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Threshold Concepts

Chris Quigley
Posted by Chris Quigley
November 28, 2022

The reason why subjects have endured so long in formal schooling is that they are groups of knowledge bound together by a set of big ideas. For example, in geography, one such big idea is that environments are created and changed by physical processes. Jan Meyer and Ray Land call these big ideas Threshold Concepts. By grasping these concepts, one crosses the threshold into new and previously inaccessible ways of thinking.

Threshold concepts come up time and time again in many topics and so be helpful in helping students to assimilate new information into the growing schema. For example, the concept that physical processes create and change environments comes up in topics such as rivers (in which case it is erosion and deposition that is the process); volcanoes (in which plate tectonics is the process); coasts (erosion and deposition) etc. Presenting new information to students as another example of the threshold concept allows them to process information in relation to previously learned knowledge.

Threshold concepts are, therefore, a helpful way to organise a curriculum as they provide students with a disciplined way of thinking about content. Relating new content to the threshold concept eventually changes one's pattern of thinking.

Our Essentials Curriculum: Threshold Concepts for Long-Term Memory is designed to help schools develop a curriculum around subject-specific threshold concepts. Each concept has progression indicators called Milestones which outline the general procedural and semantic knowledge required to understand the concepts.

Here is an example of the threshold concepts in history:

The process of planning involves

  • choose your breadth of study (the topics you will study)
  • use the threshold concepts and milestones to state your curriculum goals for each topic
  • plan specific topic knowledge related to the curriculum goals (our curriculum companions help you to do this).

Some helpful questions to ask when reviewing your curriculum are:

  • how is content organised? (our answer: around threshold concepts for each subject)
  • how do you plan for progress? (our answer: progression milestones)
  • how do you make sure specific knowledge is acquired? (our answer: through the knowledge webs in our curriculum companions).
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