Notes on: Cousin, G.  (2010) 'Neither teacher centred nor student centred: threshold concepts and research partnerships'.  Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education 2: 1-9.

Dave Harris

Threshold concepts offer a new way of thinking about research collaboration with students and others, focusing on encouraging partnerships stressing the difficulty of the subject rather than general educational theory.

[Meyer and Land are summarised 1--3, with an emphasis on the contested nature of threshold concepts, which provide only 'provisional stability for teaching, learning and assessment purposes' (3).

Liminality is an unstable space, where oscillation between understandings may take place.  Learners strive to attain mastery.  There can be a dialogue with students about their struggles [with some examples of conversation with students of linguistics: students say they forget things as soon as they leave class, and they can't apply what they've learned; they felt lost.  This is the sort of oscillation that Cousin refers to, and she notes that learning is often recursive.  There is a 'strong emotional dimension as well'(4), when students her problems identifying with subjects and their own perception of their abilities.  Or cultural studies teacher says that some get engaged, but more remain in a state of anxiety, especially in the first year, while others discover 'a utilitarian route' through the material. 

Ways of overcoming liminality include 'quasi plagiarism, plagiarism or mimicry.  Some just give up and leave university altogether'.  Having dialogues with them 'dramatically reduces these possibilities, particularly of the teacher gives them for permission to flounder, flail and forget'.  More examples of what students say include realizing that theoretical work has some deeper significance; that it can be relevant to professional practice; that perhaps it is not necessary to achieve complete mastery.  And with students of economics, struggling with the concept of elasticity, problems included knowing how to apply it: one student reported that suddenly everything seemed different after mastery. This is not exactly the same as phenomenographic approaches, which have tended to stress student experience rather than the academic teacher, and can look excessively student-centred to many academics.

Educational developers have certainly experienced reactions 'from indifference to hostility' from academics who fear excessive student-centred approaches.  Developers can see academics as requiring leadership toward student centred approaches - but there may be some point in academic resistance.  The '"teacherly self" may be threatened (5).  For example many educationalists have nothing but disdain for lectures, but this can irritate academics because it seems to ignore 'the lecturers symbolic, ritual content', their larger role rather than their immediate effectiveness [enter Bourdieu here -this' the professional ideology of 'proper knowledge', and it is socially supported as something clearly demonstrating the autonomy of universities from economic dominance].

Lectures permit students as well as teachers to 'feel part of the university' (6).  The lecture theatre can be a sacred space where academics exercise their freedom, advancing contentious ideas.  Of course, lecturing can be improved or sometimes replaced.  It is the opposition between student-centred and teacher-centred approaches which is not helpful, like many binaries.  Academics need to have their dignity restored as full partners in any discussion of educational practices.  Academics should not be expected 'to become amateur educationalists' either. Most developers know that asking academics to reflect as in Kolb can look like being asked to become amateurs in another discipline. 

Threshold concepts offer a way out, emphasizing subject expertise for students and teachers not general education.  Academics seem a more enthusiastic about discussing them, and they are more willing to engage in dialogue.  There is a better response than asking to focus on learning outcomes.

Phenomenography has displayed learner variations, and provided data to be analysed by researchers, which introduces a level of interpretation and representation.  Threshold concept research can run the risk of this as well, but there is a new trend addressing 'this kind of interpretive predicament' (7).  Research becomes a shared inquiry with academics and students: 'it is student focused but not student-centred in ways that remove the academic from the stage'.

It is the potential to open discussion that is important, leading to transactional curriculum inquiry (see Barradell) .  The method is not to invite academics to learn pedagogic discipline, but to investigate their own specialism more deeply.  This will lead to a more adequate partnership between developers, students and specialists.

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