ZML Didaktik / Innovative Learning Scenarios

Additional reading with respect to threshold learning

Posted on: January 2, 2014

Before Christmas we –  Gudrun, Erika and Natasa and myself  – continued with the discussion of threshold concepts. In the ZML journal club (November 13) we started with the editors’ preface of Threshold Concepts and Transformational LearningJan H.F. Meyer, Ray Land and Caroline Baillie (my blogpost) and decided to read more around the topic. We choose two articles:

Jens Kabo and Caroline Baillie: Engineering and Social Justice: Negotiating the Spectrum of Liminality ….. 303
Leah Shopkow: What Decoding the Disciplines Can Offer Threshold Concepts ……………… 317


The articles

Shopkow describes in her article how they used the methodology “Decoding the Disciplines”, a practical approach which has similarities with threshold concepts. In this approach experts were interviewed several times by interviewers of another discipline to become more self-conscious  about their hidden believes, their tacit knowledge and epistemes of their discipline (episteme = to know). The process leads to a more explicit vocabulary of goals and techniques which can help students to better understand what to do.

I enjoyed a lot to read how experts of History struggled to describe their own learning processes in detail and how they got an understanding why it is difficult for many students to understand what to do for a given task. During the interviews some experts got new ideas how to formulate the tasks for their students. In the case study it becomes obvious that every expert of History has a different approach how to learn, f.e. practical approach, discussion of ideas, intellectual techniques, affective approach.

The methodology “Decoding the Disciplines” helps to make tacit knowledge and tacit assumptions visible. At end of the article Shopkow describes that they investigated the whole curriculum and discussed the results with more than fifty department members.

In their article Kabo and Baillie start with three concepts about Engineering: 1. to solve problems (old approach), 2. to make profit (newer approach) and 3. to apply social justice (new approach). They cite Wenger about inherent understanding in a shared practice and that this understanding – if it is not changeable – can stop learning in a Community of practice. The authors write that there are concepts in a discipline which need transformative qualities as the example of social justice in Engineering.

They asked students of Engineering and Social Sciences to describe the meaning of social justice and got 13 different meanings. The concept of social justice is a threshold for engineering students. Based on the results of the study the students could be made aware of the barriers before understanding social justice in the context of their study.


We started the discussion with Shopkow’s article and how often we encounter students or group of students who interpret our tasks very differently. We investigated how we deal with these different approaches and how we try to make our instructions understandable to them. We tried to find aspects of tacit knowledge and agreed that we would be interested into the interview questions of Shopkow and ask these questions among us and our experts.

We discussed the role of tacit knowledge in (learning) communities and if the vitality of a community and the amount of tacit knowledge in this community are related with each other. Is “common sense” the tacit knowledge?

With regard to our university we examined thresholds as new students, interdisciplinarity, gender, new didactical approaches, …

We will continue to look for threshold and liminal spaces and reflect them – in the ZML journal club we will move on to new topics.

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