Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Threshold Concepts

The School of Engineering at The University of Western Australia has an Engineering Thresholds Project (ETP) for designing curricula for new courses. To me a Threshold Concept (TC) is "common sense"; threshold implying something that you must cross before further progress is possible.

In March 2011 I attended the first UWA ETP workshop. I found the presentation by Jan (Erik) Meyer (now a Professor of Education at UQ) to be opaque, self-serving, and over-reliant on name-dropping; notwithstanding the fact that he edited Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning with Caroline Baillie. Further, I found his manner to be vague, unhelpful, and condescending. However, not all ETP workshop attendees felt the same way, with John Bamberg writing
Today I attended a fabulous workshop on “Threshold Concepts in Engineering”, organised by Caroline Baillie and Sally Male, and it got me eager to jot down some ideas for pure maths.
John went on to write that
The idea of a threshold concept needs some pinning down, but it is vaguely something that our students need to master in order to progress to other ideas; a competent understanding of a threshold concept opens the door to many other concepts. We also think of it as something that is typically difficult for the student and is transformative. That is, once the student “gets it”, it can change their way of viewing previous notions, it could change the way they approach and do things, and it could change the way they see themselves as students of a particular discipline (i.e., a student of mathematics then regards themselves as a mathematician)
which all sounds like "common sense" to me, well understood by scientists and engineers, and used for over 50 years by writers of good text-books and in the design of tertiary curricula. So what, really, is new?

At the second workshop in December 2011 a list of Engineering TC was proposed. I came away with a feeling of dismay and dissatisfaction; the definition of a TC was too vague and flexible, meaning whatever one wants it to mean. While all of the topics listed on the discussion papers are important, only a few are what I view as TCs. Many are just concepts; some are difficult or "troublesome", some are "transformational", but few are universal. Without a rigorous definition, discussions tend to go round in circles and are dominated by bias and opinion.

When I returned to my office I Googled "a critique of threshold concepts". Many statements in the paper A Critique of the Threshold Concept Hypothesis (TCH) by Professor Rod O’Donnell resonated with me (please contact Rod directly if you would like a preprint of his paper as it is now under review for publication):
The degree of elasticity in interpretation of the hypothesis that followers have allowed themselves, and that the founding figures have sanctioned, is alarming in at least two respects.
Behind the TCH lies a large terrain of tacit, undiscussed assumptions. One key presumption is that a discipline has an established body of fundamental knowledge that is unlikely to change for some time. The aim is then to transform the intellectual perspective of learners in the discipline so that they ‘think like an x’, or are ‘transformed into’ an x, where x is an economist, biologist, engineer, sociologist, doctor, accountant, historian etc. These assumptions have some worrying implications.
Land et al (2010) confidently assert that ‘the empirical evidence for threshold concepts has been substantially increased’ in a multiplicity of disciplines in many countries. A great deal of empirical and applied work is undoubtedly occurring, but such work proceeds on the assumption that investigators have either identified a threshold concept or possess a sound methodology for doing so. Since neither assumption has any foundation, such work presupposes knowledge we do not have.
So, while I am sceptical of the TCH, I do believe in the importance of Threshold Concepts (the "common sense"definition); certainly I am interested in good ways of identifying and teaching TC for a range of fields, especially maths and physics.

It is now 2012 and New Courses at UWA commence on Feb 27. It will be interesting to see how things pan out ...

1 comment:

  1. Touché Paul! I am similarly frustrated by the vagueness of Threshold Concepts, but I'm happy to see some discussion about teaching (for once) in our faculty. Yep, I agree that nothing much is new here: we have always surmised what the TC's were before they were labelled as such. I also conjecture that there are no TC's in engineering that don't belong to maths or physics, and I have challenged Sally for an example. Cheers, John Bamberg.