Defining a Discipline: Threshold Concepts as Lines of Demarcation

A tiny plastic toy bike sits on a simple vinyl road, ready for a toy rider to take over the toy world.

I should start with a disclaimer: I was used as an impromptu example in the middle of the meeting. The sudden self-awareness was a little unsettling.

Here’s what happened. We were trying to figure out when that moment of “fitting in” happens, to see if it’s something we can expect our students to do within the confines of a single-semester writing course, or whether it’s a longer, slower, more troublesome and tedious process. The department chair—who is also my dissertation committee chair—pipes up with a comment. “I was thinking about this earlier today in a meeting I had with Chris.” I froze. That meeting was about my preparations for the comprehensive exams for my PhD program. Talking about people who struggle to get into a group isn’t really when I hoped my name would be mentioned.

She continued. “I think we saw this happening today in our meeting.” Not helping. “Chris brought me his book lists for his exams, and I think we saw him ‘get’ how the concepts he’s studying actually fit together. It was neat to see.”

Okay, so I breathed a bit more comfortably at that point, but I was still under the gun. She went on to briefly explain what we had discussed in our one-on-one earlier in the day. Namely, that my first-draft book lists were a mess—they were—and that the latest revision made sense of the issues I was trying to tackle by finding connections among the ideas and authors I have been working with in my program. According to her, my book lists made sense and, more importantly, made sense of the ideas I’m studying. It was the first time I’ve felt in control of the material, rather than swamped by it. That felt good. Hearing her say I’d done what I’d set out to do helped reinforce that feeling.

So in this committee meeting, I become the example of a person who has potentially crossed over from being an outsider. I observed that I didn’t feel successful until my chair, an existing member of the community, approved of my thinking. Here I was, a lowly graduate student, hoping to gain admission into the club. I knew what I thought would help qualify, but as an outsider, I couldn’t know for sure. I needed the blessing of someone on the inside.

Defining membership isn’t always so problematic. The Meyer and Land text I mentioned above, titled Overcoming barriers to student understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge,” explains disciplinary membership in terms of the “threshold concepts” that a person needs to understand in order to be in a group. In my case with my book lists, someone else needed to tell me if I viewed the concepts on my list the same way as someone already in the group. That’s typically how it has to happen with these concepts, because they involve a shift in perspective—a process often difficult to navigate with any degree of control. We in the meeting struggled with identifying what ideas in our field counted as threshold concepts, admitting to some uncertainty in their definition. I’d like to explore the idea of a “threshold concept” in terms of a slightly simpler, clearer, more physical, and self-identifying group: bike riders. To do this, I’m taking a liberty and positioning the ability to ride a bike as a threshold skill, knowing full well it is not, in the terms Meyer and Land use, a concept. But I think the situation still works.

In order to be a member of the community of bike-riders, a person must simply do one thing: be able to ride a bike. I say “simply” very self-consciously. To adults, riding a bike is dismissively simple. To younger people, the challenge can feel insurmountable. I’ve seen a number of people get mad at bikes that tip over when they aren’t supposed to. Even more perplexing and frustrating is the act of telling a child how to ride a bike when that knowledge isn’t already available to the child. You just get on the bike and go…right? Unfortunately, the adult/teacher knows the threshold concepts of the bike-riding community, while the child does not. That’s a big gap to cross. Let’s explore that space.

Figuring out how to work with—rather than independently from—the spinning wheels opens up a new understanding of transportation. The act of learning to ride a bike is such a significant milestone of learning that it becomes a childhood rite of passage. The idea of “passage” is significant with threshold concepts, as they serve as gateways through which people must pass before understanding the views of a group. That passage has additional implications, which, according to Meyer and Land, are consistent. They say a threshold concept is transformative, irreversible, integrative, bounded, and troublesome. An review of each of these characteristics in terms of riding a bike helps show what children are up against when trying to cross that threshold.

  • Transformative — Being able to ride a bike provides freedom to go further from home than previously possible/allowed. It creates a new view of one’s neighborhood, as distances become shorter. Travel time among friends is reduced, and in some cases, access to a friend’s house may only be possible because a child can ride, rather than walk. In essence, the child’s interactions with, and understanding of, the neighborhood or surroundings transforms because of these new possibilities. There’s a new neighborhood to explore in a new way.
  • Irreversible — “It’s like learning to ride a bicycle: once you learn, you can never forget.” I think this is significant. We cannot unlearn our ability to ride a bike. Once we understand the principles and feeling of balance, we cannot again sit on a bicycle as precariously as a child. We understand the mode of transportation, and we have integrated that understanding into our being. Is that too broadly stated? I don’t think so. Those of us who learned the skill can call ourselves bike riders. This title suggests we work differently, that we are in a different category. I don’t mean to suggest elitism here, merely difference. However, the possibility of being left out is an unavoidable consequence of anything functioning as a threshold.
  • Integrative — Riding a bicycle pulls together a sense of balance, a degree of flexibility, and a coordination of intent in response to a desire for movement. This one skill draws together and focuses other skills, giving them purpose and application through the focusing. Additionally, the elements brought together to successfully ride a bike can connect other concepts, too. For instance, understanding the principle behind gears in a transmission or the stability of a gyroscope may work better when we have a familiarity with how the gears and spinning wheels on a bicycle work together to help us ride.
  • Bounded — This characteristic, receiving brief treatment in Meyer and Land’s introduction, is considered optional. But the general idea as I see it is that the skills of riding a bike only help so far. You can’t learn to ride a skateboard by learning to ride a bike. The skill sets are distinct, and perhaps even somewhat contradictory. (Confession: I can’t skateboard, so that last sentence is a total guess.) Concepts that are bounded within one field help demarcate what does and doesn’t happen within the field.
  • Troublesome — Training wheels attest to the frustrations of learning this special skill. Their assistance prevents myriad childhood injuries through the repeated attempts and failures of learning to ride. Explaining to a child exactly why it’s hard to ride a bike can be difficult, particularly because those who are accepted members of the group no longer find the skill challenging.

This last characteristic, that of troublesomeness, is itself troublesome for education. When we try to teach our students to understand the way we think in a given field, we are asking them to shift fundamental perspectives on important topics. When students are enrolled in multiple subject areas, we are expecting a series of shifts throughout the day while they are working on developing those new perspectives. That’s hard, and it takes time. That timing can become an issue: learning to ride a bike often takes a series of attempts and repeated work. But once a person learns, little more needs to be done. They ride, and they refine their prowess through repeated practice. How does that work in a classroom, when students need to cross a threshold once, but that crossing comes at unpredictable times? How can classroom-based learning (or for that matter, credit-hour-based courses) accommodate the variability and unpredictability of threshold crossing?

These questions come at a time when others like
Ken Robinson, Sara Lipka, and the New America Foundation have started questioning the principle of time-based education. Clearly understanding—and carefully identifying—the threshold concepts in our fields may help streamline education and focus our efforts on the challenges that matter, so our students can go for a ride on their own.