What can you do to help with troublesome knowledge? Librarians and Threshold Concepts

August 3, 2011, 6:12 pm

This summer I’ve really been into Game of Thrones, Mineral, Simon Sinek, Curriculum Mapping, and Threshold Concepts.

I have to thank Steven Bell and Char Booth for their conversations at ALA11 that helped shape my thinking on Curriculum Mapping and a related instructional strategy. I have more to say on that but I’m waiting on my-future-collaborator-on-some-project Char Booth to write a post so I can piggyback with my thoughts.

Librarians & TC
The hottest thing to me right now is the idea of Threshold Concepts. When I found out that this was a code for “troublesome knowledge” I was hooked! These are the big ideas in each discipline that people struggle with for a variety of reasons.

I had a great conversation with a grad student a few weeks ago who is researching Threshold Concepts in relation to the Writing Program on campus. They are looking at it across disciplines and this is very inspiring to me. I love when I am hit with a contagious idea. I plan to meet with them later this summer to see how we might be able to get involved.

So what is this all about?

“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.”
Meyer & Land

The basic characteristics: (knowledge that is)

  • Transformative
  • Irreversible
  • Integrative
  • Bounded
  • Troublesome

Some examples:

  • Physics = heat transfer
  • Mathematics = limit
  • Cultural studies = signification
  • Literature = deconstruction
  • Economics = opportunity cost
  • Philosophy = personhood

These are some of the big critical ideas that students struggle with as they advance through the curriculum: necessary knowledge. And once they “get it” they pass through the threshold and move on to the next idea. It becomes a foundation for their academic progress.

And Libraries?
There is an article in the current issue of portal titled Threshold Concepts and Information Literacy, which applies this framework to the library context. (Thanks SB for passing it my way.) It’s a good read in terms of the challenges we face with our instructional efforts and I recommend giving it a look.

But… I am not interested in applying this to “library instruction” (aka instruction we do about using library resources and developing research skills) but rather, to the enterprise level of learning across campus. Let’s frame it this way: how can the library help students cross through the difficult thresholds and learn critical concepts that will enable them to succeed with their chosen major?

If I’m a physics librarian (or engineering librarian for that matter) what can I do to support an instructor teaching heat transfer? This is difficult and perhaps different. It expands our focus beyond  assignments and gets into the heart of learning. What can we do in terms of learning objects, collections, instructional support, etc to help with this threshold / keystone concept.

Obviously faculty are the experts here and we cannot presume to be able to do a better job with these big ideas. But we can play a support role and demonstrate some knowledge and proficiency regarding the related threshold concepts for the subjects we are responsible for. This could greatly aid the impact and reputation of the library and librarian in the eyes of the academics.

For example, if I’m the English Librarian I should be conversant on deconstruction theory and other major forms of literary criticism. It’s one thing to know how to use keywords and subject headings to identify and locate information, but to be able to have an off-the-cuff discussion with some students or faculty about Derrida and Heidegger as it applies to literary criticism could strengthen my role or how I am perceived.

I’m not saying we need to be experts, but if we call ourselves subject specialists or something to that effect, then we should at least have a basic understanding of the “difficult” concepts within the discipline that we are supporting.

I definitely think this feeds into our instruction strategy too. What are the core courses that we need to reach? What are the research-intensive courses that we can support? And what are the threshold concepts within each discipline that we can assist with?

I really want to try and tie this all together with a curriculum map and an instructional strategy, but for now I’m enjoying reading the philosophy and application across the disciplines. It’s cool to see how the engineers apply it compared with the humanities and so forth. Here is a great bibliography if you’d like to dig deeper.

In the profession we talk a lot about making an impact and showcasing our value and I think that threshold concepts can provide us with an additional avenue. It’s one thing to offer an instruction session that helps students address a term paper assignment, but it’s another thing when the library is bonded to a critical learning encounter.


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