Threshold Concepts for Teachers

Last week I was leading a training session for trainee science teachers, looking at the EEF ‘Improving Secondary Science’ guidance report – this is a great resource for science teachers and one that I would strongly recommend.  There is a section in the report on the importance of ‘threshold concepts’ in science teaching.  A threshold concept is described below:

“A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress. As a consequence of comprehending a threshold concept there may thus be a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view. This transformation may be sudden or it may be protracted over a considerable period of time, with the transition to understanding proving troublesome. Such a transformed view or landscape may represent how people ‘think’ in a particular discipline, or how they perceive, apprehend, or experience particular phenomena within that discipline (or more generally).” (Meyer and Land, 2003).

In the guidance report, threshold concepts are described as likely to be:

  • Transformative – they result in a change in perception of a subject and may involve a shift in values or attitudes.
  • Irreversible – the resulting change is unlikely to be forgotten.
  • Integrative – they ‘expose a previously hidden interrelatedness’ between other concepts within the discipline.
  • Potentially troublesome – we may have difficulty coping with then new perspective that is offered.

Once we start thinking about the idea of threshold concepts, it seems likely that this also applies to our understanding of teaching.  From a purely personal point of view, I would say that during the years I have been engaging with research evidence, I have come across some ideas that have irreversibly transformed my view of teaching.  Some of these have been troublesome and they definitely all interrelate.  For example:

“Memory is the residue of thought” from Daniel Willingham

New learning should be tethered to existing knowledge

“Feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor” from Dylan Wiliam

“Learning is a change in long term memory” from Paul Kirschner & John Sweller

Fully guided instruction is more successful than minimal guidance from Clark, Kirschner & Sweller – more here.

These 5 ideas have definitely changed the way I teach and the way I lead teaching and learning.  This made me then ask the good people of twitter about the ‘threshold concepts’ that have transformed how they think about teaching.  This got a great response and I thought I would share some of them here:

Andy Tharby:

  • Understanding is memory in disguise – Daniel Willingham
  • Learning is invisible.
  • Students learn very different things from the same lesson.

David Didau

  • Speech is a powerful lever for cognitive growth.

Ben Newmark:

  • The only curriculum that matters is the curriculum pupils remember – Clare Sealy

Cristina Milos:

  • Performance and learning are not synonymous.

Mark Enser:

  • Learning doesn’t come from activity but from retrieval.

Sarah Donarski:

  • If we want our students to breathe our subjects, we must first do the same.

Tom Boulter:

  • Reasoning, problem solving and creative skills are largely domain specific and enabled by deep knowledge of the field.

Sallie Stanton:

  • Learning is a change in long term memory.
  • Gaps in knowledge make gaining new knowledge really difficult.

Rufus William:

  • Novices and experts think in qualitatively different ways.
  • The curse of knowledge.

Frances Walsh:

  • Learning is not a performance at the end of the lesson.

Dan Hannard:

  • Practice makes permanent.

Julie Stewart:

  • We are prisoners of our working memory.

Amy Pento:

  • Extraneous load – much done to grab students’ attention distracts from what we want them to think about.

Many thanks to everybody who contributed to this twitter discussion (apologies if I missed yours!).  A great example of what a fantastic community edutwitter can be.

Please feel free to continue the discussion by adding yours to a comment below…

Posted by Shaun Allison

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This entry was posted in General Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Threshold Concepts for Teachers

  1. Adam Porter says:

    “I’m not sure” is the most common conclusion you should come to from most assessment. – Rob Coe

    “A lesson in the wrong unit of time.” – Bodil Isaksen

    A teacher’s job… …is not to make work easy. It is to make it [meaningfully] difficult – John Hattie

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