Rebuilding communication with family and friends

An understanding of Threshold Concepts 

Written by Val Fraser, Educational Advisor

My field is essentially teaching and learning and particularly the field of learning theory, which means how we learn best and most efficiently.

I largely adhere to the social constructivist model which means we learn in the company of others through collaborative dialogue. Sometimes that other person has to be more knowledgeable than us to take us further into a full understanding e.g. a teacher. Other times, with peers, the route to understanding can be figured out together: two heads are better than one. 

The notion of Threshold Concepts is a transformative approach to learning, or at least it bills itself in that way. Professor Ray Land of Durham University worked with a colleague and shaped it to apply to the field of the academic curriculum in Higher Education. Each subject would have its unique threshold concepts to facilitate students’ understanding. These are the defining concepts of each subject which are key to understanding the whole field and thus change fundamentally our view of it. This article is largely based on Land and Meyer’s work (2008). 

You can apply Threshold Concepts to world events too. We might have had an overview of say, the war in Iraq during Tony Blair’s time as PM. We might have fully been on board with trying to dismantle a regime that held WMDs which posed a threat to the whole world. When we subsequently learn though, that there were no WMDs and the evidence for ever believing they existed, now seems thin, our whole view of that war changes. We review all the components of it with a new understanding, including Mr Blair himself, and we cannot go back to holding the same thoughts that we did. It changes everything. The process can also be a deeply troubling one for us to ‘reverse think’ in this way. 

A Threshold Concept then, does more than a whole host of other concepts combined. We learn best and most, what we most urgently need to know next. We are fully engaged when our priorities are addressed. But the route to understanding isn’t always smooth. 

Threshold Concepts are sometimes called troublesome knowledge. So what is ‘troublesome knowledge?’ John Dewey 1933 remarked, “The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alteration of old beliefs.” John Maynard Keynes (1936) agreed “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but escaping from the old ones.” Finding out new information can be unsettling. This may explain why our close ones are turning off from listening to our sharing of information: it is uncomfortable for them to hear, as what we are sharing doesn’t fit with their established and trusted current thinking.

Real learning though requires stepping into the unknown, which initiates a rupture from what you already do know and feel comfortable with. “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing landscapes, but in having new eyes, and seeing the universe with the eyes of another,“ (Marcel Proust, 1900). Threshold concepts are concerned with encountering the unknown or sometimes seeing ‘the known’ with a new vision and are therefore, discomfiting.

Unpacking the noun phrase ‘Threshold Concepts’ can help us understand their purpose. A concept is straightforwardly “a unit of thought or element of knowledge that allows us to organise experience.“ Janet Gail Donald, 2001. Threshold Concepts lead to new and previously inaccessible ways of thinking about something. We cross a ‘threshold’ to discover them. 

Often a Threshold Concept leads to constructed and re-constitutive understanding in a graduated way.  It’s not always revelatory knowledge and it’s not necessarily sudden. So there are few examples of Eureka moments as they are explored. It’s more a reflective process, like crossing into a portal; a liminal space opens up  (see paragraph below on liminality) into a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. The penny begins to drop! 

It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner finds it difficult to progress. As a consequence of comprehending this Threshold Concept, there may be a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape or even worldview. It may involve a reconstitution of, or shift within, the learner’s subjectivity (lived experiences) and perhaps even their identity.

So when we first encounter a Threshold Concept new to us, our minds become suspended while we wait for some certainty. “If that is true then what I previously held can’t also be true” is what our inner voice is saying.  Liminality is defined as a suspended state where we are in uncertainty. (Cognitive dissonance is more negative and aligns more with inconsistency whereas liminality is quite positive – it’s about a suspended belief waiting for more certainty). A new and key bit of knowledge, which a Threshold Concept is, takes us to that state. It is also transformative and, as it engages with the existing certainties you already hold in your mind, it renders them problematic, even fluid. It can approximate to a lack of authenticity and often an unsettling sense of loss of certainty. It is like stepping onto a moving platform: you start seeking hand and foot holds where you can. But to get to where progress is, the platform does need to be travelled not avoided. So some courage is required. 

The function of this liminal state is to:

  • Countenance and integrate something new;
  • Recognise the shortcoming of an existing view:
  • Let go of the older prevailing view;
  • Let go of an earlier mode of subjective thinking;
  • Envisage and accept an alternative version (possibly of self) or the undoing of the script you previously used;
  • Acquire and use new forms of written and spoken discourse and internalise these into your thinking. 

So in summary, a Threshold Concept is: interpretive, transformative, irreversible, bounded, re-constitutive, discursive and troublesome. Once you understand the new learning, not only can you not go back to the old learning but you perceive everything (including the past) differently as a result.

The reason it could be particularly troublesome knowledge is that it might be alien, conceptually difficult, counterintuitive, characterised by an inaccessible underlying ‘game’ (agenda) or characterised by complexity. Most of the last three years have taken us all into this territory I believe, where motive and rationale for government policy have left us befuddled. 

The troublesomeness and the discomfort are purposeful as they provoke change that cannot just be assimilated and hence, new understandings and possibilities open. We need to venture into unfamiliar places which are often anxiety provoking and that is their purpose, as it’s only through feeling uncomfortable that we will make the changes we need to make in our thinking.

How to use Threshold Concepts. 

My own take on having used the theory of Threshold Concepts successfully in my university teaching, is that with every field of knowledge, there are those Threshold Concepts which are key to opening up the understanding we want in the other person. Choosing one wisely is efficient, as the scattergun approach of using all relevant concepts is counter-productive. 

I also believe that in our one-to-one interactions with close friends and family, the Threshold Concept that we wish to use could well be a very individualised and bespoke concept that lands well with them. What, of all the compendium of issues, these last three years have thrown up, would particularly capture this person’s attention?  That’s the key question for us. 

I believe when we are dealing with our peers and anyone who considers themself to be intelligent, educated and so forth, the challenge is not to present the issue as settled or a fait accompli. We need to meet them in the place of their uncertainty with less certainty than we profess to have. We need to explore how we can present something as research, that we are undertaking, with preliminary findings that trouble us. Because if we can also present ourselves as processing troublesome knowledge that we are working through, we are meeting them at the place where they could feel comfortable enough to enter the portal to join us. We have also confirmed equality in status and are therefore not perceived as patronising them. 

So let’s take an example case for illustrative purposes. Your sister is intent on getting their teenager the Covid booster. You, though, have seen the data on the rise in myocarditis in this age group. You really want them to stop and think. 

The priority Threshold Concept is clear: understanding the risks to teenagers from Covid injections. Leave all other issues aside. This is not the time to discuss the failure of lockdowns, the betrayal of the education system for children, the fraudulent PCR tests or the climate change agenda. Less is more.  Ban yourself from uttering ‘and another thing’. 

Find one article on myocarditis (preferably as near to mainstream as you can or alternatively a published peer reviewed article in a reputable journal). Print it out. At a point you are meeting for other purposes and talking about other matters, get the article to hand. You might say “X gave me this to read the other day. I’ve only browsed through it once. I need to examine it in more detail but if what they say is true, it makes sense for parents to wait for more evidence that this booster is safe for teens. See what you think. I’ll read it more carefully after you. It seems an important claim.”

You are taking them to the threshold. Don’t attempt to drag them over. Sow a seed of doubt. Leave it there and then return at some later point to ask them questions or initiate discussion, feigning limited knowledge. Suggestions:

“Did it seem authentic?” 

“It’s a good journal. It must have been peer reviewed to be published there.” 

“Well I expect there will be more to come in the days and weeks ahead”.  

“Most parents are cautious when it comes to their kids..” 

“It might mean the take up is low now.” 

“Why didn’t they find this out before rolling it out to millions?”

“I’m going to need some convincing when kids aren’t at risk from Covid.”

“Can I have it back to read?”

Rather than bombard your sister with all you want her to know, let her tentatively have the one thing that will make her question everything else. That’s how it worked with us. We found one thing that didn’t seem to fit and that took us to the threshold and beyond, where we could then open many other doors at our own pace. 


  • Land,, R. and Meyer, J.(2008) Threshold Concepts Within the Disciplines (Educational Futures: Rethinking Theory and Practice), Sense Publishers. 
  • Ferrar, H. 1988, “The Reflective Thought Process: John Dewey Re-visited” in The Journal of Creative Behavior (JCB), Vol.22, Issue 1, p.1-8.
  • Keynes, J. M. (1936) The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Palgrave MacMillan. 
  • Proust, M. (1981) The Captive and The Fugitive: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 5, Random House Inc. Publishers.
  • Donald, J, G,. (2002) Learning to Think: Disciplinary Perspectives, Jozsef-Bass Publishers.

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