Have you ever wondered how some of our students seem to naturally catch on and succeed in their studies? They may or may not have an extraordinary aptitude in any particular content area, yet they can grasp and apply the fundamental concepts in a variety of subjects and excel.
Some would say it is because they are gifted or talented in a specific discipline, while others may say it is because they are intelligent or smart. Though this may be true for some, economists Land and Meyer (2003) would say that gaining valuable insights and transforming conceptual understanding in any subject is dependent upon attaining the unique and specific Threshold Concepts that are inherent within each discipline.
“A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress.” (Land and Meyer, 2003, p. 3, emphasis mine)
To become an interior designer, you must be able to understand and apply color theory
To study basic economics, you must grasp the concept of opportunity cost
To become a music teacher, you must learn to audiate and internalize scale degree relationships
The word threshold in the context of a threshold concept does not represent a boundary or an end of something, such as the threshold of hearing or the threshold of pain. But rather, it implies a “place or point of entering or beginning.” (Merriam-Webster)
Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments (ETL) Project
Through their research in economics and working with their colleagues at the University of Edinburgh, Land and Meyer sought to identify prominent factors that led to high-quality learning environments in undergraduate classes within five interdisciplinary contexts. The Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments (ETL) Project focused on learning outcomes and sought to differentiate between (1) core learning outcomes and (2) threshold concepts through which students learn to see and experience their field of study in a new and transformative way. Through their research, the following characteristics were conceptualized and can help us identify the attributes we all experience when a threshold concept is realized.
Threshold Concepts Characteristics
Transformation – There is a conceptual shift in perception and practice as the internal mental framework becomes modified and reworked. Once grasped, the new learning experience leads to a deeper view and awareness of the subject and oneself as a learner.
Integration– Current experiences, commonalities, patterns, and interconnectedness are recognized, explored, and applied to the existing mental structures of a discipline.
Bounded and Irreversible – As a student’s conceptual knowledge expands and multiplies, the recently acquired understandings and skills define new boundaries and create new concept thresholds. This new thinking or skill is generally irreversible and is unlikely to be forgotten or unlearned, much like swimming.
Troublesome – Conceptual adjustments require a reconstructive change that involves a shift of thinking, practice, and identity. This unfamiliar learning transformation may feel counter-intuitive and takes time.
Conceptual Transformation and Troublesome Knowledge
Attaining and grasping a threshold concept in any subject is both rewarding and demanding. It can be exhilarating and relieving as the new conceptual understanding opens previously inaccessible and advanced ways of thinking and performing. It is the aha or eureka moment we experience with our students as they gain insight into a challenging skill or concept as they cross a threshold from their past beliefs to a transformed deeper understanding. Through this realization, students become aware of the limitations of isolated perspectives and learn to acknowledge, accommodate, and value multiple perspectives and new practices.
Threshold concepts are also challenging and demanding because to achieve new conceptual understanding, students must actively experience, wrestle with, and move through what Perkins (1999) calls Troublesome Knowledge. Hawkins and Edwards (2013) define this experience as Managing the Monsters of Doubt. Recent research by Davies and Guest (2009) titled Towards the Bigger Picture discusses student acquisition of knowledge through Threshold Concepts.
- The transformation experience is both cognitive and affective.
- The change in a students’ conceptual structure is not based on the acquisition of knowledge.
- Students’ beliefs are highly resistant to change; this challenges their current way of thinking.
- A conceptual shift is complex and requires time to rework and revisit current understandings.
- Students must break the cycle of using fixed views and unproductive beliefs and behaviors.
- New understandings can be emotional and may involve shifts in the students’ sense of identity.
- Student responses to reflection and self-assessment could be defensive and disheartening.
To help my students work through the difficult process of troublesome knowledge, I incorporated the work of Carol S. Dweck and her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success into my classroom and rehearsal environment.
The sign hangs just above the threshold as you enter and leave my classroom. It serves as a reminder that learning and growing take hard work.
Teaching Music Through Threshold, Procedural and Base Concepts
Keeping the above challenges in mind, how then can we apply and incorporate threshold concepts into the music curriculum and the choral classroom? Davies and Mangan (2007) incorporated threshold concepts into teaching economics and present a new model of instruction. Their work offers the following three conceptual categories: Basic Concepts (I will refer to as Base Concepts), Procedural Concepts, and Threshold Concepts.
Below is an example of how this model used in teaching economics can be applied to music instruction.
Threshold Concept – Melodic and harmonic correlations
Procedural Concepts – Key Signatures identification and relationships within the circle of 5th Base Concepts – Pitch recognition, alterations, and the corresponding notation
Agile Development Instructional Framework
The Agile Development Instructional Framework (ADIF) provides a structure that allows flexibility in content and delivery as students learn to move through a variety of threshold concepts by reworking and revisiting base and procedural concepts.
By using the ADIF model, teachers can freely and effectively move holonomicly through their instruction and foster metacognition and autonomy. ADIF allows directors to teach through the repertoire and not teach to the repertoire.
The Liminal State and Mimicry
One of the biggest challenges in teaching music through threshold concepts occurs when an individual or ensemble gets stuck in a Liminal State. This is the space where they have not totally left their old understanding behind, yet they are not fully cognizant of their pending new knowledge or skill.
What once had been familiar and known is now distressing, disorienting, and unknown. Students tend to want to return to their old learning states and patterns where it was comfortable and safe. If we are not careful, our students and ensembles will unknowingly settle in a liminal state and, as a coping strategy, replace authentic learning with mimicry (Cousins, 2006) and rote learning.
When this happens, the remedy is to temporarily usher the ensemble or individual back out of the liminal space and revisit and rework underlying procedural and base concepts needed for that threshold concept. We must teach them that to grow musically and not rely on old patterns or the usual way of learning and performing.
A Word of Caution
If we are not careful in our desire to help our students succeed, WE tend to pull and carry our students through threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge by using successful rehearsal techniques, teaching strategies, and at times sheer talent. We tend to default to our teacher training and conditioned responses, and WE end up carrying our students through liminal spaces and troublesome knowledge. I know I am guilty of this at times.
This teacher-directed-conceptual-understanding methodology is successful and can produce outstanding concerts, but it will not and cannot create self-sufficient, self-discovering, or self-actualized young musicians.
“Being willing to explore liminal spaces means that a music teacher must be a risk-taker, someone who is not afraid to go against the grain, who is willing to let go of preconceived ideas about power, status, and the taken-for-granted. . . . . . letting go of the barriers that traditional education has put into place, and admitting there are things not known, not accessible.” (Emmanuel, D 2011, p. 63)
tl;dr: Threshold Concepts and The Three Umpires Story
“The story goes that three umpires disagreed about the task of calling balls and strikes.
The first one said, ‘I calls them as they is.’ (Base Concept)
The second one said, ‘I calls them as I sees them.’ (Procedural Concept)
The third and cleverest umpire said, ‘They ain’t nothin’ till I calls them.'” (Threshold Concept)
(Simons 1976: 29 as cited in Weick in The Social Psychology of Organizing 1979: 1)
Threshold Concepts in Practice
Threshold Concepts: A Short Introduction and a Bibliography from 2003 to 2018
Threshold concepts: Impacts on teaching and learning at tertiary level
Threshold Concepts & Undergraduate Mathematics Teaching
Learning Portals: Analyzing Threshold Concept Theory for LIS Education
Threshold Concepts and the Integration of Understanding in Economics
Threshold Concepts and Modalities for Teaching Leadership Practice
Ackles, B., 2018. Agile Development Instructional Framework (ADIF): A New Strategy for Student-Centered Music Education. Choral Journal, September 2018. Vol. 59, No. 2.
Argyris, C., & Schon, D. (1978). Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Cousin, G. (2006) An Introduction to Threshold Concepts, Planet, 17:1, 4-5, DOI: 10.11120/plan.2006.00170004
Davies, P. Guest, R., (2009) Towards the Bigger Picture. International Review of Economics Education, Volume 8, Issue 1, Pages 6-12, ISSN 1477-3880, https://doi.org/10.1016/S1477-3880(15)30082-7. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1477388015300827)
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House Publishing Group
Emmanuel, D (2011) Liminality as thought and action. Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education 10(1): 47–68. http://act.maydaygroup.org/articles/Emmanuel10_1.pdf
Hawkins, B, and Edwards, G. (2013) Managing the Monsters of Doubt: Liminality, Threshold Concepts and Leadership Learning. Management Learning 46, no. 1 (2013): 24-43. doi:10.1177/1350507613501736.
Meyer, J., and Land, R., (2006) Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding. doi:10.4324/9780203966273.
Nesari, Ali Jamali. (2015) Dialogism Versus Monologism: A Bakhtinian Approach to Teaching. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 205: 642-47. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.09.101.
Perkins, D. (1999). The Many Faces of Constructivism, Educational