The big change a-coming for curriculum design is that the final vestiges of modularity will soon have been licked clean from the assessment spoon; from September it will linearity all the way. Many English teachers have never worked in such a system and there’s widescale panic about how exactly we can expect children to retain the quantity of textual information they will need to know in order to have something to analyse in a closed book exam.
An obvious solution is to redesign your curriculum to harness what we know about the best ways of getting students to remember stuff. I’ve written ad nauseum about the benefits of spacing, interleaving, testing and the rest of the gang, but now it’s time to put it all into practice.
Another area of theory I think it’s worth trying to capture is that of the Threshold Concept. The process of learning can be seen as a voyage of discovery in which we boldly seek out brave new worlds. If our journeys are full of adventure and adversity then we’ll learn from these experiences. If we never leave the safety of familiar environs and stay within the bounds of what is known then we’re unlikely to develop or be much changed.
Although no metaphor can adequately describe it, learning can sometimes be a little like this. This led to a fascinating attempt by education professors Jan Meyer and Ray Land to map the unmappable and plot pupils’ journeys within subject domains: the ‘threshold concept’.
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. As a consequence of comprehending a threshold concept there may thus be a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view. This transformation may be sudden or it may be protracted over a considerable period of time, with the transition to understanding proving troublesome. Such a transformed view or landscape may represent how people ‘think’ in a particular discipline, or how they perceive, apprehend, or experience particular phenomena within that discipline (or more generally).[i]
So, what makes a Threshold Concept different from, say, a ‘key concept’? Well, it appears that the areas of a subject at which students get stuck seem to be the most important bits. Further, more advanced ideas depend on the understanding of certain important fundamentals. In all subject domains and disciplines there are points which lead us into “previously inaccessible ways of thinking”. If a concept is a way of organising and making sense of what is known in a particular field, a threshold concept organises the knowledge and experience which makes an epiphany or ‘eureka moment’ possible.
Meyer and Land suggest a threshold concept will most likely possess certain important qualities.[ii] Some of the adjectives we could apply to these concepts are:
- Integrative: Once learned, they are likely to bring together different parts of the subject which you hadn’t previously seen as connected.
- Transformative: Once understood, they change the way you see the subject and yourself.
- Irreversible: They are difficult to unlearn – once you’ve passed through it’s difficult to see how it was possible not to have understood before.
- Reconstitutive: They may shift your sense of self over time. This is initially more likely to be noticed by others, usually teachers.
- Troublesome: They are likely to present you with a degree of difficulty and may sometimes seem incoherent or counter-intuitive.[iii]
- Discursive: The student’s ability to use the language associated with that subject changes as they change. It’s the change from using scientific keywords in everyday language to being able to fluently communicate in the academic language of science.
So how can we identify the threshold concepts of our subjects? Most obviously, they’re the places students commonly get stuck. What are the knots of your subject? The bits that give you the most trouble in communicating to classes? Often, these areas are the points at which many, seemingly unrelated, pieces of knowledge coalesce into meaning. With this as our starting point we can start to map out what these concepts might be for a particular subject area.
For my subject, English, some of the threshold concepts might be:
- Understanding the relationship between grammar and meaning.
- Understanding the effect of context, both on writers and readers.
- Understanding the need to use supporting evidence for ideas.
- An awareness of the ways in which language can affect readers.
- Understand how different ways of structuring text can produce different effects.
- Understanding that language can be analysed to reveal a variety meanings.
You could certainly argue for others to be included, but each of these concepts is, I think, fundamental to being able to perform at the highest level in English Language and Literature. Until they are grasped, students’ ability to find and make meaning is limited.
Piecing together these concepts and mapping them onto the curriculum is the very opposite of misguided attempts of generic taxonomies to describe linear and universal stages of learning. It might not feel comfortable, but it’s essential that we acknowledge that there’s is no straightforward linear route from ‘easy’ to ‘difficult’. Mastery of a threshold concept is a messy business and will often require retracing our steps back, forth and across unfamiliar conceptual terrain. The idea of a threshold concept is in itself a threshold concept. We find it hard to grasp not just because of its transformative implications but also because of it’s tough to wrap your head around: what’s the difference between a ‘threshold concept’ and a more traditional way of looking at the basic principles of a subject? Is it just a fancy name for something we’re already familiar with? This is a briar patch through which it can seem too onerous to pass and it’s all too easy to get ‘stuck’. This might help us appreciate the frustration our students often feel for what to us seem the most straightforward and natural ways of thinking.
Before I reveal my curriculum plan, one point remains to be made: for the first time in my career, English Literature has been given the same value and English Language. Almost all English teachers are literature graduates and students tend to do better in Literature than they do in Language. And because there are no set texts in the new English Language specifications it makes sense to concentrate on teaching the very best literature course we can and fitting in the skills of language around the margins.
With that, here’s a generic, adaptable version of the plan:
And here’s the specific version we’ll be using:
Year 10 is spent telling stories. Instead of feeling scared about how on earth it’s possible to cover a Victorian novel in a term, why not stretch out and abandon ourselves to the luxury of great literature? Eleven weeks for both a Shakespeare play and even the lengthiest novel offers a real opportunity for students to be seduced by the stories and the storytelling. Instead of worrying over much about analysis, I would suggest keeping an ongoing portfolio of observations about character, theme, plot, setting and the rest. These will be revisited in Year 11 but should not, I think, be over-egged in Year 11; it’s enough perhaps that they get to know the stories. The three set texts would be interspersed with opportunities to learn poems from the anthology (and Poetry by Heart will prove an invaluable ally here) as well as reading the wide range of literary non-fiction with students will need to be familiar to do well in Language. I would recommend that lessons make frequent and regular use of low stakes testing as a means to both remembering and thinking about these texts. One piece of useful advice might be to begin each lesson with say 5 multiple-choice questions – some about last lesson, some about last week and some on last term’s topics. The emphasis should always be that students need to remember this stuff in the long-term.
Then in Year 11 the hard work really begins. Study can – and should – take the opportunity to space and interleave not just the threshold concepts of English but also the curriculum content that’s been covered in Year 10. The model above isn’t intended to be seen as something off-the-peg which you can simply copy, rather it’s intended to demonstrate what this might look like in practice. Each week I would take a different curriculum area and view through the lens of a couple of the threshold concepts. So the first time we look at Shakespeare we might consider Act 1 in terms of structure and grammar, the next time it comes round we might unpick the techniques and contextual factors of characterisation. The point is that students will already be familiar with the stories – they’re not having to remember character and plot at the same time they’re trying to understand how to be analytical.
So there it is – an English curriculum designed to maximise students’ long-term retention and ability to transfer ideas. There’s a lot more detail I could go into and there are, I’m sure, areas on which I’m confused. I hope readers will take the time to build on and challenge my thoughts below.
And if you’re interested, here are some further thoughts on English curriculum design.
[i] Jan Meyer and Ray Land, “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines”, ETL Project, Occasional Report 4, May 2003