ICER 2012 Day 1 Keynote: How Are We Thinking?

We started off today with a keynote address from Ed Meyer, from University of Queensland, on the Threshold Concepts Framework (Also Pedagogy, and Student Learning). I am, regrettably, not as conversant with threshold concepts as I should be, so I’ll try not to embarrass myself too badly. Threshold concepts are central to the mastery of a given subject and are characterised by some key features (Meyer and Land):

  1. Grasping a threshold concept is transformative because it changes the way that we think about something. These concepts become part of who we are.
  2. Once you’ve learned the concept, you are very unlikely to forget it – it is irreversible.
  3. This new concept allows you to make new connections and allows you to link together things that you previously didn’t realise were linked.
  4. This new concept has boundaries – they have an area over which they apply. You need to be able to question within the area to work out where it applies. (Ultimately, this may identify areas between schools of thought in an area.)
  5. Threshold concepts are ‘troublesome knowledge’. This knowledge can be counter-intuitive, even alien and will make no sense to people until they grasp the new concept. This is one of the key problems with discussing these concepts with people – they will wish to apply their intuitive understanding and fighting this tendency may take some considerable effort.

Meyer then discussed how we see with new eyes after we integrate these concepts. It can be argued that concepts such as these give us a new way of seeing that, because of inter-individual differences, students will experience in varying degrees as transformative, integrative, and (look out) provocative and troublesome. For this final one, a student experiences this in many ways: the world doesn’t work as I think it should! I feel lost! Helpless! Angry! Why are you doing this to me?

How do you introduce a student to one of these troublesome concepts and, more importantly, how can you describe what you are going to talk about when the concept itself is alien: what do you put in the course description given that you know that the student is not yet ready to assimilate the concept?

Meyer raised a really good point: how do we get someone to think inside the discipline? Do they understand the concept? Yes. Does this mean that they think along the right lines? Maybe, maybe not. If I don’t think like a Computer Scientist, I may not understand why a CS person sees a certain issue as a problem. We have plenty of evidence that people who haven’t dealt with the threshold concepts in CS Education find it alien to contemplate that the lecture is not the be-all and end-all of teaching – their resistance and reliance upon folk pedagogies is evidence of this wrestling with troublesome knowledge.

A great deal to think about from this talk, especially in dealing with key aspects of CS Ed as the threshold concept that is causing many of our non-educational research oriented colleagues so much trouble, as well as our students.


3 Comments on “ICER 2012 Day 1 Keynote: How Are We Thinking?”

  1. I’d be more interested in what the threshold concepts of computer science are, and how to get students to learn them, than in what the threshold concepts of CS Ed are.


  2. […] We started off today with a keynote address from Ed Meyer, from University of Queensland, on the Threshold Concepts Framework (Also Pedagogy, and Student Learning). I am, regrettably, not as conver…  […]


  3. […] hard to communicate or comprehend until we understand them. (I’ve discussed this before in my write-up of the ICER Keynote.) “Terry” to his […]


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