Cross the threshold and seize a new and improved curriculum.
Many teachers will already be thinking about the significant curriculum changes just around the corner. I admit that I have met some previous curriculum changes with a response something like world-weariness – worsening with each successive hasty change and token relabelling. I am, however, intent on meeting this new national curriculum with more vigour and to seize the opportunity it presents, rather than simply complain and deride its origins. You realise after a few years teaching that national curricula don’t fundamentally change or dictate teaching and learning, teachers change teaching and learning. We do not need to passively receive this latest curriculum iteration – we can actively shape it.
In our school, and in our English department, we have talked about raising the level of ‘challenge‘ for a long time. When our department was faced with the latest curriculum changes we recognised it was an opportunity to make our curriculum more challenging, whilst ensuring every student could access the learning with skilled differentiation. One crucial mode of differentiation – to make the curriculum make greater sense for our students – is to create, and actively shape, a curriculum that is defined by ‘big ideas’ in something like a coherent whole.
When you being to explore the ideas of the ‘big ideas‘ relevant to each subject area, as a group of teachers, you begin to consider the touchstones that define the important knowledge and skills required of our students. When considering the same for our English department I became interested in the idea of “threshold concepts“. In many ways, ‘threshold concepts‘ are the defining ‘big ideas’ for teaching and learning in English…and in every other subject discipline.
So what are they 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.”
Jan Meyer & Ray Land, ‘Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines‘
Meyer and Land went about defining the characteristics of a ‘threshold concept‘. They summarise the following:
They are transformative. That is to say, once student grasps the ‘threshold concept‘ it changes the way a student thinks about a subject.
It is also highly likely to be troublesome for the student. It may seem counter-intuitive, or at best, really difficult to grasp. Yet, once understood, it can make subsequent learning feel more intuitive or ‘easy‘.
It is irreversible. Once grasped, the student would find it difficult to unlearn.
It is integrative. That is to say that once learned, the concept helps unify aspects of the subject that may not have appeared related to the student (this is most important for me). It may completely shift the view that the student has towards the subject.
This new knowledge is enhanced by an extended and improved use of language. Grasping a ‘threshold concept‘ will not happen in any twenty minute lesson snapshot. There is no simple shift from easy to hard overnight. It requires revisiting and reinforcement, but the rewards can be profound for our students.
In different subjects there will be crucial ‘threshold concepts‘ that, once understood, can give students the essential foundation for learning. They begin to ‘get‘ Physics or Spanish or History – with many subsequent aspects of the subject becoming much more comprehensible for that crucial gateway knowledge. In Physics it may prove to be energy and heat transfer, in Economics it may prove to be the ‘opportunity/cost’ concept. Of course, I have little expertise in these areas – teachers of each curriculum subject should review their own subject for these central big ideas that matter.
What are the ‘threshold concepts’ in your subject discipline?
Considering these ‘threshold concepts‘ in our English department led us to a ‘less is more‘ approach – learning deeper to ensure real understanding, rather than being dictated by attempting to cover everything. We dropped units and will move to four deeper, knowledge filled units per year – see our draft model here. We are looking to help students connect their study of literature with a chronological approach to study. We are aiming to establish the underlying patterns (cognitive scientists would call these schemas) of language and the common plots, characters and myths that are the touchstones of our story culture. Our curriculum is focused on being integrative.
I see the ‘threshold concepts‘ for English Literature as being the following: the role of myth and the story-teller; narrative structure; patterns of language, imagery and plot; comedy, tragedy and genre; the concept of power (character relationships, gender, class etc.). For English Language I view the following as the essential ‘threshold concepts‘: phonic decoding and vocabulary decoding (largely focused in Primary study, but not exclusively); recognition of sentence structures and a conscious manipulation of such structures for effect; generic writing structures; a recognition and application of complex patterns of language, imagery and plot.
We don’t believe our current assessment model, outcomes or national curriculum levels help us with ensuring our students grasp the ‘threshold concepts’ in English so we are changing them. We are designing our own assessment and standards to best ensure our students can know the ‘threshold concepts’. Vague numerical levels just don’t do the job. There is an opportunity for every subject to do the same. We have nothing to lose but our chains!
What we must do as teachers in every subject discipline is start with these big questions for our curriculum redesign:
What are our ‘threshold concepts’?
What outcomes will best ensure the focused and repeated study of these ‘threshold concepts’?
What assessment criteria will best evidence student understanding?
How can our curriculum design make understanding these concepts easier?
They may prove difficult – most things of value prove difficult to master. They may prove elusive for students, but we need to foreground them – revisit them with artful repetition in the structure of our curriculum. We should avoid looking for coverage of content at the expense of deeply knowing the core knowledge our students must grasp for long term understanding. We can help students understand these concepts by repeating their specialist language, without dumbing down our approach. We can reduce the difficulty (cognitive scientists would call this ‘cognitive load‘) by creating memorable patterns for which they can root their knowledge.
Debating about ‘threshold concepts‘ can certainly liven up a subject meeting. The debate is a healthy starting point for seizing our own curriculum as changes appear in our sights. We need only cross the threshold and make great changes!
If you are interested in finding out more, then here is a comprehensive bibliography for ‘Threshold Concepts’: http://www.ee.ucl.ac.uk/~mflanaga/thresholds.html#gen