome for students in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is of a tacit form that is not explicitly addressed in class and needs to be surfaced somehow. Or it can appear counter-intuitive, seeming to go against logic or common sense. Some knowledge has become ritualised and needs a more conscious explanation. It might just be conceptually extremely difficult, or require a more sophisticated understanding of how concepts are linked to each other in a kind of "underlying game".

In other situations, a "defended learner" recognises how engaging with new knowledge involves letting go of what they previously felt confident with and tolerating a new uncertainty or ambiguity. It may mean relinquishing dearly held beliefs or former ways of seeing or being, which can be deeply discomfiting.

This is the point at which students frequently get "stuck". A "stuck" place is what anthropologists might term a "liminal" or in-between state, where one lets go of a previous conceptual formation and reconstructs a new, more complex one. A threshold concept involves not only accretion or assimilation but a new integration.

A significant appeal of the threshold concepts approach is that it allows the academic to help the student negotiate conceptual thresholds from the perspective of their subject and by using the language of their discipline.

Academics tend to identify and take possession of threshold concepts quickly, as they have the specialist knowledge and expertise within their disciplinary discourses. They are not required to bring with them the extra baggage of a separate jargon of education.

Conversely, threshold concepts are not shrouded in a doctrine of salvation from stuck places. There are no five easy steps to teach threshold concepts. Rather, they are always analysed and resolved from, and within, specific and situated disciplinary contexts.

This is not surprising given that academics are always keen to discuss the nuanced meanings of their specialism. But identifying the sources of troublesome knowledge that constitute a barrier to student understanding can prove a powerful way of adapting one's teaching or rethinking course design issues.

Colleagues in many countries have been energised by the catalytic effect of threshold concepts, describing them as "high leverage" ideas, "action poetry", "keys that unlock" previously inaccessible aspects of the curriculum. This is not always a simple or straightforward process but it is always engaging to those whose passion and own identity is located within the subject.

Jan Meyer is professor of education at Durham University. Ray Land is professor of higher education at Strathclyde University. More information on threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge can be found at etl/docs/ETLreport4.pdf

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