Research from Meyer & Land (2006] into undergraduate education helps us to understand why some pupils seem to get stuck with a particular topic when others have no difficulty. They identified what they termed “Threshold concepts”, ideas that are central to the understanding of a topic and without which pupils can’t progress. They showed that these Threshold concepts had certain characteristics:
- Transformative – it changes the way you see the world,
- Troublesome – it might seem counterintuitive or alien,
- Irreversible – the transformative nature means that once it is learnt it is unlikely to be forgotten,
- Intergrated – it reveals connections between the different parts of the disciple,
- Bounded – despite this, the concept has defined parameters in which it applies,
- Discursive – it leads to the development of new language.
See Overcoming barriers to student understanding (Meyer & Land 2006).
There are very clear implications of their work for classroom practice – especially in Geography which is all about that transformative way of seeing the world. As geographers we use our knowledge in a way that leaves us seeing the world in a whole new light.
Yesterday I was walking along Seaford seafront as Storm Brian brought waves crashing on to the coast. Immediately my mind was seeing the reshaping of the coast, the building up of a storm beach, sediment being removed from the berm that is usually there, the accelerated sediment sorting. My secure threshold knowledge means that this process is irreversible. I will always have a deeper understanding of the world.
Identifying Threshold Concepts
We spent some time at our most recent department CPD session exploring the idea of Threshold concepts in Geography. One that we came up with was the way that pupils see the world as a physical thing – as a space. They are all very used to seeing the world displayed as a map like the one below – but this leads to many problems in their conceptual knowledge.
This display of the world creates a number of problems for their understanding. For example they struggle to see the world from a different perspective.
Many pupils would struggle to identify China on this map. Our eyes are naturally drawn to it and yet they only know to look “east”.
They also struggle to see that Canada is close to Russia as they appear to be on the opposite side of the earth.
The projection also leads to a misunderstanding about the relative size of landmasses. This image below superimposes Greenland onto Africa to show its actual relative size against its projected size.
There are also problems that map projections encourage pupils to see “up” as the top of the map as opposed to “away from the earth”. They often find this map below deeply unsettling.
These misunderstandings and problems arise because of “troublesome knowledge” – the idea of the Earth as a globe and the problem of displaying this space as a 2D image. We need to expose pupils to far more alternative views of the world.
We come across threshold concepts most often when teaching geography as a thematic approach, or when preparing pupils to apply it regionally. We can take the topic of coasts as an example.
To teach this topic, pupils have to be secure in their knowledge of wave processes. If they don’t understand how waves shape the coast they can’t access later work on the formation of coastal landforms or the management of coastal areas. In theory, once they have grasped this threshold idea they could work out for themselves how landforms are created and shaped; and it certainly makes it much more straight-forward to be led through this process. This threshold concept has changed how you see the world.
You can also identify threshold concepts when teaching geography from a regional perspective. For example, when looking at China, pupils often struggle to understand the huge regional variations across the country. This is, in part, due to them struggling to grasp a sense of scale. The world has been shrunk through technology, travel and exposure to world maps. Everywhere seems very small. For them to understand the issues facing China today they have to get a sense of space across the country.
Once we have identified Threshold concepts in our schemes of work there is a lot we can do.
- Use it to help structure our program of study. Geography is based on the idea of a spiral curriculum. We can make sure that Threshold concepts are taught well and taught early.
- Use it when planning a sequence of learning. Are you introducing these threshold concepts at the start of the topic?
- Plan to test these concepts. We need to make sure that pupils are secure in this threshold knowledge before moving on.
- Close the gaps. If pupils haven’t grasped these threshold concepts there is no point in moving on regardless. We need to have work for them to help them fill in these gaps.
- Revisit often. We need to plan to link new information back to these Threshold concepts and show the links between different parts of the discipline. Use “Powerful Geography” to give them the change to apply these parts of the subject.
Crossing the threshold is a vitally important part of the learning process and something we will be giving far more thought to. It is transforming the way I am seeing teaching. The idea of a Threshold concept seems itself to be a Threshold concept. And that is very cool.