“A Bit of a Tall Order”

I've been hearing about threshold concepts from Ray Land, one of the idea's originators, and he's asking librarians some good questions. 

April 8, 2015

I’m attending the LILAC conference for the first time, an annual gathering in the UK focused on information literacy that attracts librarians from around the world, and the first day has been terrific. I’m learning a new language – people who attend a conference on this side of the pond are “delegates” and what we in the states call orientation for new students appears to be called “induction.” Then, given it’s happening in Newcastle, I’m learning a few words of Geordie. It’s dead canny.

A highlight of day one was hearing Ray Land of the Centre for Academic Practice at Durham University. He’s one of the principle scholars behind the notion of threshold concepts, which influenced a library research project that has, in turn, hugely influenced the new Framework for Information Literacy.  Today he gave us a thoughtful overview of the roots of the idea (my scribbled notes include a reference to John Dewey: “the past of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alternation of old beliefs”) and how important it is to engage students in the troublesome work of understanding deeply something that doesn’t come easily, that might not even be on the test, but is fundamental to understanding a discipline. This is knowledge that can lead to a “rupture in knowing” and can be both exhilarating and anxiety-producing because it may change the way you see things. It involves not just an epistemological shift but an ontological one, and requires a discourse shift as well, learning a new ways of talking about things.

One interesting finding he mentioned is that students trying on a new discourse, not yet entirely convinced or comfortable, will use their fingers to make air quotes around new words, as if to say it doesn’t yet belong in their sentence, that it’s a foreign phrase they want to set apart from themselves until it becomes integrated into their way of thinking and somehow less alien. As they oscillate between where their understanding was and what they’re trying to grasp, they will likely need to mimic discourse and try on roles they don’t entirely feel comfortable in until they’ve made that ontological shift. That shift isn’t always a road to Damascus moment, a sudden revelation, a lightbulb switching on over their heads; it may sneak up on a student who has experienced a change in subjectivity and is able to integrate things or organize experience in a new way because some fundamental concept is finally firmly in place. In the meantime, that process of being in a liminal state, of reaching without quite grasping, is where deep learning can happen.

Why does this matter? Because this is learning that sticks. This is a kind of learning that will continue to be valuable and recalled when most of the content a student has been exposed to has either been forgotten or has changed over time.

Land was curious about the way that North American librarians have adopted threshold concepts, given that generally these concepts have been seen as “bounded” knowledge, ways of knowing that pertain to a particular discipline. He asked at the start of his talk a very good question: these concepts that have been suggested in the new frameworks - what are they thresholds into? Where will this understanding take students, because these are not bounded by disciplines, they are cross-disciplinary. On a more practical level, librarians are constrained in terms of how much time they get to spend with students in classrooms. An hour here, an hour there – that’s hardly enough time to get across six challenging concepts. My scribbles include (in quotes) “a bit odd” and “a bit of a tall order.”

Don’t we know it.

He’s put his finger on the discomfort many librarians feel with the new Framework (how are we supposed to actually do this, then?) but also on the fundamental nature of our practice. Pardon me if get a little bit loud, here, but we don’t teach this stuff. We don’t. It’s something students must learn through experience, usually years of experience. What we do bring to the table is a conviction that it’s important and some help as students gain experience. We want to ensure that those experiences are available to all students and that it reveals itself in the context of whatever discipline they are studying, because it’s learning that will be valuable for the rest of their lives. It’s also (at least I hope it is - and some of Land's work suggests it is) learning that is transferable. Being able to navigate uncertainty in one context may make us more fluent and confident in coping with ambiguity generally.

For librarians, this is a bit frustrating, because we care so passionately about something that we don’t get to see actually happen. If you teach in a department that graduates majors, you will likely see a student grow over several semesters, you might be there when they drop the air quotes and can apply a concept they’ve been worrying at for weeks, you can see your graduates at commencement and remember when they approached their major with gangly, awkward trepidation and see how far they’ve come. We librarians get glimpses of that, but it’s incomplete.  We can try to assess this kind of learning, but it’s hard when they aren’t with us for weeks at a time, semester after semester. A huge test of the usefulness of threshold concepts for information literacy will be the extent to which we can hang onto the belief that this kind of learning matters while letting go of the notion that we will be the ones who teach it. The time in the classroom that we have with students can be valuable, but it’s only a small part of their learning how information works and what role they play in making knowledge. That is a project that will take many semesters and lots of experience.

 In the meantime, I'll have a canny time thinking about these things with the other LILAC delegates for the next couple of days. 


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