SOTL Commons Conference 2012, Georgia Southern U, pt I

[whiteboard image from my 3/7/12 presentation]

This is the first of a series of posts about the SOTL commons conference I attended last week, which featured a lot of work that I think UH faculty would find of interest. The talks there offered some fine examples of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) as a specialty in and of itself, but would also appeal, I think, to everyday faculty trying to improve their own teaching, and students’ learning, in more systematic ways.

This post is a summary of the interactive workshop I led regarding “Threshold Concepts,” a theoretical framework pioneered by Jan Meyer and Ray Land, and later taken up by a wide variety of disciplines for curricular and pedagogical improvements. Before the workshop, I distributed a useful summary sheet prepared by Glynis Cousins, and asked participants to write down the single most troublesome concept for novice learners in their home disciplines.

These examples were to be saved, shared, and discussed a little later first by pairs, and then by the larger group, after I had given a brief theoretical overview Threshold Concepts (henceforth, TCs) and their peculiar characteristics.

I began by discussing the origin of the TC framework with Meyer’s and Land’s research into the pedagogy of economics, and how certain concepts in any discipline seemed to demand a disproportionate amount of time and energy to be learned.  These “liminal” moments in pedagogy represented not just a barrier to understanding, but also an opportunity to understand the latent structures of a discipline. The key shift is to use learners’ difficulties with particular points in the curriculum to discern the discipline’s most counter-intuitive concepts and practices. These particularly “troublesome” points then become the privileged point of entry (what Cousins calls the “jewels in the curriculum”) into a disciplinary field, and the community it serves.

“Liminal” also follows Victor Turner’s famous anthropological arguments about the importance of liminality for entry into a community (think: bar or bat mitzvah, hazing rituals, etc.), in this case a disciplinary community. I also stressed how much TCs confirmed the experienced teacher’s insight into the non-linearity of learning, the moments of slowdown, frustration, or interruption that somehow get transformed into Aha! moments of recognition and integration at some key moment, at least for successful students.

I added that there were three key metaphors for the TC: Roadblocks, Wheel-spinning, and Portals, each of which is characterized by the frustration and anxiety of the learner shuttling back and forth between disciplinary and pre-disciplinary understandings, only to be brought to the other side eventually by practice and repeated explanations.

At this point, I asked participants to pair off, share their concepts, then discuss with the group their TCs. As we discussed the examples, I tried to relate them to the major features pointed out by Cousins and Meyer and Land:

  • “transformative” (causing a significant shift in the learner’s perceptions or identity),
  • “integrative” (exposing the previously hidden interrelatedness of a field),
  • “troublesome” (disrupting commonsense or pragmatic understandings), “irreversible” (unlikely, once learned, to be forgotten), and finally,
  • “bounded” (subject to continual debate).

As the whiteboard image demonstrates, we discussed examples from teacher’s training (lesson plans); agricultural education (implementation of concepts); dance (space and spatial relationships); psychology (reliability and validity); literature and writing (plagiarism); and faculty development (prior knowledge).

We had some discussion of how to recognize TCs, and especially how to distinguish TCs from more conventional approaches, such as the “key concepts” that are conventionally “covered” in introductory or survey courses; unlike “key concepts,” TCs need to be singled out and emphasized, but only after the student has gathered enough information to see how the TC helps to organize and integrate, often in a counter-intuitive way,  once-scattered phenomena.

There was also a suggestion that we consistently switch up our forms of classroom assessment (sometimes process-oriented, sometimes product-oriented), so that we could catch the mental processes of students as they struggled with the TCs.

Finally, there was also some questioning whether this approach was sufficiently student-centered, since it focused so much on the instructor-as-expert diagnosing the error-ridden novice learner.  The response was that there was nothing in this that prevented a student-centered approach, since it demanded careful listening to students’ formulations to see where their misconceptions were leading them.  Nevertheless, this approach did in fact allow disciplinary instructors to focus not so much on general learning theory, but specifically and concretely on how students encountered a discipline and attempted to master it. This return to disciplinary terms and a disciplinary vocabulary made it more likely to gain hold among higher ed teachers who must always keep the disciplinary perspective in view.

TCs represent the primary point of contact between the novice learner and the expert disciplinary community she is attempting to enter. Novices begin this process with only the vaguest understanding of the tacit knowledge embedded within the disciplinary culture they aspire to, or draw from. The TC framework holds a lot of promise as a way to refocus both pedagogical practice and curricular structures.



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