“Threshold concepts” is a term from higher education theory, meaning an idea or a piece of knowledge which, once understood, is transformative – it changes how you look at a subject, what you think is possible.
My friend Jim Byford introduced me to the idea of threshold concepts and I’ve been using it ever since (neatly, it is of course, in its own way, a threshold concept).
Taking a look at some information about the idea, I came across a summary of a conference on threshold concepts in New Zealand, which called out the following characteristics:
• transformative but also potentially troublesome,
• irreversible, that is, difficult to unlearn,
• Integrative – revealing previously hidden knowledge,
• Re-constitutive – effecting a change in the learner’s subjectivity,
• Bounded – leading to new conceptual terrain,
• Discursive – changed, and
• possessing liminality – a space to be crossed, a shift in identity, that may be uncomfortable.
Powerful, dangerous things these threshold concepts, aren’t they?
Part of digital transformation is crossing through difficult terrain – personally and as organisations. Transformation’s not something you simply decide to do and flip a switch – it is a period when we realise that you what we do not understand and are struggling to understand. You decide to make yourself confused and uncomfortable for a while, effectively, as it is the only way to get to the breakthroughs you need.
A related concept is “liminality”, which I’ve discussed here before. Liminality is something that needs to be explained before you can start to learn. The same conference paper discusses it like this:
Unsettling the learning takes students, once they have penetrated the boundaries of former thinking and practices, to a new space, the liminal space where new ways of speaking can be manifest. Recognising and re-naming ideas in relation to the new space can be transformative and moves the learning forward, “it makes the theory ‘sticky’”. All the same, as Erik cautioned, there needs to be an awareness of the range of participants “being squeezed into the liminal space” and what this can mean.
I find this description reassuring. Talking about some threshold concepts – for instance exponential growth – evokes really strange responses from people sometimes – defensive, aggressive and essentially grief-like at times.
On a lighter note, it’s not all journeys through the valley of darkness and confusion – playfulness has a role too…
It was suggested that playfulness can allow a retreat from the perceived constraints of the given discipline and that “playing on the thresholds of the discipline can be a way of escaping the discipline” or as a way of navigating a changing world.
But working with these concepts is not easy, they say, and possibly not for everyone:
Unsettling ideas can result in a form of disequilibrium. While there was some advocacy for “being comfortable in one’s own skin” it was also clear that adopting TCs was not for the faint-hearted.
The area I’ve been working with threshold concepts on is a kind of digital literacy for leaders – the skills, knowledge, models and threshold concepts that leaders need to gain in order to be successful, by leading organisations in a digital age (acknowledging that some schools of thought say that organisations will need to be leaderless or full of leaders). Call it digital leadership. I’ll write more about that soon, here and on the Brilliant Noise blog – for now I just wanted to think out loud about threshold concepts.
Threshold concepts offer advanced ideas and tools for those with resilience and leadership potential. There is also a requirement for us to understand what digital literacy will look like for people with other needs and capabilities in organisations, but leaders are a good place to start.