Positively liminal

Land, R.Rattray, J. & Vivian, P. (2014). Learning in the Liminal Space: A Semiotic Approach to Threshold Concepts. Higher Education 67(2): 199-217.

This is the suggested text for our Pedagogy Reading Group at UAL this month – I loved it for many reasons.

Not only does it do a fantastic job of highlighting the place of partial understanding in the learning process, it was also a relief – after grappling with Bernstein – to return to reading text rich with metaphor. The paper also provides a gentle introduction to semiotics, which has been a hazy dot on the edge of my personal conceptual map for a while.

Pedagogic Content Knowledge (PCK) as described here – a teacher’s conceptual map of the teaching domain – has parallels with Bernstein’s rules of distribution, recontextualisation and evaluation. The PCK sets out how content is organised, adapted, represented and presented, and the paper explains how this system is – or should be – heavily influenced by the ‘threshold’ nature of the concepts at hand.

photo (9)While the eventual aim of the authors is presumably to facilitate curriculum planning that effectively addresses misconceptions, I felt the paper successfully communicated not only the inevitability of partial, incorrect and absent understandings of concepts, but also their necessity in the learning process. Repetition and digression are required in order to deconstruct and reconstruct understanding, and – as this diagram shows – partial understanding of individual concepts may be required in order to develop a deeper, integrated understanding of a conceptual ‘set’.

Land et al. acknowledge that it can be logistically difficult for learners to re-experience a previous state of understanding, but highlight how valuable this can be for learning. They also stress the necessity for teachers to remember their earlier ways of seeing, rather than forgetting old meanings that are no longer appropriate for their own understanding. I wonder what strategies and techniques the authors had in mind for this? Have they considered reflective blogging/journalling as a way of capturing and revisiting previous liminal states? It’s certainly one of the primary reasons why I do it, and why I have my students doing it too.

I think it is important that teachers explicitly discuss with their students the important role that partial and incorrect understandings play in the learning process. One example that springs immediately to mind is the Project unit I teach, in which I have to introduce practitioner enquiry to a group of teachers who have – for example – wildly varying existing understandings of the concepts of ‘research’ and ‘data’. Over the last few years I have done a lot of thinking about how to help them to reach an appropriate contextual understanding of these concepts in time to do a useful project, while reducing the anxiety they experience as they realise that a significant conceptual shift is required.

My approach has evolved into an example-based one (‘here are some things people have done for this unit before’) that cuts out a lot of the content I previously delivered in case they might need it (about the difference between quantitative and qualitative enquiry, on running focus groups, etc). We then move as soon as possible into getting them to share something they would like to find out about their teaching or their students’ learning, and  giving them steering feedback that addresses any misconceptions, missing signifiers, etc. I can immediately visualise how this approach might look in the form of one of these diagrams, and why it works for our course. The sharing of initial ideas reveals individual participants’ understanding of the key concepts, and the open feedback results in a repetition of the key learning points applied in a range of different contexts.

Last term I was concerned about an unexpected levels of participant anxiety following the briefing and throughout the unit. This paper has really helped to explain what was behind that anxiety. With the new cohort I have tried to reassure them that the best way to meet the learning outcomes is through trial and error; there is no expectation that they execute a brilliant enquiry first time around, and no point in me trying to instruct them how to do that from the start. They just have to give it a go and learn through doing. I haven’t seen much anxiety yet, but this may be because they are still to complete the first unit and have put the Project unit to the back of their minds for now. I think I can go further; explicitly discussing with them the idea of practitioner research as a threshold concept, using one of the diagrams in this paper or adapting it for our specific context.

I would go as far to suggest that an appreciation of the link between threshold concepts and anxiety may be a threshold concept in itself – and an incredibly useful one for some of my students. These diagrams could be used in a therapeutic context in order to assist individual learners to tolerate – even welcome – uncertainty and unfamiliarity. Perhaps the sense of frustration and despair may be eased by pointing out the ’empty signifier’ circle on a diagram. It may well render the issue more tangible, less frightening… and surmountable.

I feel like I am potentially onto something else here in terms of developing my thinking around pedagogy and power, and access to and achievement on our teacher education programme. Anxiety is big massive issue on the course; many participants report feeling like a fish out of water returning to study educational theory & practice while simultaneously teaching (in most cases in the same institution) in a discipline they are comfortably expert in. Some have constructed their careers in order to avoid doing the kinds of things we have them doing on the course. If we can teach them to tolerate and welcome partial understanding and the unfamiliar, then this will surely open doors for them going forwards?

Finally – Land et al. relate changed conceptions of the signified to changed perception of the self. I am reminded here of my EdD interview 18 months ago, where I was asked why I wanted to do the EdD and said, completely honestly, that ‘I simply want to be as clever as I possibly can’. I had a mental image of me post EdD, with all these new connections whizzing around my brain, able to converse confidently with all different kinds of people about all different kinds of stuff.

Many of the teachers I work with speak about wanting their students to become more confident. I have a dissertation supervisee who is looking at how his course prepares students to deal confidently with critical incidents in the workplace, for example. I wonder if it can go too far. I am a little concerned that in the course of my studies I am becoming – at work, at Brookes, on social media – domineering and opinionated. I find it difficult to keep quiet. I forget to listen and ask questions. I am often self-righteous. This isn’t echoed in my personal life, where I am still a nice person. Becoming cleverer is important to me, but I must keep reminding myself not to become an asshole in the process.

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