threshold concepts, part 2: an incomplete analogy

If you were trying to coach non-runner for a half marathon, would you start by having them run all 13.1 miles on their first day? Probably not. At the very least, you’d need to condition them to handle the miles by incrementally increasing the distance they ran every week.

Then, in order to prepare them for obstacles and challenges in the terrain, you’d want to add variety to their training. Maybe try to improve their technique or workshop bad habits.

And, of course, you’d try to coordinate all of these activities into an integrated training plan.

But what if you’re training for something completely different? Like a tennis match? Would these same activities help? Sure, marginally. But if you’re already in shape, conditioning your legs to handle 13.1 miles might not be the best use of your time if you need to improve your tennis serve.

This is an analogy I’m working on at least to describe one-size-fits-all library instruction. It feels a bit like sampling random activities out of different training plans and expecting precise results. I know it doesn’t fully work. Or people might take exception to this idea: “But we don’t do that! The professor and I work together to determine what databases are relevant to a particular assignment.”

Let me ignore those for now because I still feel that this analogy isn’t a bad way to think about threshold concepts.

So to keep going, let’s say the course is the 13.1 mile race, and the professor is the coach who is supposed to help them get across the finish through these training plans (and a lot of encouragement when things get tough). 

If this is the case, then information literacy threshold concepts come in as the things that help determine the quality of that finish. Did they hydrate right? Did they stay on the balls of their feet going up hills? Were they able to sprint to the finish? In other words, were they able to develop those habits of body and mind that would improve their chance of success? A coach might have a training plan that touches on everything, but the extent in which he or she can get in-depth is where a specialist (i.e. librarian) such as a nutritionist or strength trainer might come in handy.

There is a big difference between just getting across the line and being competitive. And this is what threshold concepts can provide for students. I know this hasn’t provided a metaphor for their comparative advantage versus how information literacy has been regarded, but I needed to get this thought on paper first. Stay tuned, I suppose?

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