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

Pedagogy of Portals

Written by: on January 27, 2024

My cousin and I had two favorite childhood games. The first was “Little House on the Prairie.”  We lived in the country so it was easy to perform in such a setting.  We’d act out our favorite episodes or make up new drama that allowed us to practice our problem solving skills.  The second game was simply called “School.”  This required a bit more planning to make it feel real.  At the end of each school year we’d raid the old textbooks, readers and used planners the teachers would pile up on tables for kids to take home. These were our props we’d use all summer in the attic of her garage.  We’d take turns playing the parts of teacher and student, we often threw in some disciplinary problems for each other to work through.  These games led me to dream of being an actress when I grew up.  Turns out, if you act like a teacher and a student long enough – that’s what you become.

I watched Robert Coven’s video “Breaking Through: Threshold Concepts as a Key to Understanding” as both a student and an educator.  I appreciated his distinction between precision and accuracy.  When we ask and only answer the obvious question, we get an answer but it’s not necessarily the right one.  This seems to fit my way of learning and processing, as well as simply living in the world.    I’ve never lived the precise, cookie cutter life.  I’m an expert at improvising in the moment because I never know what’s going to happen moment by moment.  I usually dismiss the first answers as too obvious, and instead seek what’s missing.  “What is missing is often more important than what is known.”[1]  I prefer discovering adventure rather than planning for one.  I enjoy the kind of browsing that leads to more questions.  This annoyed my teachers all through high school and my fellow students in college. I’d always ask the questions that would cause the professor to veer off the planned lesson. As a teacher, I worked outside the public school system because traditional pedagogical practices were tight and stiff.  Conformity was the goal, not creativity, which rubbed me raw like an over starched shirt.

Listening to Coven reminded me of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator.  His book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” transformed my teaching philosophy, affirming what I already knew to be true: students are teachers too. “The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach.”[2] I don’t position myself as the expert in my field, dropping bits of knowledge into a learner’s mind to memorize and regurgitate during exams. I’m a facilitator of learning, serving as a guide to discover new facts, different interpretations, different lenses, ask different questions.[3] Meyer & Land speak to this by asking, “Are the questions that you ask sufficiently open and non-directive to allow your students to think about issues and to find direction for themselves?”[4]

When I started reading Meyer & Land, I first thought about my favorite reading genre – fantasy.  Thresholds as “portals” made me think of Elven arches holding massive stone carved doors that enter into the next level of a magical journey.  The excitement to read on was quickly dampened when I realized that math and accounting would be a major thread in the conversation.  Math is the threshold I have never been able to break through.  What was interesting, however, was how the Holy Spirit (and a new listening app) helped me push through the barriers.

First, I had to translate the academic speak into common folk language. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit is good with tongues, so the initial transition didn’t take long.  Next, I had to make it connect to something present and applicable to my life.  I connected with two portals: 1) my math skills and 2) my son’s troublesome behavior. 

I’m a word person so as I’m reading, I’m also listening on the app, and watching the words highlight in blue as “Liz” – my chosen AI voice – provides the read-along.  Using the Smart note strategy, I try to capture a few words and phrases that felt intuitive so I could use as focal points:

  • limits
  • resistant 
  • tension
  • monitoring
  • illusions
  • interruptions
  • troublesome
  • self-concept
  • identity 
  • power

As I looked at this list, it was interesting to see how this collection of words out of context was a pretty accurate reflection of my relationship with both math and my son.  As I reviewed my notes to synthesize and process the reading and video, I was looking for an “Aha” moment, a new way of thinking that might transform my relationship with my son.  I filtered through thresholds – areas where I can’t seem to breakthrough – and identified barriers, hoping to find a new strategy that would help me overcome.  It was too much to ask from one assignment, but I did feel that “tip of the tongue” moment, like the breakthrough is right there, I just need more time (and prayer) to fully process.

It was easier to see the application when reflecting on my difficulty with numbers. When it comes to mathematics, my stuck place happened in the second grade and that’s where I’ve stayed.  I can add, subtract, multiply and divide, but I still have to use my fingers. I can do percentages for shopping discounts, and I understand graphs and charts.  If you asked me to do more beyond these very basics, I’ll start crying. Seriously.

It’s all about self-concept – the way I feel about my math skills.  This comes from meta-experience.[5] For the daily 2-minute math quiz, my second grade math teacher placed me in between the two fastest – and most popular – girls in class.  They’d get through a whole row of math facts, while I struggled to finish just one fact. I witnessed their competitive skill in sharp contrast to mine, to my left and to my right, day after day.  Brick by brick, my math barrier was constructed by the environment and my feelings about myself and the world around me.

My son’s behavioral skills are also challenged by barriers.  He is 12-years-old and has trouble regulating his emotions and impulses.  I knew adoption would come with challenges, and with prayer, I will overcome.  However, I often reach “high intrinsic load”[6] when it comes to addressing his “resistant difficulties.”[7]  It takes a lot of Holy Spirit to bring our household back into peace after one of his episodes.  These interruptions impact my own learning.  (Y’all have no idea how close I was to quitting this program because of my own “monitoring.”[8]  “I can’t do this. This is too hard.  It’s impossible to single parent a special care kid and complete a doctoral degree.”  But Holy Spirit came through.  This post is late, but I got it in.)

I was hoping to find a strategy to breakthrough his threshold in learning new behavioral skills, but I have to remeber his meta-experience: the first two years of his life he went through four different foster homes.  I’m still learning how much of his behavior is based on this beginning, or his autism, or just him being a pre-teen boy.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t really have an “Aha” moment in this week’s assignment, but that’s only because I’m still processing.  What I did takeaway from Meyer and Land was to become more aware of the way I monitor myself when approaching tasks that require math, and show greater patience for my son and his behaviors.  I need to remember that “to arrive at meaningful knowledge, they must learn through deep enquiry.”[9]  I’m in pretty deep with my kid.  God willing, we can both learn from each other.   


[1] Center for Engaged Learning. 2019, March 19. Ray Land on Threshold Concepts, Accessed on January 24, 2024. www.youtube.com/watch?v=kiNQAWFzULE.

[2] Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, translated by Myra Bergman Ramos, 30th Anniversary Edition, Continuum, 2000.

[3] Center for Engaged Learning. 2019, March 19. Ray Land on Threshold Concepts, Accessed on January 24, 2024. www.youtube.com/watch?v=kiNQAWFzULE.

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

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

About the Author

Erica Briggs

10 responses to “Pedagogy of Portals”

  1. Elysse Burns says:

    Erica, thank you for sharing some of the vulnerable life challenges you face and relating them to the literature this week. I also appreciate the process in which you interact with the assigned text. I resonated with your words concerning traditional teaching methods, “Conformity was the goal, not creativity, which rubbed me raw like an over starched shirt.” This is a space I have been navigating the past few years, getting rid of the starch! I am curious to know what space (with your many responsibilities) do find most freedom to be creative and ask those discovery questions?

    • Erica Briggs says:

      I usually find it in art, which was mentioned a couple times by Meyer and Land. The difficulty in processing is lessened, perhaps because I’m using a different side of my brain. I do mixed media art so I don’t have to worry about staying inside the lines or choosing the right answer for what’s next in the process. There is greater freedom and autonomy, it doesn’t matter if I make a mistake. It’s the process that holds the power, not the final outcome.

  2. Akwése Nkemontoh says:

    Erica, thanks so much for sharing. You have a wonderful way of putting to words to what you’re still processing. Reading this was both powerful and refreshing. A couple things in particular stood out for me:

    1.The reminder that if we ask better questions we’ll get better answers, and just how much of life is really about staying curious and looking for what isnt known. It still amazes me how we don’t teach this in schools. I love how even that ( a focus on conformity rather than creativity) drew you to explore education outside of its traditonal four walls.

    2. How so much of this has to do with our self-concept or identity. This is a big one for me, as I believe it’s those voices you described inside your head that are some of the greatest threats to us developing these “aha’s” that move us through a threshold. We have to be willing to allow our identity to feel temporarily threatened before it can expand.

    Let me also thank you for weaving in the Holy Spirit so often. It is a good reminder to me ( especially as I navigate this program and its thresholds) that I do not have to fear, worry or assign meaning to anything I feel but simply surrender and go back to the Spirit as my guide.

    • Erica Briggs says:

      I had to reread your words a couple times to let them soak in: “allow our identity to feel temporarily threatened.” The truth of this will take some time to integrate as my default reaction when threatened is defense, pull away, fight or flight. To shift this I need to take a few moments to pause and identify: what is it that I’m afraid of here in this moment?” If I could get my emotions out of the way I’m can get to that logical reflection before taking action. Those pesky feelings may be fleeting but they sure are powerful in the moment. A quick prayer I can say in 10 seconds or less will help and least draw a breathe, and let it out. I’ll repeat as necessary. Pray. Breathe. Shift. Transform.

  3. Noel Liemam says:

    Hi, Erica, thank you for your postings, I’ve learn a lot from it. Two important things that you talk about that I like are the: (1.) what Coven said in relation to asking questions. “What is missing is important than what is known.” It indicate that when we find out what is missing, it is then that we break through the threshold and a new concept is then discovered. Then, (2.) You mention, Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator, who said, “The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students…” which also indicated that breaking through the threshold barrier also takes place on the teacher side. Thanks, Erica for you posting!

    • Erica Briggs says:

      Yes, Noel, for me shifting the way we teach is paramount in shifting our culture towards transformation. The closest examples I have of education that teaches differently have been in faith based educational or community settings. When Christ is the center, threat has a firm foundation upon which to stand so learners feel secure when they meet a threshold. Shifting on the Rock of Salvation feels less scary than shifting sand.

  4. I find the way you share about your journey of discovery of a pedagogy/adragogy that fits you is bang on. It is like you have been wired for dialogue education (a la Freire) as a way to process threshold concepts. This has given you strong, confident language against the backdrop of competition and feelings of inadequacy in traditional education environments.

    I believe this in itself reveals a threshold concept you have worked through. And how you are able to walk with your son is better for it.

    Keep on, Erica

    • Erica Briggs says:

      Freire settled into my mind quite easily, so I agree that perhaps my brain is just wired that way. This is probably why I feel so uncomfortable in traditional environments because I don’t feel as if I belong. That sense of belonging is critical to being able to release the tension of not knowing how to do something. That’s another reason to call on Holy Spirit to remind me to whom I belong first and foremost, and trust in that power to provide what is necessary to make the shift in my son.

  5. Adam Cheney says:

    I just want to add that I understand the difficulties and challenges of raising an adopted teenage boy. Though I am sure our sons are different and have different and yet some similar challenges I do understand how draining it might be. Today is the day we had to tell our son he can’t play school basketball anymore because of his grades we saw over the weekend. Therapy and meds help, but it is interesting to think about the threshold concepts that are still holding him back. Thanks for sharing…know you aren’t alone.

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