Finding my Threshold Concepts

This semester I have been engaing in the final cycle of my teaching and learning action research project – part of what I do here at QUT as an ‘Early Career Academic’.

‘Constructing a community of practice in English Curriculum Studies 1 – online and offline’

Action research cycle:

  • Planning and fact-finding: 2010, semester 2
  • Phase 1 action: 2011, semester 1
  • Phase 2 action: 2011, semester 2
  • Phase 3 action: 2012, semester 1
  • Report findings: 2012, semester 2

The buzz term for how to ‘do’ curriculum planning here at uni is constructive alignment. Anyone else having to use this term?

Basically, constructive alignment is what you do when you make sure your assessment tasks match your learning objectives, and that your lesson materials feed into this productively. (OK, so I slipped the word ‘productively’ in just there…can you tell I’m living in Queensland? Productive pedagogies, anyone?)

So, the first two phases of my action research have been all about getting the assessments to work for me and my unit, English Curriculum Studies 1. I inherited a bunch of learning objectives when I took on coordination of this unit, but in the end I found that the assessment tasks weren’t engaging students in the ways I knew could happen. In the ways I was sure could happen, anyway. All of the assessment pieces have now been modified or replaced (not allowed to change the learning objectives) and things are aligning much more constructively…

The last piece in the puzzle that I was really hoping to nut out in this third cycle is the establishment of threshold concepts for this unit.

A ‘threshold concept’ is the kind of concept that, once learned, cannot be unlearned.  Once we grasp a piece of threshold knowledge, we pass over a barrier into new territory, where everything is seen anew with different eyes.

In the (bazillion) Powerpoint presentations I sat through last year as a new academic, I picked up the importance of using a few well-chosen threshold concepts to drive a unit of work.  For teachers like me that prefer to use project-based and inquiry-based learning approaches, having a set of threshold concepts in mind that you want students to ‘get’ by the end of the experience looks to be an excellent anchor for lesson planning.  Although these concepts are related to the official learning objectives of the unit, they do serve a different kind of function…and I really want to settle on what mine are!

Until this week I was still struggling to come up with suitable concepts.

But now, I struggle NO MORE!

I have been working on a summary video for students to watch at the half-way point in semester, while I am away at a conference.  In the video I want to recap the main points learned from weeks 1-5 of the unit.  The process of trying to identify what the ‘big ideas’ were amongst all of the super important stuff we learned wasn’t easy.  But the process of having to present the ideas to my students (not just to my academic review panel at the end of this year…!) has really helped.

Which I guess just goes to show that even teachers need an authentic audience for their work.

Trying to keep the video short (under 5 minutes) also forced my hand – left to my own devices, I’m sure I could find plenty of threshold concepts, but you only need a few. The wording of what I’ve chosen isn’t quite right yet, but these are the six big points I have chosen:

  1. Your personal teacher identity is unique and reflects your personal experience, but will inevitably draw on many established philosophies and practices.
  2. In ‘English’ we study: semiotics, text and context.
  3. Language codes and conventions are socially constructed.
  4. Verbal/linguistic language is just one semiotic ‘code'; we also learn/teach audio, visual, spatial and gestural language.
  5. Literacy involves more than code breaking – we also make meaning, use texts functionally, and critique texts.
  6. Multiliteracies pedagogies are currently favoured in English curriculum theory.

I suspect this is still too many for 6 weeks, but there you go.  We’ll see.  Once I’ve finished the video I’ll post it up here on the blog. I still have to add the narration, but most of the images are in. I’m using Movie Maker and Audacity as my tools of the trade…I hope the students have time to watch the bloody thing! But even if they don’t, I’m glad I went through this process and am happy that I’ve found some threshold concepts to settle on, for now. And, with any luck, a shiny new resource at the end I can be proud of. Fingers crossed!

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  1. #1 by Imelda Judge on April 9, 2012 - 4:28 pm

    Hi Kelli,

    This made for some interesting reading! Thank you for sharing. In my role alongside Luisa we are moving the school towards more authentic conceptual planning. It was amazingly timely that you made this post! Lots of food for thought here.

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