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

Threshold concepts are everywhere

Written by: on January 23, 2024

Threshold concepts (as described by Meyer and Land in Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding)[1] are often studied by educators [2], however, the impact extends far beyond the scope of academia into most domains of life. 

Reflecting on my own experiences, I realized how threshold concepts played a pivotal role in reshaping my worldview, challenging preconceived notions, and even finding practical application in the professional sphere.

Growing up in a very stable, Christian home, with two parents and nearly zero turmoil, my upbringing was marked with evangelical conservatism. While this resulted in a simple and joyful childhood, I graduated high school with a level of naivety that became a thorn in my side as I entered adulthood. As a young adult, I saw the world through a narrow lens. I am embarrassed to admit it now, but I believed that suffering in the world was minimal, attributing most hardships to individual choices. I could not understand why people struggled to trust others because my experience told me that the world was generally a safe place and people are good and can be trusted.

I had my first major dose of the world’s brokenness when I joined YoungLives as a mentor for teen moms. The young ladies I met through YoungLives had experienced more trauma in childhood than most adults will in a lifetime. Some of the young women were moms due to sexual abuse, others due to poor choices stemming from their own traumatic experiences. As some of them shared their stories with me, I was crushed by the weight of the sin done against them. In many ways, I experienced second-hand trauma through their experiences.

Then I crossed a threshold of understanding and it was transformative, like described by Meyer and Land. [3] 

Suddenly, I comprehended the profound impact of their circumstances. 

Homelessness wasn’t solely the consequences of their poor decisions but the result of the brokenness in this world and sin inflicted upon them. 

They were just children raising children – some of the moms being as young as 11. This impacted me deeply and the effects were irreversible – just like a threshold concept. [3] 

I also found this new insight to be quite troubling. I wrestled with feelings similar to survivors’ guilt, grief over unfair judgements I had made, deep sadness over the world’s brokenness, and confusion over one’s autonomy to determine their own destiny. This troublesome knowledge felt foreign and alien as it conflicted with my previously held beliefs. [4]

In studying this week, I realized that crossing a threshold is related to what we gain from being a demanding reader, as described by Adler in How to Read a Book. [5]

Being a demanding reader doesn’t allow us to just regurgitate facts or simply obtain tacit knowledge, but requires us to ask questions until we can internalize concepts and wrestle with the content to the point of understanding. [6]

I had a fun learning experience today using threshold concepts in the workplace. In a leadership team meeting at SIL International, we were discussing the difficulty in communicating to donors why the work we’re doing is incredibly important for minority language communities. Several leaders working in marketing and communications lamented that our prospective donors don’t understand the importance of language and wish we could communicate as clearly as organizations like charity:water. At SIL, we believe that “Language is essential to human life. The languages we speak or sign are at the very core of our human identity and integral to our ability to flourish in life. 25% of the world’s people are left out because of language-related barriers”. [7] 

We believe that language is essential to human flourishing and yet we can’t communicate this in a compelling way to a broader audience. 

I explained threshold concepts to the team and it resonated that this was indeed the barrier we needed to discern. 

I questioned the leadership team if there was a way we could test for understanding in people, similar to the testing on opportunity cost in chapter 7 of Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding.[8]  I suggested that if we can determine the point at which people cross the threshold, we can possibly help an outsider cross this threshold to understand the importance of language in flourishing. 

We ran out of time in our meeting, but agreed to pursue this in a future leadership meeting. Thanks Dr. Clark for choosing threshold concepts for our reading this week – it has potential to impact the flourishing of minority language communities around the world.


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

[2] Breaking Through: Threshold Concepts as a Key to Understanding | Robert Coven | TEDx Cary Academy, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCPYSKSFky4.

[3] Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding, 7.

[4] Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding, 12.

[5] Adler, Mortimer J. 1902-2001 and Charles Van Doren. 2014. How to Read a Book. New York, A Touchstone Book, Published by Simon & Schuster.

[6] Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding, 104.

[7] www.sil.org, Accessed January 23, 2024.

[8] Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding, 100-114. 

About the Author

Christy Liner

11 responses to “Threshold concepts are everywhere”

  1. Adam Cheney says:

    What great timing and good job on recognizing the threshold that was holding back support and being willing to speak about what you are currently learning. I find that I often share about what I am currently reading or learning as a natural way of processing the information myself and sharing with others along the journey. I agree that threshold concepts hold people back everywhere. I understand that the leadership team will come back to the issue but I wonder if you could take a guess at what is holding people back from recognizing the value in differences in language? Do you think it has to do with their theology regarding the Tower of Babel?

    • Christy Liner says:

      Hi Adam, great question! The theology in the Tower of Babel definitely plays a role, but I think a larger issue is that monolingual English speakers have a hard time imagining a world where opportunity is lost simply because of the language you speak (or don’t speak). It’s hard to imagine lack of access to proper healthcare, education, employment opportunities because of my language.

  2. mm Ryan Thorson says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your own journey of transformation and empathy, Christy, and for the actionable moment from our reading this week. Isn’t it great when what we’re studying integrates into our actual lives?

    I also appreciate the callback to Adler’s book (which seems like forever a go now) and how being a demanding reader is similar to how we can approach the problems and thresholds of the work that we are engaged in. Wonderful insight! Thank you!

  3. mm Shela Sullivan says:

    I enjoyed reading about your journey, Christy,

    Your personal narrative effectively illustrates the transformative power of encountering threshold concepts in real-life situations. The connection between your experiences and the theoretical framework presented by Meyer and Land is well-established, enhancing the credibility of your reflections. The example from your workplace demonstrates a practical application of threshold concepts.
    How did your approach to learning contribute to your transformative experiences?

  4. mm Glyn Barrett says:

    Wow, Christy, thanks for the blog. Your journey through threshold concepts is both personal and professionally insightful. The transformative moment with YoungLives illustrates the profound impact of crossing thresholds in understanding societal issues. It’s brilliant how you applied this understanding to a workplace scenario at SIL International, recognising a communication barrier about the importance of language.
    We run ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) in our church, for those from non-english speaking countries to England. Considering your workplace application, what strategies do you envision implementing to help donors cross the threshold of understanding, especially regarding the importance of language in human flourishing?

    • Christy Liner says:

      Hi Glyn, I wish I knew at this point, but I think it’s going to require a substantial amount of research to uncover. But at least we have a clear understanding of our next step, praise God!

  5. Nancy Blackman says:

    Hi Christy!

    It’s impressive to read about your heart to journey with young pre-teen and teenage moms.

    This statement you made—“I realized that crossing a threshold is related to what we gain from being a demanding reader…” hit home with me. You can’t cross the threshold unless you demand more — both from yourself and the subject matter at hand.

    That’s powerful!

    Also, when you referred to language barriers, I immediately remembered a driver who worked at a flower shop I used to work at. He didn’t know how to read.

    It’s understandable that you would wonder how it is that he was the most successful driver in the shop. One day, I asked him how he was able to make deliveries given that he didn’t know how to read. He said, “Oh, that’s easy! The letters are symbols. I can match up the symbols.” But mostly, I often heard him asking the owner the order of his deliveries by street name. He knew Washington DC like no one I ever met.

    I wonder how much of how we communicate is less about “knowing” and more about “understanding.” In other words, when I’m in social situations with people who don’t speak English, I tend to use my hands more.

    So, I’m curious: in what ways will you suggest helping people cross over?

    There is a beautiful Italian phrase for that — attraversiamo — which literally means to cross the road, but has been used figuratively to mean to cross over, going through, and let’s cross over, as if to indicate that we will do it together.

    May you help those cross over well 🫶🏽.

  6. Elysse Burns says:

    Christy, thank you for sharing your experience at YoungLives. This is very difficult work. Exposure to these situations definitely leave an irreversible impression. I find that we can either retreat from these painful things or something pushes us to continue engaging. What helped you work through the second-hand trauma?

    • Christy Liner says:

      Hi Elysse,

      The Lord has been kind to me. I tend to pick up burdens that aren’t mine to carry, but He constantly reminds me to lay them back down.

  7. Daren Jaime says:

    Christy! Thank you for bringing us into your personal experience. I immediately resonated with this as i grew up in a two parent household. It was not until mid college that I came to the realization of how blessed I was as many of my peers did not have the same experience. It was also rewarding to read how you encouraged your team in the area of linguistic competency. This approach may have felt foreign to your team but to those you served it paved the way for belonging and inclusiveness.

  8. mm Chris Blackman says:

    Hi Christy! Thank you for sharing a part of your background. I, too, grew up with parents who gave me a jilted view of the real world. Not once did I ever see them fight; not once was there a raised voice in the house. They were civic-minded, and my dad was a huge homeless advocate and just a good guy. When I got older, I didn’t know what to do when someone got angry with me. I had no idea that marriage was hard. There were so many unknowns to me.
    Sadly, I did not model any of what I had as a kid to my daughters and put them through a lot, which breaks my heart to this day.
    Can I safely assume you show your kids a “more real” way of life?

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