Threshold Concepts and Troublesome knowledge

By Alex More

The term ‘threshold concepts’, borrowed from the world of higher education seems to have found a place in mainstream education. 

Threshold knowledge is a term in the study of education used to describe core concepts — or threshold concepts — which, once understood, transform the perception of a given subject, phenomenon, or experience. The idea of the concept is that once understood, it can change the way that a person thinks about a topic. 

Recent reforms at KS2 and KS4 have led to a rapid increase in content that needs to be delivered. Research by Meyer et al (2003 – 2018) outlines 8 features of threshold concepts. The first  4 are the most relevant to us in the primary and secondary school setting. 

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. Perkins (1999) has suggested that knowledge can be troublesome e.g. when it is counter-intuitive, alien, or seemingly incoherent.

Irreversible: Given their transformative potential, threshold concepts are also likely to be irreversible, i.e. they are difficult to unlearn.

Integrative: Threshold concepts, once learned, are likely to bring together different aspects of the subject that previously did not appear, to the student, to be related.

So, in essence, threshold concepts refer to the inter-relationship between knowledge and the application of said knowledge. We should be striving for our teaching to be transformative so students become empowered to have opinions on topics. I would argue that troublesome knowledge is something we need to be aware of, particularly post-lockdown. In a normal school setting, the teacher works with the child to scaffold knowledge and help correct ‘knowledge gaps’. The lockdown setting has meant that the teacher-support dynamic has been greatly reduced, thus it’s likely extensive knowledge gaps have appeared in student learning. Let’s consider this through the lens of troublesome knowledge. 

Troublesome knowledge 

Imagine student A, a middle ability student from a supportive home who has access to technology and parental help during the lockdown. If they become stuck on a concept, they are likely to ask their parents in the first instance. In this setting, the parent adopts the role of the teacher in the absence of the real teacher and will probably do a sound job of sourcing the correct knowledge. If the parent doesn’t know, they most likely know another adult that does (fellow teacher, doctor, lecturer, etc). And, if they still don’t know they will email the teacher to ask for support for student A. According to Meyer et al (2003), there is a risk of irreversible knowledge being taught in this scenario, making taught content difficult to unlearn once required. Enser (2020) suggests that teachers will have a role to play in re-teaching lost concepts due to faulty processes on return to school. 

Now let’s focus on student B, a middle ability student from a low-income household. Statistically, this student has significantly more barriers to overcome in the home-learning setting. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2019-20) cites a lack of parental engagement, poor access to literature at home, and lack of finances to purchase resources as significant factors that disadvantage students from Universal Credit dependent families. We can assume that in this scenario, the student is very much on their own when it comes to learning at home and acquiring knowledge. If this is the case, then the risk of troublesome knowledge is heightened in the absence of a reliable teacher or significant other (parent, professional adult) to help plug knowledge gaps. 

The differential in the student experiences above is a reality. Furthermore, Enser (2020) says it’s likely as teachers we won’t see the troublesome knowledge within these threshold concepts until March/April 2021 for our current Year 10 students transitioning into Year 11. This is an urgent worry! To understand why this is the case we need to revisit the curriculum and specifically, content. As mentioned previously, curriculums possess more content than ever and it’s a race to get the content covered before the final examinations. Enser makes the case that there is simply not time to revisit missed content and feels many schools will just assume students will have accessed the directed online learning during the lockdown. However, this is not the case. In fact, students that did engage with the content will have accumulated troublesome knowledge that is factually incorrect. If this knowledge goes unchallenged it leads to misconceptions which can be irreversible. I struggled to find a diagram to explain how such gaps in knowledge can accumulate and become detrimental so I designed the infographic below which I hope illustrates my thinking.

I hope the diagram above illustrates how knowledge gaps accumulate over time. I have tried to represent the gaps as percentages to help visualise the extent of the threshold concepts. In the diagram above, I have assumed the student will retain 80% content knowledge when being taught directly by the teacher (direct instruction). Topic 2, 3, and 4 illustrate what happens when you remove the teacher, the knowledge gaps increase significantly. I think we should be aware of these gaps and plan to address them in the following ways:

  • Adopt a teaching model that balances content with testing of content. I experimented with a 27-minute lesson format last year which works really well. Teach new content for 27 minutes, break, then test the content (exam questions, scenarios). 
  • Build a form of flipped learning into your practice. Offset some of the content outside of the lesson. This will cause students to accumulate troublesome knowledge. They will bring their misconceptions to your lesson where you can fix them on arrival This is commonly known as the Flipped 101 model. 
  • Use entry and exit tickets as a form of summative assessment. Record and monitor performance in this micro-tests and do it little and often. 5 minutes for 5 questions at the start and the end of the lesson are perfect. 
  • Build metacognition (thinking about thinking) into our lessons. Teach students how to think and challenge their own perceptions on topics. Bloom’s taxonomy is a great platform to base your enquiries or questioning on. 
  • Ask students to RAG rate (Red, Amber, Green) topics covered during the lockdown. Study their RAGS and plan to fix the gaps

Note all of the above is achievable without too much work and avoid the inevitable ‘summer school’ or catch up programs that are being funded and championed by the UK Government currently.  

References and further reading

Meyer J & Land R. 2005 Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning. Higher Education Journal 

Enser, M. 2020. Teaching it Real Blog.​​​​​​​

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation

HE Blog ‘threshold concepts’

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