AE1b : Threshold concepts…

So I’m going to try and keep this entry as to the point as possible. (In view of my Constructive Alignment blog post having gotten a bit ‘involved’.) In fact I’m going to try to get there in five bullet point sentences.

A threshold concept is an idea which once understood :

  1. is transformative. (It changes the way a subject is viewed in such a way that the student sees the whole discipline in a new light.)
  2. is irreversible. (A one way journey, difficult to ‘unlearn’.)
  3. is potentially ‘troublesome‘. (Understanding may require a student to take a leap of faith, embrace a counter intuitive or alien idea, or change a ‘customary’ way of seeing something)
  4. is integrative. (It is likely to bring together aspects of the subject that didn’t previously appear to be related).
  5. is discursive. (It is accompanied by improved use of terminology and language).

In terms of design software some threshold concepts I would identify :

  1. there is not necessarily one ‘right way’ of doing something, there are often many routes to the same end result. Prior to reaching this threshold, characteristically students will apply tools in the same way the teacher has shown them, ‘walking them through’ a series of steps to reach a result. They are able to use those steps verbatim to solve similar problems. After reaching understanding the student will see tools as a more free form means to achieving their aims.
  2. designers do not necessarily know what they are going to do before they undertake a brief, trial and error is a key part of the process. Prior to understanding students will believe more advanced practitioners ‘know the answers’. After understanding they will see the answer is reached through experimentation. I’ve seen students cross this threshold in class and the results are exciting to watch – suddenly the student switches from following the prescribed lesson plan and continues working on their project unsupervised, they experiment using tools and options (and the undo function!) and one can almost feel the sense of enable-ment and euphoria coming off them as they work.
  3. learning to ‘look’ at what you are doing is key to good design. Trusting your eyes. Often before reaching this threshold a student will ask “is this right?” and I will answer “you tell me?”. After crossing the threshold a student will more likely say “I’m not happy with this, can you suggest a solution?”

It is interesting to think how this might be integrated into my own teaching practice, because the concept cannot so much be taught as it must be understood. It seems that asking the right sorts of questions during class is key to encouraging the kind of thinking that can lead to thresholds being crossed.

I will focus on this in terms of lesson planning. Thinking how I might ‘set up’ situations where I illicit the kinds of questions from the students that might lead them on to the answers that will help them pass through the doors of perception.

I’ll also try to be more explicit regarding the limitations of demonstration and ‘walk through’ style class room experiences, trying to get away from any idea of ‘teacher as genius’ and instead hopefully enable students to unlock their own genius potential.

As ever I welcome comment and critique from all quarters…. hit me up!


8 thoughts on “AE1b : Threshold concepts…

  1. I would have liked to have read your blog posting before I waded through the reading ,yours was very clear concise and easy to understand .
    I find the pedagogic language of the readings obstructive and elitist, something that your points sidestepped well done and thankyou .


  2. Thanks Heather,

    I think we all found the reading hard going on this one. I found reading around and interwebs searches really helped me consolidate what the text talked about.

    I’m taking the Academic Writing unit of the APP at the moment to and it is quite intimidating, we have to read quite a lot of dense material. I’m researching Academic responses to the sort of obstructive elitism you identify – it will be interesting to see how these texts will balance the need to meet the requirements of the Academy in terms of research, citation and language whilst simultaneously pushing against it.


    1. Hi Adam,
      Firstly, I like the way that you identify the subtleties in the student’s language as an indicator of how far along the path of understanding they are. I also like the way that you are monitoring your own phrasing – not just in relation to technical terms, but also as a subliminal way to affect student behavior.
      In relation to the academic writing, I am really up for reading your paper! I’m alright with the ‘what’ and ‘how’ but I’m really struggling the ‘why’. It’s my own threshold, I suppose. I don’t consider myself an anti-intellectual but I am resisting academia.


      1. I think a lot of that phrasing / language use business, for me, grew out of the ‘teaching for technicians’ workshop.

        That made me think about putting a lot more statements in question format to encourage engagement and a better class dynamic.

        Similarly I am more wary of students asking questions if the answer only takes a bit of thought… if someone asks me

        ‘I want to cut this out – what tool should I use?’

        I would ask them the same question back but with a prompt in the right direction

        ‘Well you’ll need to select the area you want first right? – Which selection tool is going to be best for that shape?’

        or something like that anyways…

        You can definitely hear sometimes when a student is a long way from engagement too. The kind of stuff they ask is very localised and they don’t seem to have any overview – not just of what they are doing technically but also in a broader aesthetic / design sense. I find students like this have a definite sense of fear, which it often feels like is holding them back because they don’t have the confidence or comfort zone to engage with the material.


  3. The threshold concept of the value of experimenting and failiure is something I have been thinking a lot about. On the one had experimentation is in the assessment criteria, but on the other once something is assessed do we think students are less able to engage with the threshold concepts of ‘troublesome’ and ‘discursive’ – i think too often, once people know something is being assessed they may be less willing to take risks and/or be open to discuss ideas. Conversely, once students know something isnt assessed, instead of being gung ho about using it as a time to experiment and fail, they struggle to see the value in it and so dont turn up – not always, but this did happen to me recently… I am working on ways to challenge and discuss this more… watch this space


    1. The issues surrounding how students treat and value assessed work against work that isn’t assessed are interesting aren’t they!

      In terms of experimentation and how it relates to the assessment criteria versus the role it plays in good design practice I think this is something which was talked about on Liz’s blog :

      Essentially students, under certain curriculum constraints, can achieve better marks by delivering to the letter of the assessment criteria rather than the spirit.

      In an example a student who had a ‘maverick’ experimental style might not ‘tick’ all the ‘technical’ assessment criteria boxes (things like : demonstrate use of adjustment layers or opacity) despite displaying the creativity that separates great design from design by numbers. In this instance even though their submission would deserve maybe a merit or a distinction based on it’s content and innovations it actually fails for not meeting the required pass standards.

      A student who played it safe would pass here but would not exhibit a willingness to experiment.

      Ultimately there are many people in life who will fit into the second category. That have either never had the confidence to experiment or have experimented and have gotten burned (an example of how a threshold concept might be unlearned, or at least regressed due to a lack of confidence brought on by shock or failure).

      Or they might by an experimental person but canny enough to realise that this is not the right place for that uncontrolled experimentation – I see more mature students behaving like this. They have learned to control their output to meet requirements more efficiently.

      To my mind this comes back to teaching versus learning… Some stuff we can teach, often quite mechanically, and these skills can be parroted and reproduced by students without necessarily engaging with the bigger picture. Other things (embracing experimentation for example), must be ‘learned’ by the student before they can really advance in a discipline.


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