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.

References

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.

The science of teaching

Eric Mazur was the opening speaker at the ALT-C 2012  conference in Manchester UK this week. The keynote presentations were streamed online and I attended this presentation virtually – well worth the hour spent.

The slides of this talk are available here

A recording of the keynote has not yet been posted, but should ultimately appear here

Eric Mazur is a Harvard University physicist who is as interested in researching how his students learn physics, particularly through peer instruction, as he is in researching specific physics concepts.

An interesting aspect of his keynote to the ALT-C conference was his focus on pedagogy rather than technology and his very convincing argument against traditional lecturing to large groups, despite the fact that he delivered the keynote through a lecture to a large group. He says in an interview with Seb Schmoller, before the conference, that lectures are ineffective for teaching anything that is conceptually very difficult, but are good for motivating people. I found his lecture very motivating and my attention didn’t waver during the hour, but I wasn’t asked to learn any difficult physics concepts.

His keynote focused on his recent research

  • the gender gap between male and female achievement in physics,
  • the ineffectiveness of demonstrations in physics teaching and
  • the role of confusion in learning.

He urged us to continuously research our teaching and measure outcomes, using the scientific method. How he does this himself was very well illustrated through his talk.

Here are some of the key points for me.

The problem with traditional lectures….

… is that they hold the mind captive, whereas in fact the mind needs to wander to address problems. A ‘real problem’ is knowing where you want to get to, but not knowing how to get there. Science applies a known procedure to an unknown answer, whereas in our teaching we very often mark/measure students’ understanding by marking their answers rather than their procedures. A lot of assessment is simply regurgitation, rather than a measure of understanding.

The brain stores models not facts. To learn we need cognitive dissonance (Piaget).

Lectures don’t allow us time to make connections and reflect, or to register cognitive dissonance.

We need to build ‘speed bumps’ into lectures, to slow them down and allow time for sense-making.

Research on students’ neurological activity shows that they are more ‘asleep’ when they are in a traditional lecture than when they actually are asleep.

Eric Mazur's ALT-C keynote presentation Slide 6

The scientific approach to teaching: Research as a basis for course design Slide 6

(click on the image to enlarge it)

Teacher explanations and demonstrations do not, by themselves, improve student understanding. Students’ misconceptions are very resistant to change. This can be seen in these two videos which I remembered when listening to the keynote

A Private Universe

Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos

Interaction and collaboration for more effective lectures

In his research into the gender gap between men and women’s achievements in learning physics concepts from lectures, Eric Mazur found that women’s test score can be hugely improved through interactive and collaborative lectures. Men’s scores also improved.

He also found that asking students to simply observe scientific demonstrations is not helpful. Critical to improving their understanding is asking them to predict a possible outcome and to discuss their ideas with their peers.

Also critical to effective interaction is skilled questioning by the teacher.

All this takes time – so taking this approach, there is no longer time to use lectures for the dissemination of facts. Students should therefore be asked to prepare for lectures through pre-reading and discussion. The lecture or classroom should be used for sense-making.  In the classroom teachers need to facilitate the assimilation of information through interaction and questioning. Information transfer (through ‘telling’) should happen in a learning space out of the classroom before or after the lecture.

Technology should be used to free up the lecturer and the student to have more time to focus on interaction, collaboration and sense-making. If it is not doing this, then it is not being used effectively to serve pedagogy.

The role of confusion in learning

Eric Mazur finished his keynote by making some interesting points about confusion. His research has shown that ….

  • Confusion doesn’t necessarily correlate with understanding
  • Confused students are twice as likely to be correct as students who do not think they are confused
  • Confusion is not necessarily the result of poor teaching
  • Confusion is an essential part of the learning process

My perspective on all this…

…… is that a focus on pedagogy and how students learn applies to all teaching, online or offline, to large groups or small groups, in physics or another discipline. If we are teachers we need to find ways to make our students think, become aware of and confront their misconceptions, to learn how to learn and realise that learning is about understanding, more than about the ‘grade’. According to Eric Mazur

‘You can forget facts, but you cannot forget understanding’.

One question that I have always had about the teaching of science through discussion, based on my own experience is:

How do you prevent students from compounding their misconceptions through interaction and discussion with equally confused peers?’

I think the answer to this question might lie in Eric Mazur’s work on learning catalytics, which as yet I don’t know anything about.

For an alternative perspective on the keynote, see this blog post – Black Hole

The challenge of ‘openness’ in small MOOCs

An interesting discussion on the Pedagogy First course blog has sparked off further thoughts about issues around ‘openness’.  This post is, in part, a response to some of the thoughts posted by Alan Levine, and the responses of others, which have provoked this further thinking.

Martin Weller has said that ‘Openness is a state of mind’.   Overall I agree with this, but is openness context dependent? My mind isn’t your mind, my experience might not be your experience, my location won’t necessarily be your location and so on. How we understand and experience openness is individual to each learner. Carmen Tschofen and I discussed this in our paper  –  Connectivism and dimensions of individual experience.

No place is  it more important to remember this, than in a small course/community/MOOC in which novice learners are working alongside ‘expert’ or experienced learners and where the topic is learning to teach.

FSLT12  was such a course, and so too is Pedagogy First – they are both small open online task-oriented MOOCs  focusing on developing learners as teachers/lecturers/facilitators, with an emphasis on developing an understanding of pedagogy. In addition, both these courses are offered for assessment, so, for example, an assessment requirement of the Pedagogy First course is for regular blogging and open sharing of completed tasks; the first task for assessment in FSLT12 was open reflective writing.

‘Openness’ in these circumstances is no mean feat.

Experiences of learners new to working in online environments have been well researched (Sharpe and Benfield, 2005). Feelings of over-exposure, isolation, inability to cope with navigating the online environment, inability to cope with the abundance of information, the lack of visual cues to support interpretation of others’ comments, feelings of disorientation, not knowing how to balance time on and offline, feelings of anxiety and intense emotional responses – are all common examples of how people new to the online environment might feel.

But in an open course we have people with these experiences working alongside ‘veteran’ MOOCers who are familiar with the chaotic complexity and hustle and bustle of the open MOOC market place. These veterans enter an open network knowing what to expect.

So how do we bring these two groups together?  In the Pedagogy First course, there has been a call for mentors, meaning that there is an expectation that experienced MOOCers will support novice MOOCers.

As part of the Pedgaogy First programme we have been asked to buy the book –  Susan Ko and Steve Rossen (2010) Teaching Online: A Practical Guide (3rd ed) Taylor and Francis – and I am looking forward to reading what it has to say about initiating newcomers into an online course. My copy is in the post!

In the meantime I am revisiting my well-thumbed and very familiar copy of Gilly Salmon’s book ‘e-Moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online’. In this she presents a 5-stage model for facilitating online learning.

Gilly Salmon 5 stage model

http://www.atimod.com/e-moderating/5stage.shtml

In my experience, following this model helps to avoid a lot of the pitfalls associated with online learning. Salmon recommends starting with ensuring access, as has been done in the Pedagogy First course, and focusing to begin with on socialization, which she says helps to ensure the success of an online course.

Socialization will of course continue throughout the course, but it is necessary at the beginning to develop the sense of belonging and trust needed to enable later, weightier and more challenging discussions. Salmon says these discussions happen at Stage 5 –  ‘different skills come into play at this stage. These are those of critical thinking and the ability to challenge the ‘givens’ (p.48).

So how does this relate to ‘openness’ in small connectivist MOOCs such as FSLT12 and Pedagogy First? My thinking following discussions in Pedagogy First is

  •  ‘Openness’ as a ‘state of mind’ takes time to develop. It is not a given and cannot be assumed. It should not even be expected, if we believe in the autonomy of learners, i.e. freedom to choose. But if we want it in our MOOCs (thinking here of MOOCs as ‘courses’ as in the case of Pedagogy First) then we should allow time for ‘novices’ to work through the 5 stages of Gilly Salmon’s model.
  • Veteran MOOCers may need to hold back, or at least carefully consider how their posts might be interpreted by novices. This doesn’t necessarily apply to an open network or even to a MOOC such as CCK08, but I think it does apply to a MOOC that has been designed for novices and where there is a recognition that novices will need mentoring.
  • For me when I facilitate or convene an online course/MOOC I hope that the course design/environment will encourage the development of autonomous and connected learners who embrace openness, alternative perspectives and diversity, and engage in critical thinking, stimulating dialogue and reflective learning. This will not happen if they ‘drop out’ in the early stages. One of the criticisms of MOOCs is the high drop out rate.

Stephen Downes has said, to teach is to model and demonstrate, and to learn is to practice and reflect.  So maybe modeling and demonstrating, practicing and reflecting on Gilly Salmon’s model is not a bad place to start for small task-oriented MOOCs.

And finally, perhaps in the case of small MOOCs it is easier to think of them as open courses rather than open networks. Maybe this would bring a different perspective to the way we work in them and what our expectations might be.

Why we blog

MiraCosta Online Teaching Programme

A month or two ago I was approached by Pilar Hernandez of the POT Cert team, asking me if I would be willing to make a contribution to the course in Week 21, which after some hesitation I agreed to do.

This invitation has spurred me on to get involved with the POTCert class which starts next Monday 1st September and finishes at the end of April 2013.  Last night I attended a pre-course meeting in Collaborate in which the course convenors and a few course participants discussed why we blog.

Recording of the Collaborate meetup

The reason for this discussion was that a requirement for the certificate is

  • Weekly blogging on assigned topics, including viewing workshop videos and reading online articles about online teaching as a discipline — posts should include reflections, links, embedded elements.
  • Commenting on other participants’ posts as part of the online teaching community.

Participants are also asked to tag blog posts with ‘potcert’

It could be that some of the 22+ participants already signed up for the course have never blogged before, so how will they feel. This prompted me to look back at my first few posts on this blog (‘Jenny Connected’) to try and remember what I felt like and how I approached this new experience. I am surprised at how short some of those posts are and I can sense from the tone of them that I was writing for me, i.e. I was initially unaware that there is an audience out there. At that time I couldn’t imagine that anyone would be interested in anything I wrote. ‘Openness’ didn’t have any meaning for me, since it was outside my online experience. In fact it was a shock when I received a challenging comment on an early post –  quite a wake up call. After that, I persisted with blogging but became more careful about what I posted. I think that early experience, as well as my own personality and educational philosophy, determined the way I blog and my reasons for blogging, which are principally to keep a record of my reflections on my own learning, and more  latterly to try and share the interesting connections I make through making use of hyperlinks in my posts.

This is a video that I made for the FSLT12 open online course that I worked on in June of this year, which explains a little about why I blog – but there are many different reasons for blogging and different ways of blogging and it was interesting at the ‘meetup’ last night to hear other people’s reasons for blogging and how they go about it.

Here is a summary of some the ideas:

  • to serve as a substitute for a poor memory, by aggregating interesting ideas and links into one location thus creating a personal searchable digital library, e.g. Lisa Lane’s blog
  • to comment on and discuss other people’s ideas
  • to play with tools and ideas
  • for thinking out loud and working with others on half-baked ideas – see Alan Levine’s blog (this is how he described his blog – I am not being critical :-))
  • to share academic writing – I have used my blog in this way
  • for role-playing
  • for personal and/or professional purposes, e.g. a cookery blog, a research blog
  • for developing a personal brand
  • for messaging and publication
  • for networking
  • as a place to openly make and share mistakes and collaboratively learn through this

Blog posts can be as short or as long as we like. They can include images, videos, sound or not, as we prefer. They can minimize the use of text or be an ‘orgy’ of writing, or somewhere in between, as suits our personal learning styles. They can include details about our personal lives or focus only on professional topics, as we wish.

There is no one right way to blog.

For me, I look for sincerity, honesty, fairness and critical thinking around a topic that interests me in other people’s blog posts and that is also how I try to blog myself. I don’t let myself be intimidated by other people’s blogs – but I do explore them and try and learn from how others have done it. Everyone finds their voice and expresses it in a way that is unique to them – thank goodness. It’s the diversity in the blogosphere that makes it such a rich and rewarding learning environment.