Making the Clouds Part

Member: Kristen S. Slack (University of Wisconsin - Madison)

Not too long ago, when my kids were 6 and 11, I recall a conversation we had about their interest in possible careers when they grow up.  My youngest was intent on becoming an NBA star, while my oldest was trying to decide between being a lawyer, an actor, or a scientist.  The conversation touched on salaries, and I made a comment that NBA stars make a LOT of money, but that it is extremely difficult to become one because only a very few basketball players rise to the top of this profession.  My younger son concluded that he probably shouldn’t become an NBA icon, though not because he was worried about beating the odds.  Rather, he said, he worried that he may not have enough room in his house for all that cash.  

In that moment, wearing my hat as his “teacher of life,” I realized that I had never introduced him to the concept of banking.  To him the very literal meaning of making money was receiving a physical dollar bill or two after somewhat diligently making his bed and putting his dishes in the sink over the course of a week.  This money was then stuffed, by him, into a ceramic piggy bank.  We had discussed the concepts of earning and saving money, and he knew what money looked like. But beyond that, I had not provided any scaffolding for him to understand how the work world operates when it comes to wages, salaries, and paychecks.  I took this opportunity to bring him and his piggy bank to our credit union, where we opened a savings account and he started receiving monthly statements proving to him that his money was still there, attached to his name, and slowly accumulating with each new deposit.

This “a-ha” moment is what I always hope to achieve when teaching my college courses, although when it occurs, it is rarely as obvious as what transpired with my son.  In fact, I am not always clear what the specific constructs are that require an “a-ha” moment.  I think carefully about my course learning objectives, but this doesn’t quite cut it for me.  I’ve always felt that there was something missing in my efforts to nudge students toward a greater plane of understanding.  Through a higher education colleague (thank you, Tony Ciccone), I was recently introduced to the term “threshold concept.”  Despite my years in higher education, I had not come across this term, and find that it elegantly captures what I have been striving to accomplish with students.  What are those game-changing tenets of knowledge that are central and necessary for a given discipline or field?  Those concepts that, when truly learned, make “the clouds part,” according to my colleague, Tony, and the world look more crisp and orderly. Without them, you might argue, one cannot achieve an adequate level of performance in one’s professional sphere of life.

The term was first coined by two British scholars, Erik Meyer and Ray Land (see, who articulate several characteristics of a threshold concept (I offer a cursory overview here, and in full disclosure acknowledge that I have not mastered the threshold concept of the threshold concept).  A threshold concept is (1) troublesome (a challenge to learn and master); (2) transformative (it accomplishes a new way of thinking about a subject or phenomenon); (3) irreversible (not likely forgotten once learned); (4) integrative (affords an understanding of the interconnectedness of different aspects of a subject or phenomenon); (5) bounded (encompasses “a particular conceptual space”); (6) discursive (incorporates an “enhanced and extended use of language” that may be discipline-specific); and (7) reconstitutive (reconfigures a “learner’s prior conceptual schema”).  Meyer and Land also describe a liminal state, which is characterized by a “suspended state of partial understanding.”  Once one crosses the threshold from this liminal state to a state of authentic understanding, the clouds part. 

I think the threshold concept offers a useful framework for guiding disciplinary thinking on what constitutes essential learning and what should, in turn, inform teaching.  Not everything qualifies as a threshold concept, to be sure—some things are just important or useful to understand, but they don’t meet all of the above criteria.  There may be only a handful of threshold concepts for any one discipline (or perhaps, subdiscipline).  I find it interesting to consider what the relevant threshold concepts may be within my own courses and whether I am, in fact, effectively helping students to discover them.  I also think it would be highly beneficial to have this discussion about my profession, in general, with colleagues within and across higher education institutions, practitioners in and outside of academia, as well as with current and former students who are arguably closer to the “liminal state” experience (although I think threshold concepts can also evolve over time, requiring new learning by those at any level of expertise).  I am energized by the prospect of having these discussions, and excited to dive deeper into the literature that speaks to the threshold concept idea.  If you already have experience applying this framework in your teaching, I would love to hear what you learned in the process—and whether you were able to witness those clouds part.


First published on LinkedIn on February 20, 2016:

Image: DepositPhotos No.1628055, Vitalik Pakhnyushchyy

Blue sky with bright sun breaking through clouds.