Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Concepts, Trouble and Suspicion

Written by: on January 22, 2024

I picked up and began to read Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding[1] and came across the concept of “Threshold Concept”[2] I began to wonder what threshold concepts I or my department teach.  I am an assistant professor of social work at a small Christian liberal arts university located in the corn fields of Central Ohio.  Our department is tasked with preparing our students to be generalist practitioners in the field of social work.  The Council of Social Work Education (CSWE) which accredits our program tasks us with teaching nine social work competencies focusing on topic such as ethics, promoting advocacy and justice, recognizing diversity, working with “individuals, families, groups and organizations” and policy. [3]  While our ultimate goal is to prepare students to be effective practitioners, our more immediate goal is to prepare students for their senior year field education experience.  CSWE considers field education to be the “signature pedagogy”, which CSWE defines as “elements of instruction and socialization that teach future practitioners the fundamental dimensions of professional work in their discipline: to think, to perform, and to act intentionally, ethically and with integrity.”[4]  I think the term signature pedagogy and threshold concepts have similarities. Meyer and Land define threshold concepts as “a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learned cannot progress.” [5]  Our social work students cannot progress without learning and demonstrating the nine competencies.

As I read the books and watched the video, I considered not only what our threshold concepts are, but what do I think our department teaches that is “troublesome knowledge”[6] I considered our Code of Ethics published by the National Association of Social Workers.  The Code of Ethics contains the profession’s values and principles that guide our practice; concepts such as “service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person.”[7] Most of the time the values and principles are not troublesome knowledge, we teach students how they parallel with scripture.  However, as you get into the standards of practice, we find some troublesome knowledge.  Many first-year students do not like it when they learn that they are not ethically allowed to share their faith with their clients.  Another is the concept of self-determination, many students want to help people and give them the right answers, yet we must allow clients to make their own decisions.  A student just recently talked about how she had that aha moment that we cannot help everyone.  She talked about a homeless client that appeared to be struggling with mental health issues refused to get a mental health evaluation and refused from her a blanket and food.  As much as she wanted to help him, she realized that he had to make his own decisions.

Another threshold concept, that can be troublesome knowledge which Glynis Cousin [8] discussed, is Otherness.  Our program spends a lot of classroom time ensuring that students understand this threshold concept.  We work to help them understand their level of ethnocentrism, their biases, and the various social groups to which they belong.  For those who may be unfamiliar with the term ethnocentrism, the American Psychological Association defines it as “the practice of regarding one’s own ethnic, racial or social group as the center of all things” and the “tendency to judge one’s group as superior to other groups.” [9]  I just had a recent example of a student experiencing troublesome knowledge last fall.  As part of our curriculum, I have to teach the concept of Critical Race Theory (CRT).  I tell students the resource that I use and how the author of the book states that even among those who embrace CRT not everyone agrees on every concept, but these are ones most can agree upon.[10]  As part of the course evaluation the student was upset that I taught from a book that has been banned in some schools.  The student was unable to get past the idea that just maybe what he had previously been taught or heard about CRT and what various school boards believe about CRT might possibly be wrong.  He was unable to view the world from another group’s perspective.  This of course reminded me of Kathryn Schulz’s book Being Wrong[11]

There is so much that can be discussed on how these ideas relate to leaders and leadership development.  However, I want to conclude by discussing comments made by Ray Land, Jan Meyer and Michael Flanagan in Threshold Concepts in Practice.[12]  In the introduction to the book they suggest that higher education institutions have become service providers, and that the student should be comfortable throughout their educational experience[13]  While in Oxford, Dr. Martyn Percy challenged us saying that “Education is schooling in suspicion” and that we need to “teach suspicion or you fail.”[14] Teaching students to be suspicious does not encourage comfort.  I agree with Percy’s comments, yet I also agree with Land, Meyer and Flanagan’s comments.  As a small private institution, our main source of revenue is students and without students, we will cease to exist, so I am tasked with keeping students comfortable.  Yet, I want to challenge my students, I want them to be uncomfortable and suspicious.  I struggle to know how to balance the two, so I have reached what Robert Coven discussed as a threshold barrier.[15]  I am being tasked with reviewing my course designs, picking out the “jewels in the curriculum” and going to other professors, experts, and learning from them how they effectively engage their students, so that I can have my aha moment and become an expert.[16] [17]

[1] Jan H Meyer and Ray Land, eds.  Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (New York: Routledge, 2006).

[2] Meyer and Land, eds, 3.


[3] Council on Social Work Education. Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards for Baccalaureate and Master’s Social Work Programs ww.cswe.org/getmedia/bb5d8afe-7680-42dc-a332-a6e6103f4998/2022-EPAS.pdf


[4] Council on Social Work Education, 20.

[5] Meyer and Land, eds, 3.

[6] Meyer and Land, eds. xv.

[7] National Association of Social Workers, Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English.

[8] Glynis Cousin, “Threshold Concepts, Troublesome Knowledge and Emotional Capital.” In Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge edited by Jan H Meyer and Ray Land, New York: Routledge, 2006.

[9] American Psychological Association “Ethnocentrism” APA Dictionary of Psychology, accessed on January 19, 2024, https://dictionary.apa.org/ethnocentrism.

[10] Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic,  Critical Race Theory 3rd ed. (New York: NYU Press, 2023).

[11] Kathryn Schulz, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010).

[12] Ray Land, Jan H.F. Meyer and Michael T. Flanagan, eds. Threshold Concepts in Practice (Boston: Sense Publishers,EBSCO.

[13] Land, Meyer, and Flanagan, xi.

[14] Martyn Percy (lecture, Portland Seminary, Oxford England, September 23, 2023).

[15] Robert Coven, “Breaking Through: Threshold Concepts as a Key to Understanding, November 28, 2018, Tedx Talks, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCPYSKSFky4.

[16] Meyer and Land, eds, 198,

[17] Robert Coven, 01:20.

About the Author

Jeff Styer

Jeff Styer lives in Northeast Ohio's Amish Country. He has degrees in Social Work and Psychology and currently works as a professor of social work at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. Jeff is married to his wife, Veronica, 25+ years. Together they have 4 beautiful children (to be honest, Jeff has 4 kids, Veronica says she is raising 5). Jeff loves the outdoors, including biking, hiking, camping, birding, and recently picked up disc golf.

15 responses to “Concepts, Trouble and Suspicion”

  1. mm Shela Sullivan says:

    Hi Jeff, I enjoyed reading your posting. Great insights

    In the last paragraph of your post, your mentioned, “As a small private… so that I can have my aha moment and become an expert,” sheds light on the intricate balancing act you confront within a small private institution, where the financial sustenance relies heavily on student enrollment. I wholeheartedly support your aspiration to challenge students, creating discomfort and fostering suspicion, all while acknowledging the imperative to maintain student comfort for sustained enrollment.
    Your reference to Robert Coven’s concept of a “threshold barrier” underscores your acute awareness of the complexities inherent in this situation.
    How could the concept of a “threshold barrier,” articulated by Robert Coven, be applied to your unique circumstances? Specifically, what challenges and opportunities do you foresee emerging from this delicate balance between challenging students and ensuring their comfort?

    • Jeff Styer says:

      Our university has what they call the Center for Innovative Education (CIE). They put on trainings throughout the year, and I have attended some of them. My threshold barrier comes from my inability to see how the ideas that are presented can translate to my social work curriculum. I have a meeting scheduled for next week with one of the CIE instructors to discuss this.
      Regarding the balance between comfort and being challenged comes from some of the social work concepts I must teach and how some believe they contradict Christian values. Our former University president had a daughter who is a social worker so he understood the challenge and defended us to the board of trustees. We now have a new president so, it’s too early to tell what his thoughts and opinions are.

  2. Christy Liner says:

    Hi Jeff, great post.

    Your student who realized that she cannot help everyone, and that your clients have to make their own decisions must have grown exponentially as she crossed that threshold.

    I was just pondering some of the underlying reasons why this is a hard concept to grasp. I am curious if there is a way to help students cross a threshold like this with upstream wisdom (the underlying reason), vs. the issue you described?

    • Jeff Styer says:

      In one of my classes I teach, Cultural and Human Diversity, I start out talking first about how we are all the same, human, I reference the Genesis creation account and then move on to discuss the Fall to discuss our self-centered nature and how this led to various biases toward others. Maybe at this point in time, it would be beneficial to also talk about how the Fall also impacts clients choosing not to accept help from us or others; the idea that we often hold that we always know what is best for us. I will have to further ponder your question.

  3. Adam Cheney says:

    Struggling to balance the two is always hard. I struggle to balance speaking boldly to other Christians about the need to engage with the ‘other’ here in our community but also rely on donations being made by those same people I don’t want to ostracize. I imagine teaching from a banned book on CRT can be difficult in this modern age. I appreciate that you brought Percy into the blog regarding suspicion. It is good to challenge others to think deeply about what we think and our pre-concieved notions about what we have been told. Now that you have read about threshold concepts and have more terminology to discuss it, would you say anything different to the same student now?

    • Jeff Styer says:

      The student I discussed is a senior and not a social work student so there is the likelihood that I will never see this student again. However, next year, when I discuss ethnocentrism, I will stress how they will need to be willing to challenge all their beliefs throughout the class and be willing to consider that they might be wrong.

  4. Graham English says:

    Jeff, I appreciated reading your blog. It gave me a window into the world that you are in and some of the challenges you must face in it. It’s also helpful as I think about developing pastoral leaders. I think some of the troublesome knowledge for our pastors is the amount of energy they have to put into their own development as leaders and into leading the people around them.

    I’m assuming that when you say, that they are not allowed to share their faith that you mean they are not allowed to proselytize. How do you help them to integrate their faith into their work?

    • Jeff Styer says:

      You are correct, I mean they are not allowed to proselytize to their clients. At the end of one of the classes I teach, I have them read the first chapter in John Stott’s book Christian Mission in the Modern World where he discusses how social justice and evangelism are related to each other in carrying out the Great Commission “As the Father sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). This allows the students to see that doing “social work” is still a way to be sent into the world and does tend to alleviate some of their apprehensions.

  5. Nancy Blackman says:

    Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for sharing more about your professional experience as a professor, and how that intersects with what you’re learning.

    You also mention areas that I think many, even non-students, navigate in life. We, as humans, tend to be self-determined. We have been taught certain things by childhood caregivers and we think that’s what is. Then we are thrown out into the world whether it be going to college or starting to work. It is then when we are around people who don’t think and act the way that we are familiar with that we either dig our heels down and become more self-determined or we open ourselves up to questions.

    You mentioned the fact that often first-year students want to help others get to the answer by telling them the right answer. What are some steps you take to help them transition from being self-determined to allowing the other person figure it out on their own? I imagine it’s different for each person, but what seems to be the most popular way for students to cross over?

    I also loved your reminder of Dr. Martyn Percy and how he challenged us to be suspicious. I remember that. Without skepticism we become too comfortable, eh?

    Thanks so much, Jeff!

    • Jeff Styer says:

      Great question, I think we stress the concept of client self-determination over and over again, in each class we teach. We tend to use examples where this needs to occur and process those examples. We also instruct them on the limits, such as if a client were to talk about hurting themselves or someone else, we must intervene. One example we use is when we are discussing domestic violence. We tell our students that we cannot force a client to leave or even report their partner to law enforcement. That doesn’t necessarily cross the limit for allowing a client to self-determine, as much as we want it to cross the threshold.

  6. mm Kari says:

    Thank you for what you are doing to invest in the next generation of social workers. In the US healthcare system, I worked closely with our social workers. Your work is hard, often thankless, and yet so essential.

    I appreciate your recognition of the tension of keeping students “comfortable” for the sake of revenue and challenging them “to be uncomfortable and suspicious” for the sake of growth. What can you do to help your students be comfortable with being uncomfortable and suspicious? What do you need to also feel comfortable with finding this balance?

    • Jeff Styer says:

      Great questions, let me answer the second one first. What I need is to know beyond doubt, is that I am supported by the administration and trustees of the University.
      To answer your first question, I think actual education on the concept of being comfortable with feeling uncomfortable is a place to begin. We really do not teach this concept to people growing up. I had this conversation last fall with one of the campus mental health counselors during my discovery workshop. Our society is tailored to keep us comfortable.

      • Julie O'Hara says:

        Hi Jeff, I read your post with great interest given my many connections to the educational system in which you operate. I choose to comment here because of your great suggestion about education on being uncomfortable. Perhaps the idea of ‘being uncomfortable’ is an actual threshold concept for Jesus-followers to move from personal salvation toward bringing good news to the poor.

  7. Diane Tuttle says:

    Jeff, I liked reading your analysis of your work teaching social work and how it relates to what we are learning.
    Relating troublesome knowledge to actions by your students sounded familiar. My husband worked for years with men who were unhoused. Their lives were so different that ours but their lives had a richness to them that you could only see if you spent time with them. getting beyond the troublesome knowledge of thinking everyone needs to be “fixed” is important. Thanks for sharing her learning.

  8. Jeff Styer says:

    Thanks, Diane, for your comments.

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