There has been a move in education for a number of years now that has focused on what Jan Meyer and Ray Land call Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (Meyer and Land, 2006). These are ideas that students really struggle to grasp. We’ve all experienced it. For me it was mathematical formulae. I could never understand why it was that the maths teachers stepped through equations the way that they did. I didn’t know the rules and they did an appalling job of explaining them to me. I fumbled around trying to make sense of my ignorance before giving up. But the fact that I’ve never forgotten this, and keep returning to it is a telling point.
Meyer and Land argue that these threshold concepts – those ideas that we simply can’t understand but are nonetheless vital to our understanding of concepts – are critical learning experiences. Traditional approaches, like rote-learning of facts – fail because they don’t confront students with the problem that must be overcome. And modern education systems are too regimented to allow the student to truly dwell in their frustrated ignorance.
Meyer and Land argue that learning a complex subject like anatomy, or a professional discipline like physiotherapy, inevitably creates threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge for students. Our job as teachers, they argue, is not to use our experience and wisdom to lead the student by the hand over these conceptual barriers, but rather to support them while they work out why they’re troubled by a problem and then how they are going to find a way to overcome them. Once they have worked this out, the doors open to a new world of possibilities.
Meyer and Land explain it using the metaphor of a room. The student is standing on one side of the room. On the other side is a window that looks out over the world of professional practice that they want to get to. But before they can climb out of the window and become a physiotherapist, they must navigate all of the obstacles in their way.
This same idea of a ‘room with a view’ came up recently in an article in the Australian edition of The Conversation. The article looked at why it might be a bad idea to have a million-dollar view. A simple concept really, but one that was nicely unpacked and problematised using a range of different thinkers’ ideas and beliefs about happiness, our relationship to work and nature, and its representation in art.
Xing Ruan argues in the piece that houses with large picture windows are a relatively recent innovation in architectural design, and that ‘The million-dollar view…is not only bad for our body, but also our soul.’
So how does this relate to Meyer and Land’s work on threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge? Well, the point here is about the view – imagined or otherwise. We are used to setting our students lofty goals; encouraging them to think big, and dream of the future. But we should remember that this approach is, like the big picture window, a relatively recent invention, and perhaps not such a good one.
Rather than encouraging our students to imagine a big, bright, shiny future beyond the confines of the small, drab metaphorical room that they occupy as students and novice practitioners, there may be some merit in encouraging our future practitioners to be more humble, more modest in their aspirations; think locally rather than globally; engage more in the ‘now’ and less in the future; become happy with what they have, not frustrated that they feel they should always deserve more. To quote Xian ‘What we therefore ought to realise is that the million-dollar view is the bait of a modern trap’ and therefore, perhaps, something we should consider when we try to lead our students out of the room with a view.
Meyer, J., & Land, R. (2006). Overcoming barriers to student understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. Taylor & Francis.