Threshold concepts


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.

Experts, framing and starting with the end in mind

One thing I have learned from listening to and spending time with experts is that a lot of expertise is not articulated explicitly. Their mental models, short-cuts (heuristics as Kahenman describes them) can be buried deep in their behaviours. They don’t necessarily talk about them or even realise they are happening. They are second nature, the outcome of thousands of hours tackling the same problems again and again.

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman uses chess Grandmasters as an example. Grandmasters look at a chess game and don’t see a series of moves that could be taken – they see patterns of play, shapes and model options for the players to win in a few moves. They have a kind of cognitive short-cut for each, sometimes a name for them – they don’t see a set of moves, they see a pattern that they have seen before.

Theysee the problem differently to non-experts as a result of their thousands of hours of practice. Myself, I would see a set of options for the next move and then struggle to hold those options in my mind (in my pre-frontal cortex, to be exact) and then try in turn to see implications for the responses and next moves from the player). The Grandmaster thinks X numbers of moves ahead because they have those series of moves stored in their memory as shapes – they may well have names for the different shapes.

Sometimes they are just a case of emphasis. Where the focus is when a task or challenge is undertaken, how a problem is framed.

Two examples, one from recent experience and one from recent reading, will help to explain what I mean.

Recently, I went on Kevin Meredith’s – aka LomokevHot Shots photography course. It felt like live-action version of his book, which is also excellent and also called Hot Shots. An interesting experience, at once laid back and – in retrospect – intense, Hot Shots was two days of taking and talking about photography. This felt like, and was, an indulgence – but learning was happening thick and fast. It sometimes just takes a little while to realise what you have taken from an adventure like this.

Afterwards, I understood that Kevin thinks about taking a photograph differently to the way I do (or have done up until now). When I see a beautiful sunset, or a collection of interesting objects, or group of people that would make a nice composition I think something such as “Wow – I’d love to capture that in a picture!”

Kevin didn’t talk about capturing; he talked about things making a nice image – not just the subject: the choice of camera, the settings and the film, the angle and background, the direction that light is coming from, the way it might be cropped and improved after it is developed or downloaded. In his mind, he is thinking about the outcome he wants and then the process to get there.

The physical process of seeing, deciding to take a photograph and then processing it is the same in my old method and Kevin’s, the difference is in where we put the emphasis, the focus. How we frame the method, how we think and then act.

The other example of framing a process that I’ve been thinking about is more literal (and literary). It comes from Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer (which I am reading slowly, as seems apt for the subject matter).

Francine makes the point that even more important than who is telling the story is who to whom the story is being told.

…I heard a writer say that what enabled him to write a novel from the point of view of a rather complicated middle-aged woman was by pretending that she was telling her story to a close male friend, and that he, the writer, was that friend.

This telling a story within a story is literally called “framing”, but it unblocks the writing process with a simple model, a question: who is the narrator talking to? Talking to a single person makes it easier than talking than imagined audience. All parts of questions about time and emphasis and pace aw resolved.

For me, writing framed stories not only answered all those troubling questions about the narrator’s audience, but also neatly integrated the answers into the narrative itself. I knew not only who was speaking, but who was being spoken to, where the speaker and the listener were, and when and why the event – that is, the telling of the story – was occurring.

The framing of a process, the question of where to put the emphasis, what the right question to be asked is, is something to uncover examples. It is also worth asking yourself, of the things you do well – what is the question you ask? Where do you put the emphasis. Those are likely to be the insights to compare and pass on to colleagues and people you are coaching or teaching a skill.

Learning to learn, thinking about thinking


Image: my niece, Boudicca, being amazing, as babies are wont to do…

How our brains work is something that I’m reading and thinking about a lot this week, connecting neuroscience with how we work and manage our everyday lives.*

A happy moment of serendipity this morning, as I happened to hear The Life Scientific on Radio 4, an interview with Annette Karmiloff-Smith, a renowned psychologist.

Her answer to her first question about what was amazing about babies has stuck with me all day.