The term threshold concepts inherently speaks of movement and flow from one place to another. Learners have a “transformative” experience where they understand previously “troublesome” knowledge, often by “integrating” concepts from multiple disciplines. The result of this experience is an “irreversible” clarity that is nonetheless “bounded”[i]. If that definition was a bit opaque at first, thinking in terms of clarity helped me understand.
For years my husband had been suggesting that I needed glasses. Driving on the highway, he could see road signs long before I could. (“Wait, you can see that all the way down there?” “What? You can’t?!”) I finally gave in, and I will never forget that experience of putting on my new glasses for the first time. Without them, I could see. But with them, I could SEE! Everything was crisp, clear, and beautiful (ok, maybe not beautiful, I was looking out the shop window at the dingy city street). That experience brought a whole new meaning to the word clarity. Indeed, Meyer and Land say comprehending threshold concepts is “gaining access to a new way of seeing.”[ii]
There is, however, at least one area where the term “threshold” is a bit misleading. It would be a mistake to assume that this “crossing of the threshold” happens in an instant like walking from one room to the next or like putting on a new pair of glasses for that matter. Learners necessarily pass through a liminal state, and from experience I can attest to that state lasting a LONG time, depending on the subject matter.
My most significant experiences wrestling with threshold concepts have been in adapting to a new culture on the mission field. New missionaries are overloaded with troublesome knowledge.
“Say ‘bonjour’ when you enter a shop.”
“Don’t rush through your meals.”
“Independence is a vice, not a virtue.”
These might seem basic. Why would such simple advice be troublesome? To my own embarrassment, I could share personal stories of making faux pas and causing offense because I did not fully understand these threshold concepts.
At the same time, these concepts and many more were absolutely essential to my cultural adaptation. Like threshold concepts in any field, missionaries cannot be truly effective until they internalize certain keys ideas and practices.
Brené Brown quotes Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy’s succinct definition of culture as “the way we do things around here.”[iii] It took me nearly ten years to move through that liminal state to finally be (reasonably) competent in doing life in a French way; even now I still have blind spots.
While Meyer and Land offer a variety of suggestions to move learners through their liminal states, their focus on the affective state of the learner was particularly striking to me.[iv] Discomfort and ambiguity are inevitable in real learning. This is true in adapting to a new culture, in completing a doctoral program and of course we have all experienced this in our spiritual growth. The Holy Spirit uses “trials of every kind” to develop our faith (James 1:2).
Discomfort is not the enemy; it is a sign that we are learning. Metacognitive strategies can help move us through liminality. In other words, it helps to be aware of and mindful in the struggle. We can aim to be “a learner who believes they are capable of understanding new ideas (self-efficacy), who makes positive attributions in relation to their potential for success (optimism), who can monitor and re-align goals and the pathways to attaining these goals (hope) and who does not give up in spite of the difficulties they encounter with the new knowledge (resilience) may be able to cope with liminality more effectively.”[v]
If we’re wondering about the threshold concepts are that we will face as doctoral students, Meyer and Land share six areas, taken from the work of Kiley and Wisker (2009).
- Knowledge creation
- Analysis and interpretation
- Research paradigm” (p. 439).”[vi]
I admit feeling intimidated by that list. The doctoral dissertation process is “a liminal journey, a passage characterized by ambiguity, uncertainty and crisis in which the candidate must overcome internal barriers for success.”[vii] Dare I hope that the tolerance of ambiguity that developed during years of cultural adaptation might serve me well in the doctoral process? Only time will tell.
[i] Meyer, J., & Land, R. “Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practicing within the disciplines.” London: Routledge, 2006. 7.
[ii] Ibid. 74.
[iii] Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. First trade paperback printing. New York, New York: Avery, 2015. 174.
[iv] Meyer, J., & Land, R. Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practicing within the disciplines. London: Routledge, 2006. 64.
[v] Flanagan, Michael T., Jan H.F. Meyer, & Ray Land eds. Threshold concepts in practice. Rotterdam: SensePublishers, 2016. 73.
[vi] Ibid. 156.
[vii] Ibid. 155.