As someone who is involved in academia and passionately loves the university environment as a teacher, it is a while since I have been a student in this sort of environment myself. Despite embarking on a very steep learning curve over the past few months simply learning to teach well (both academically and in teaching my own students of the craft), I find it worryingly easy to forget what being a student is like sometimes. Not that I feel I have ever stopped learning, in fact, that almost inexpressible need to explore, discover, analyse and synthesise is a driving force in my life. That wonderful state of feeling like you know absolutely nothing about a new subject, drinking it, drowning in it, absorbing like your life depends on it is for me, one of the most inspiring places to be, yet, sadly it is not a state that lasts or comes around all that often. It ebbs and flows with our understanding and our perceptions of what we think we understand, abating a while as we fall under the misapprehension that we know something about anything and then waiting to pounce as our meanderings take us somewhere new. I spend a good deal of my life feeling like the competent amateur rather than the expert, good at lots of things by accident rather than design. But perhaps that says more about me and my ability to self deprecate than anything else.
Sitting in lectures today, not as a teacher but as a student of education itself, studying for a masters in teaching, I found myself unutterably and deliriously happy. It took me a while to work out what I was feeling let alone figure out why. Gradually I understood that I was in that space where I realised I knew less than nothing about what was being discussed but knowing that I really wanted to! The subject that got me so excited was the ‘Threshold Concept’, it’s something that I have experienced myself and often, firstly as a young student of the craft and then later as a student midwife and regularly, although tantalisingly, not regularly enough, since. However, I had never heard this educational phenomena described before. Like many things, it only takes the right person to say it in the right way for it all to fall into place.
A threshold concept is a thing or idea that, within a subject, is absolutely key for us to grasp before we can move onto deeper understandings of a subject or discipline. Sometimes these things will be individual, things that others find easy to grasp yet, take us years to get a handle on. Others are concepts that can be named within a discipline, things that you will either get, or you wont and will likely determine whether you study a subject long term or end up teaching it yourself. Thinking of my own studies within the craft, one of my threshold concepts was undoubtedly that of realising chronically and painfully how I had an impact on every particle around me; experiencing the ‘web’, to use the poetry of animism, not as a flat weaving of threads, a piece of fabric, but as a thick, viscous substance that had no spaces, not individual things joined together by bridges, but as a living, breathing whole. The air no longer empty, but so thick and full of life that I was frightened to breathe or move lest I drown or create a tsunami. Every movement and effect was magnified and blown huge. I can remember so acutely how the walls of my understanding just crumbled. I spent the next month or two putting it all back together again in a way I could make sense of, but I quickly found I had access to a whole new level of perception I could never have imagined if I’d tried.
This is another key aspect of the threshold concept, it has the ability, once grasped, to bring us to a place of liminality where all that we have understood about a certain thing is dissolved and we have to start to rebuild our understanding about how the world works, from the ground up. The threshold concept is often described as being like a portal, once you enter it, there is suddenly a whole host of ideas and things to explore that had been blocked by not understanding the first thing; that you could never even have known were there to be explored.
The interesting thing from the perspective of the teacher (or so the theory says and it does have its critics) is that it is quite possible for the student to make passably good attempts at pretending to understand the threshold concept (I know this, as a student I have done it!). It is only by deeper analysis that the student will be found out, they may not even realise their own lack of understanding, believing they have got it, when in fact they are far from it. Perhaps for many, this is in itself a part of the learning process. I can certainly identify times when it has been the case for me. Threshold concepts are difficult, thorny, hard; we don’t like them because they make life difficult. It is rather inconvenient to have to rebuild our understandings about something, particularly if we realise we may have been wrong about it for years and subsequently have to address that. As both a teacher and a student this was a really powerful understanding.
Yet there is is something utterly wonderful (for me) about that liminal space. I guess you are either partial to having your doors blown open and spending time being profoundly uncomfortable or you aren’t. I realised that it’s what I love about being a student of anything, I don’t feel quite complete unless there’s a door missing somewhere and space to grow and explore through the portal. I tend to stagnate without it. Being a student in a learning environment with other students, maximises the potential for this.
In a religious tradition where we are often our own teachers, either because we chose it or because there aren’t that many folks around willing to teach and teach well, I think the threshold concept is a valuable asset and tool that can teach us much. But it requires honesty and consciousness to use it well, the willingness to look at where we are not honest, not understanding, pretending, or not willing to explore and push a little into why. I can vividly look back at the times when I didn’t get it, often I had the inkling I was pretending a little, desperately hoping that my teachers would believe I had groked it. The bad ones bought it, the good ones rarely did. Of course it takes a willingness to blow the bloody doors off, even if it means being uncomfortable for a while but in my experience, the portal or rather my preferred metaphor, the rabbit hole, is always worth it no matter how strange.