Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge

This week Professor Glynis Cousin from Wolverhampton University spoke at Lancaster University about her long-standing interest and research into threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. She spoke for about 40 minutes, with no notes and no powerpoint.

“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”
(Meyer and Land 2003)

Professor Cousin started by saying that there is no such thing as a threshold concept. A threshold concept is a heuristic device, not an objective thing; it is a work in progress. For her the most interesting aspects of threshold concepts are troublesome knowledge and liminality. Threshold concepts are not the same thing as ‘key concepts’.

Thinking about threshold concepts helps academics to recognize that they tend to ‘stuff’ the curriculum.  Many make the mistake of seeing the syllabus as a synonym for curriculum. In fact what is needed is to ‘shrink’ the curriculum, to move from coverage to uncoverage, to think about what is critical for students to learn, what is critical for mastery and to consider what will transform students’ learning, and discourage them from simply ‘mimicking’ understanding.

In doing this and in the spirit of ‘less is more’ and teaching for mastery of a concept, we need to consider what shifts we want students to make. For example if we want students of engineering to become engineers and if we want students of French to become French speakers, what is critical to this mastery?

Curriculum design which takes account of threshold concepts is not a spiral curriculum – it is more like an octopus, incorporating many ‘trigger’ materials –  materials that shape who you are. What interferes with design approaches are the students themselves. They often do not understand the rules of engagement of being a University or College student. They not only need to gain conceptual mastery, but also learn to be a student. So there is a lot of ‘noise’ going on as students find themselves in a state of liminality, oscillating betwixt and between mastery and troublesome knowledge. Learning is anxiety invested.

So the idea of threshold concepts in curriculum design, and their dependence on notions of liminality and troublesome knowledge, returns centrality to the teacher and brings the student closer to the teacher. Student-centredness does not mean ‘satisfying’ the student, it means getting the relationship between the student and the teacher right – establishing a gift relationship between student and teacher, rather than a service client relationship.

These were the ideas I noted down from Glynis Cousin’s talk. Many of the ideas resonate with  the work I have been doing with Roy Williams and Simone Gumtau on designing for emergent learning (see Footprints of Emergence ) – but the centrality of the teacher is a bit of a departure and a challenge to recent thinking about how learners learn in networks and massive open online courses.


Cousin, G (2006) An Introduction to Threshold Concepts. Planet No.17

Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2003),Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (1): linkages to ways of thinking and practising, in Rust, C. (ed.), Improving Student Learning – ten years on. Oxford: OCSLD.

Everyday Life and Learning, a lecture by Jean Lave

Jean Lave, Professor Emeritus, University of California at Berkeley, was speaking at Lancaster University this week.

She gave a very densely packed intense lecture, which was filmed, but I’m not sure whether the recording will be made publicly available. It will be a shame if it is not, because it was the type of lecture that needs to be listened to more than once.

The focus of the lecture was a reflective account of her life’s work on apprenticeship in critical ethnographic practice – which is also the title of her most recent book.

Jean Lave started her lecture by telling us that we are always learning what we are already doing; it often feels like learning from the end and progressing step by step backwards as we try and make sense of past experiences; we are apprentices to our own practice; learning is embodied practice.  She referred us to the work of Richard Sennett and his idea that ‘making is thinking’

She talked to us about her work in Liberia with apprentice tailors  – how they have open access to the process of learning and access to other apprentices (they learned mainly from their peers); this is informal learning and their ‘curriculum’ is made up from slow accumulation of craft knowledge. I found myself thinking about MOOCs at this time and pondering over whether MOOC participants could view themselves as apprentices. Lave asserted that learning depends on relationships within a specific setting. This gives rise to the hypothesis that ‘as relationships change, so learning changes’ and she recommended this as a focus for other researchers.

The details of Jean Lave’s ethnographic work with the Liberian apprentices are in her book, which is described on the back cover as an ‘extended meditation’ and this came through in her talk. She made it very clear that her research is a very slow process in which she is always searching for meaning, which she doesn’t always find. She doesn’t always know the questions to ask and sometimes finds after long periods of work that she has been asking the wrong questions. In reflecting on this ‘slowness’ she referred us to the ‘slow science movement’ and urged PhD students and researchers to take their time – to be sure to engage with questions that they are genuinely interested in and to resist jumping through the type of organisational hoops that demand a certain number of papers per year, in a given grade of journal. In fact her talk ended with quite a rant against universities that demand fast output of poor quality research – which was an entertaining finish and which needless to say drew a round of applause.