Threshold Concepts: A Bridge Between Skills and Content

“The inescapable dilemma at the heart of curriculum and instruction must, once and for all, be made clear; either teaching everything of importance reduces it to trivial, forgettable verbalisms or lists, or school is a necessarily inadequate apprenticeship, where ‘preparation’ means something quite humble: learning to know and do a few important things well and leaving out much of importance.”

Thirty years ago, Grant Wiggins warned us that there was too much content to teach. In his essay “The Futility of Trying to Teach Everything of Importance,” he asks teachers to abandon the fruitless task of coverage and instead narrow the scope of their curricula to focus on only the complex, challenging concepts that ask students to practice the skills they need to achieve deep understanding.

Targeting those deeper learning skills (captured in many competency frameworks, including the Hewlett Foundation’s Deeper Learning Competencies, Jay McTighe’s Transfer Goals, and the Center for Curriculum Redesign’s Competency Framework) requires educators to be able to do two things: 1) articulate the durable, transferable skills students need to achieve deep understanding (and pursue it for the rest of their lives) and 2) connect students to content that is rich enough to develop those skills.

At GOA, we work with educators seeking to rethink the relationship between skills and content. Whether this is in the context of assessment design, competency-based learning, or the student-teacher relationship, we emphasize that there is no “content vs. skills” debate. This is not a zero-sum game. Content and skills are inextricably linked, and they must work together to support student learning.

To define that relationship, however, we must tackle hard, important questions: Which content builds the deeper learning skills that matter to students’ success? How do we know?

Threshold concepts might be a way to begin answering those questions.

What is a threshold concept?

The term “threshold concept” emerged from a 2003 study of higher education classrooms by Jan Meyer and Ray Land, who sought to define and describe high-quality learning environments. What they found was that in many fields, certain — and relatively few — concepts caused a transformative shift in a student’s understanding and appreciation of that field. Meyer and Land named them “threshold concepts” because once a student understands the concept, the student has permanently crossed into a more profound understanding, one that empowers them to connect prior and new knowledge in more sophisticated ways.

Threshold concepts have five essential traits: 1) they transform the learner’s perception of the field, 2) that transformation is permanent, 3) they are integrative in that the learner perceives interrelated ideas in the same way experts in the field might, 4) they are bounded in that mastery allows the learner to move on to other threshold concepts, and 5) they are “troublesome” for learners. Meyer and Land cite a few examples of threshold concepts in their research: opportunity cost in economics, limits in mathematics, and signification in the humanities.

Threshold concepts’ troublesome nature is what makes them a useful tool for thinking about the relationship between deeper learning skills and the content needed to develop them.

We can recognize threshold concepts from the productive struggle they spark in students.

Threshold concepts as a bridge between skills and content

According to Meyer and Land, mastering a threshold concept requires the learner to enter an uncomfortable space where they must question what they already know, wrestle with abstract ideas, and seek new ways to organize and process information. They are examples of David Perkins’ “troublesome knowledge,” which we can recognize by the cognitive and emotional struggle associated with mastering something difficult. Before mastery is achieved, the learner can experience confusion as well as feelings of frustration or failure. This struggle is also associated with transfer, the ability to extend what has been learned in one context into another context, which is evidence of deeper learning. To overcome this struggle, students need to learn from mistakes, to demonstrate resilience, to learn and utilize a variety of learning strategies, and to learn from where and whom to seek help, all skills associated with deeper learning.

Threshold concepts can be a bridge between content and skills because they ask us to curate content according to the skills that mastering the content helps students develop, not according to the subjective criteria of what we think students should know. Content is not an end, it is a means by which students can experience the productive struggle that leads to deeper learning.

Next Steps for Educators

To learn threshold concepts, students will need to spend more time with fewer concepts, “leaving out much of importance,” as Wiggins writes. Students will learn concepts at different paces and in different ways, and teachers will need to embrace a more personalized approach in supporting that learning. This, of course, has many implications for the structure of school and the work of students and teachers.

Here are three steps for educators to begin exploring threshold concepts:

  1. Identify threshold concepts. Glynis Cousin calls these “jewels in the curriculum.” This is not easy; it requires deep content expertise and a collaborative approach. It also requires empathy: the “Expert Blind Spot” might prevent us from adequately remembering what threshold concepts are and how we learned them. Identifying threshold concepts also must be an inclusive selection process that avoids problematic and colonizing practices.
  2. Align threshold concepts to authentic practice. Meyer and Land warn us that you cannot teach threshold concepts in a traditional, linear way: an essential part of their value is their “recursive and excursive” nature, their tendency to require revisiting and to provoke new, challenging questions. Students should work with the concepts as professionals in the field might. Consider David Perkins’ “Playing the Whole Game” framework as a potential model.
  3. Learn about the cultures, conditions, and strategies required to nurture productive struggle in students. Embracing threshold concepts is a commitment to defining rigor in terms of depth, not breadth. It is also a commitment to instructional equity: ensuring all students do and succeed at rigorous work. In this interview, Zaretta Hammond offers essential insights and strategies for introducting instructional equity into classrooms.

Not only will these steps lead to meaningful collaboration among educators, they might motivate us to tackle some of the knottier problems of implementing threshold concepts in our schools. What if we as educators leveraged our expertise to identify threshold concepts and then gave students the time, space, and support they needed to master them? Would that increase the chances that students developed the skills they need for lifelong learning?

To explore the relationship between skills and content more deeply, participate in GOA's professional learning: take a short course, immerse yourself in an intensive educator program, or partner with us to design a customized program for your school.

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