The threshold concept and the design of learning experiences

The threshold concept is an important one in the development of curriculum and learning experiences in general. I came across this excellent resource provided by UCL Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering and Dr. Mick Flanagan.

Drawing on work by UK researchers who were considering the characteristics of strong learning environments for undergraduate education (Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses), Erik Mayer and Ray Land expanded this work to consider discipline-centered learning constructs and what’s needed to span boundaries between disciplines (see, Glynis Cousin for an An introduction to threshold concepts). They identified a number of important thresholds in learning.

Thresholds in learning:

  • Transformative: Learners gain fundamentally different views of a discipline and begin their journeys as professionals in that discipline.
  • Troublesome: Knowledge may seem counter-intuitive or even alien (for example, it can be hard for learners to grasp the concept of geological time –millions/billions of years-compared to the lifetime of a human being)
  • Irreversible: Certain concepts can be difficult to unlearn
  • Integrative: Certain concepts bring together different aspects of a subject not previously considered (e.g., the idea of systems in healthcare)
  • Bounded: The jargon in disciplines can make it difficult to span boundaries between those disciplines
  • Discursive: Crossing a boundary therefore may require an enhanced use of language
  • Reconstitutive: Mental models are reconfigured and new schema are created
  • Liminality: Learning is often a “rite of passage.” The learner may feel disoriented or even a sense of loss that his/her models have shifted along with a sense of exhilaration.

As noted by Glynis Cousin (2006), “In short, there is no simple passage in learning from ‘easy’ to ‘difficult’; mastery of a threshold concept often involves messy journeys back, forth and across conceptual terrain.”

Why care about this?

In the Four E’s Model” for engaging teams in change efforts, education is  identified as technical work. It is not. It is both technical and adaptive and the development of any training program or informal learning experience, whether face-to-face, online, or a blended version of the two, must consider the adaptive change required to integrate learning, not just into the day-to-day of performing technical work, but into the development of new mindsets required to make this technical work successful.




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