Friday, 2 November 2007

Threshold concepts at GSA

At the recent GSA 2007 meeting in Denver we took the opportunity to introduce the geoscience community to threshold concepts by presenting a poster at one of the Geoscience Education sessions. This proved to be really successful, with many people stopping by during the 4 hour session either because they had heard of threshold concepts and were interested to hear more, or because they knew nothing about them and were curious to know what it was all about.

We had absolutely no idea how threshold concepts would be received at GSA - Julie, Helen and I believe that threshold concepts exist in the geosciences, but would anyone else? Well apparently they do, and it seems that there is a very important dialogue to be had about what exactly students 'need to know' in order to become geoscientists. The reference on the poster to the 'stuffed curriculum' drew some wry smiles.......this is something that seemed to resonate with a lot of people! So by the end of the session we'd had some great conversations, and felt really encouraged by the positive way in which our poster was received. There were also a couple of comments about our blog not being updated since May, so clearly people have been looking!

What happens now? We'd like to use this blog as a vehicle to continue the discussions that were started at GSA. Everyone should be able to post comments to, and read, the blog entries which will be a record of our ongoing dialogue. The next major 'event' where we'll have the opportunity to get people together in person will be the 2nd International Threshold Concepts Symposium in Kingston, Ontario next year, so it would be good to get some idea from the geoscience community about a) what we think might be threshold concepts in the geosciences, and b) how our curricula can be developed to ensure that students acquire these threshold concepts.

So the floor is open - over to you!


Paul Wright said...

Hi Helen and Alison!

Long time no see. Hope you're both well.

Have you seen the recent(ish) article by Rowbottom critiquing TCs? The reference is Rowbottom, D. 2007. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 41/2. 263-270.

Have the paper in pdf but a) I can't seem to attach the file and b) I might well be infringing some kind of copyright issue that results in parts of my anatomy being removed.

It's worth a read, especially in light of trying to establish whether what people defined as TCs at that GEES meeting are, really, TCs!!


Paul Wright (Southampton Solent)

Helen King said...

The Rowbottom paper is really interesting. A few things that spring to mind: his interpretation is that Threshold Concepts are not well defined because Meyer & Land suggest that they’re ‘probably irreversible’ etc. Whilst I would agreed that it’s a bit of a flimsy definition, my assumption was that you couldn’t state that they are irreversible because there is (as yet) no empirical evidence. Perhaps this puts us in a Catch22 situation: we need to do some research in order to define what Threshold Concepts are (both in a general sense and for particular disciplines) and the obvious starting points for research questions are around the 5 properties. But if we’re not certain about these 5 properties then how can we be sure we’re asking the right questions?!

The second thing I found interesting was his examples of tennis and football. He suggests that it’s possible to play football without understanding all the concepts. I’m trying to see where the analogy might be with e.g. plate tectonics or other possible Geoscience threshold concepts. Is it possible to ‘play’ around with the general ideas without having a deeper understanding of the concepts. Aha! I think I’ve just answered my own query. Yes, it is possible for students to go through the motions in the classroom, field, lab or exam and maybe even get it right a lot of the time without having a deep understanding.

Finally, he mentions on page 267 the idea of “paradigmatic examples of significant”. This reminds me of a discussion we had at my seminar at MSU, where we came up with the idea that one way of identifying (some) threshold concepts in Geoscience might be to look back at the history of the discipline and identify the paradigm shifts (e.g. geological time, plate tectonics). These were major transformations for the discipline and changed the way we looked at the world.

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