The Emperor's New Concept: Vague, Postmodern, and Unfalsifiable - Is Threshold Concept Theory a Step Too Far?

Delany, David (2012) The Emperor's New Concept: Vague, Postmodern, and Unfalsifiable - Is Threshold Concept Theory a Step Too Far? In: National Academy’s Sixth Annual Conference and the Fourth Biennial Threshold Concepts Conference. Threshold Concepts: from personal practice to communities of practice, 2012, June 28 - 29 2012, Trinity College Dublin., Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.


The threshold concept approach (Meyer and Land, 2005) attempts to characterise the development of students' understanding of a subject in terms of their mastery of critical ‘gateway’ concepts. Unfortunately, beyond re-labelling concepts previously informally termed ‘fundamental’ or ‘difficult’, it is far from clear that the threshold concept theory usefully extends our understanding of the learning process. Whilst the threshold concept notion helpfully focuses attention upon the key role of conceptual structures, or schemata, in the development of understanding, its underdeveloped theoretical rationale inexplicably ignores extensive empirical discoveries in cognitive psychology concerning the development of expertise (Chi et al, 1981; Murphy and Wright, 1984). Moreover, proposed characteristics of threshold concepts, such as transformative, troublesome, irreversible, etc. are vague and poorly specified. Beyond constituting a weak epistemological foundation, this characterisation also unhelpfully confuses the subjective and objective levels of pedagogical analysis. A lack of theoretical depth and clarity, an unsound epistemology, and logical confusion implies that the weaknesses of the threshold concept theory outweigh its potential strengths. Pedagogical theories, rooted in cognitive science, offer considerably greater promise of a radical transformation and enhancement of performance in learning, teaching, and research (Ericsson et al, 2007). Chi, M.T.H., Feltovich, P.J., and Glaser, R. (1981) Categorization and representation of physics problems by experts and novices. Cognitive Science, 5, 121-152. Ericsson, K.A., Nandagopal, K., and Roring, R.W. (2009) Toward a Science of Exceptional Achievement. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1172(1), 199-217. Meyer, J.H.F., and Land, R. (2005) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning. Higher Education, 49(3), 373–388. Murphy, G.L., and Wright, J.C. (1984) Changes in conceptual structure with expertise: Differences between real-world experts and novices. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 10(1), 144-155.

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