Friday, April 24, 2015

Thinking about learning and teaching: a post on threshold concepts and the student-as-vampire

An academic's life is a busy one - varied, rewarding, challenging, yet often hectic, rushed, and filled with external demands to teach, advise, write, read, assess and talk. In the world of academia, I have found that things which develop us as teachers and researchers - in other words, continuing professional development, or CPD - are often neglected, or hurriedly squashed into a spare half hour here and there.

Well, recently I've been paying a bit more attention to my CPD, and I've enrolled on a mentor-led scheme called the Edinburgh Teaching Award (EdTA) to think a bit more about my teaching and (hopefully) to gain Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (HEA): the professional body for enhancing teaching in Higher Education in the UK.

This morning, we had a workshop as part of the EdTA programme in which we had an extended discussion of threshold concepts' based on Glynis Cousins' 2006 article in Planet, 'An introduction to threshold concepts' (article freely available).

To briefly summarise the article, Cousins suggests that rather than 'stuffing' our curriculum with information, what we should do is structure our programmes and courses with a 'less is more' approach centred around 'threshold concepts'. Cousins defines these as key ideas or concepts which are fundamental to understanding the field and which are transformative, often irreversible (once you 'get it', you are unlikely to forget it) and 'troublesome', in that it can be challenging and difficult to grasp such a concept, which may seem counter-intuitive.

So far, so clear. However, something that resonated with me during the workshop this morning, was a question we were asked to respond to:

"If we think of learning as crossing a threshold, then it follows that..."

Now, it might be because I've been rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer this week, however the first answer that sprung to my mind was "it follows that they have been invited in"; in common mythology and popular culture a vampire cannot cross the threshold into a home unless invited.*

If the vampire must be invited to cross the threshold, then the person who lives beyond that threshold retains control over who can enter, but once invited, the vampire can come and go as desired.

Indulging this metaphor to create an idea of the student-as-vampire, we might suggest that:

* the vampire is (often) an unwelcome guest
* the vampire will be a temporary guest, as eventually the sun will come up and they will have to leave

Equally, who invites the vampire in, and why?

As an analogy for teaching, the student-as-vampire is also excluded from crossing the threshold of their own volition: in this scenario, the threshold crossing is a mediated encounter, carried out under surveillance.

What might prevent the student-as-vampire from kicking the door down? What is it that stops a vampire from crossing a threshold uninvited?* In the 2008 Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In there is a scene where Eli, the little-girl-vampire who lives next door, enters Oskar's home without permission and proceeds to start bleeding violently (warning: contains blood). Does the student-as-vampire experience threshold crossing in a similarly violent way?

So the student-as-vampire who is invited in does not have control over their crossing and does not belong in whatever is beyond the threshold. Yet, equally, the student-as-vampire who crosses the threshold without an invitation encounters violence and possible pain and are equally not at home beyond that threshold.

So, is the manner of crossing the threshold less important that what actually happens or what actually is on the other side? Whether you are invited or not does not seem to make a huge difference to whether the student-as-vampire belongs: they are equally 'unbelonging' in both scenarios.

To make the student-as-vampire feel welcome, we need to 'vampirize' the space; we need fit shutters or blinds and install a few coffins, making the vampire far more likely to feel at home and to stick around.

So rather than changing the student and de-vampiring them, perhaps we need to change what is beyond the threshold to fit the student as they are. And the point of entry needs to be equally shared or owned by both vampire and teacher so that the student-as-vampire can take ownership over the reason why they are there.

The student-as-vampire must be:

*not invited, but welcomed
* not a guest, but a resident
* what comes beyond the threshold must not be pre-defined, but flexible, adaptable and customisable.

Now, this is a playful analogy (and please note that I am not suggesting that students are in any way vampires!). But it did make me think a little more about how we incorporate or make use of threshold concepts in our teaching. For a start, why do we want students to cross this threshold? What is in it for them and how can we give them ownership and belonging in what lies beyond? What are the problems in the teacher controlling the threshold? Can students take ownership over the threshold and let themselves in?

In terms of threshold concepts and the way we design our teaching, perhaps we need to think less about letting the right one in, and more about letting the one in right (or right for them).



Image: Vampire by JNL. Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons under terms of the Free Art License


Glynis Cousin (2006). An introduction to threshold concepts. Planet, Issue 17, 4-5.


  1. If 'threshold concepts' are:

    * key ideas or concepts which are fundamental to understanding the field
    * which are transformative, often irreversible (once you 'get it', you are unlikely to forget it)
    * and 'troublesome'

    doesn't it follow that it's the threshold concept which is the vampire? It's 'troublesome' so the student may resist inviting it over the threshold, but once a student has been bitten by the concept, they'll be transformed.

    1. That's an interesting take, Laura! Could it also be that the threshold concept represents the process of 'vampirization' itself?