Designing a New Curriculum – What are your ‘Big Ideas’?


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’:

35 thoughts on “Designing a New Curriculum – What are your ‘Big Ideas’?”

  1. This is BRILLIANT! You are such an impressive professional. Thank you for giving me some excellent material to use with my new staff (who I hope will be as good as you). And further to our conversations last week…I’ve cracked my big curriculum model! Less is more is the focus, three pathways for each of science and engineering giving students of all abilities the right level of challenge and depth of study – one pathway stretches the brightest beyond belief! I’m chuffed…just got to write the prospectus in breakneck speed now. Actually, I should probably ask an English specialist to help me with that…! Have a great weekend.

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  3. Excellent post. I agree it’s teachers who shape the reality of our system more than anything or anyone else: we need to step up and realise what power we have!

    In science we have had 5 big ideas for a while now: cells, forces, particles, energy, and interdependence. All underpinned by ‘SC1’: scientific enquiry. We do SC1 pretty well, but the 5 big ideas have never really taken root as threshold concepts, in my experience at least – possibly because they lack the explanatory power of some other ideas. In Biology for example we barely even touch on evolution, which really should underpin everything we do. I would love to see this change; my concern however is that the curriculum will always be primarily driven by assessment, and this is something we currently have much less influence over.

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  9. Very interesting ideas here Alex!! Being new to curriculum planning, I welcome anything that will help! Rona I wondered if you would be happy to share your curriculum model with the pathways?

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  11. Andrew Currie

    Superb – looking into the future of assessment is both exciting an daunting . Currently drafting assessment model for Primary reading – which key skills would you as a secondary practitioner value the most ?

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  17. Hi Alex, I’m in the process of redesigning our KS2 English curriculum using the Understanding by Design templates from Wiggins and McTighe. Looking at threshold concepts, am I on the right track paring things right back to concepts like the following (for primary):
    1) writing is for an audience
    2) writing has a purpose
    3) sentences are meaningful phrases
    4) paragraphs are units of topic or idea
    5) writing isn’t always literal
    6) playing with language gives pleasure
    The above are off the top of my head and I can’t help feel that I’m barking up the wrong tree. When discussing the big ideas, we often run out of time and rush to the daily planning, which totally misses the point. Where do you go for inspiration for your threshold concepts?

    1. My inspiration was from experience really. There was no specific touchstone I used. It is hard to glean from your TC titles exactly what you mean, but I can infer I suppose. Your no.5 is likely the same as our focus on the broad application of metaphor (‘Metaphors We Live by’ is a chief influence). I’m not exactly sure what you mean by 1 to 3. 1 and 2 are one and the same aren’t they? Is 6 a concept neccessary for further understanding, or a pleasurable by product of understanding?

  18. Thanks for the reply. What I’ve tried to do is abbreviate and find common patterns in the learning objectives in Year 6 of the Cambridge International Primary English curriculum. As you say, there’s too much overlap in my initial list. I need to go back to the curriculum and work more methodically. I also think I need to refine my understanding of the term “threshold concept”. This is a great blog – I’ll be coming back to this page a lot!

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  25. Hi Alex,

    I know it’s an old post of yours, but I was researching threshold concepts and I came across your post.

    I know from reading you (and retweeting you, and linking some of your excellent posts on evidence based education) that you are geared towards open minded and evidemce driven exploration of teaching theroy and practice.

    And I guess I’m wondering how threshold concepts work in that context. From my reading of Meyer and Land there seems to be little evidence for their existence, their characteristics of the concepts are heavily hedged with qualifiers -.quoting them, “Threshold concepts are “potentially troublesome” “possibly often (though not necessarily) bounded” “likely to be…probably irreversible”.

    These characteristics are definitional. They’re also incredibly vague. So vague that they make a definition so loose it’s potentially meaningless. And if the definition is hugely vague, garnering any sort of evidence for it is nearly impossible.

    They also seem quite reductive – there are key ideas that define your understanding of a topic and determine you can;t be a practitioner in that topic, or progress, and they are fairly unchanging. Thatl;s probably true in chemistry, or many brances of physics, but it’s a potentially damaging and dangerous idea in, say, politics.

    I’m also wondering if the characteristics are quite subjective. And the idea of the thrshold concept is objective. Which leads to something of a paradox. What’s key to understanding a topic is concrete and non negotiable. But the characterisitics that are defining are possibly subjective. Whether someone finds a concpet difficult, or transformative is potentially subjective.

    Well. Thanks as always for the thoughtful post. I;ve gotten a huge amount from your writing and thinking, and I’d love to hear your thoughts, if you have time.

    1. Ok – so I agree that threshold concepts are a theory and I treat it with due tentativeness. I haven’t pursued them in great depth, primarily because I think that the simpler notion of big ideas that provide the crucial spine of a subject domain can be communicated without the specificity of what Meyer and Land propose. I do think, subjectively, that there are fundamental ideas that are fundamental to a deep understanding of English Literature, such a metaphor, syntax and plot. I don’t think it is reductive – rather, it is that they are touchstones that connect upon many of the patterns and meanings that swim around the many texts studied in school. For me, it is a schema for the big ideas that can aid coherence. You may note, I’ve used terms like ‘big ideas’ and ‘threshold concepts’ interchangeably. I think I am duly tentative about TC, but think it is a useful theory to consider and to help frame curricula planning.


  26. Hi Alex,

    and thanks for the reply…the thoughtful reply.

    I take your point about them not being reductive. Curriculum is choice, editing,inclusion and excision.

    With threshold concepts, I’m wondering if Meyer and Land are riffing on something quite commpnplace. And probably quite useful. And I’m wondering of threshold concepts are a jargonised version of old wine in new bottles.

    I began thinking about what I felt was useful and rang true in threshold concepts and how I experienced and utilised that already in my practice.

    And it boiled down to empathy. I try – as teachers often do -, to understand what our students will need to know, and as a function of that, where and who they are, and where they want and need to go. What will some find difficxult and others easy. What other things will some find challenging, or counterintiutive and how can I negotiate that with them. Who will change how they conceive of themselves as a result of the work we might do together, and what do we all need to do as part of that journey.

    I think, desgigning learning empathetically, with a fairly natural focus on what are the key, or difficult or gateway ideas, is something we have always done.

    Which makes me suspicious of as complicated and novel a concept as the threshold concept. It feels as if the familiar and quotidian has been rebranded as the new and unexpected…

    I’m really enjoying the blog, and your writing and thoughts. Thanks for all the work, sharing and generosity of spirit.

  27. Alex, your post provided me a great introduction to the idea of threshold concepts. It sent me on a wonderful rabbit hole of reading different academic writings about the idea.

    I tried to translate the idea into something practical for K-8 teachers here in the Bronx. In case you find these interesting, here’s couple of resources that I made on threshold concepts:


    Presentation overview:

  28. Hi Alex

    I know this is an old post but I have read your comments elsewhere on the relative dearth of advice and guidance available in secondary English for developing the curriculum. I am on the NATE secondary committee for the first time this year and we would like to collate some highly principled curriculum design examples for the members area of the website and potentially to be spotlighted in a ‘Teaching English’ article. I have been an LA inspector/adviser and led my county through this change, so will be contributing myself. Would you/your English team be willing, do you think?

    1. Alex Quigley

      Hi Leah, Happy for the contents of the article to be shared. I no longer lead the English department, so some of the other blogs on the KS3 are very different to their original conception, but the ‘Big Ideas’ aspect was also a general principle across subjects and was conceived to help all subject leaders. Send me an email if you need any more specifics. Best wishes, Alex

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