threshold concepts, part 3: what purpose they serve

Threshold concepts (TCs) are not a direct replacement for the current information literacy competencies. They are, in my view, a fundamentally different approach to information literacy.

I will argue this point to not only help myself clarify my own position but because in the most recent open online forum on the new ACRL framework, I found myself very surprised by some of the comments were made. Questions to the effect of how they will evolve as technology changes, what will happen to discipline-specific standards, and how they’re too theoretical all seem to me to be the wrong questions–but I’d love to know what others thought as well.

To begin, I’m going to revisit my analogy from my previous post one more time because I’m stubborn. But I promise I’ll leave it behind after this:

If a course and library interventions (e.g. instruction on a database) in a course are comparable to finishing a half-marathon with the help of multiple specialists, then threshold concepts represent more long-term goals like lifelong fitness or a health diet.

How one gets to lifelong fitness varies on the sport (i.e. subject matter of course) and will also change as our understanding of biological systems and nutrition evolve (e.g. search tools, technology, and/or information behavior), but the goal of lifelong fitness doesn’t change.

The current, soon-to-be old standards are more about just what specifically needs to happen to finish the course (i.e. race). They could apply to more than one class, but they could also change drastically based on the technology available or the subject being taught. Without trying to address all the numerous criticisms about them, the current competencies end up being sort of a menu of discrete options rather than conceptual understandings. And that’s why they can’t be compared in the same way.

Why is the distinction important? It’s the difference between coaching someone to finish a race as quickly as possible without training properly–perhaps being more susceptible to injury or resorting to performance-enhancing drugs–and helping them develop habits that help them be successful throughout their life.

Phew! Okay, now if you think this analogy still sucks or have questions, let’s discuss it on Twitter or in the comments below. But metaphors are never perfect anyway.

That being said, allow me to make a brief but direct argument (and slight criticism as well):

One of the first questions a designer will make with any type of instruction is this:

What are the big rocks? That is, if looking down a year or 5 years from now, what will students remember about today or during this course? Or what should they know?

These are the questions I ask, at least, as well as the general premise behind backward design. We start with the ultimate end goal and work from there to figure out how we can get there. These are important because they help us make decisions and set priorities.

It’s like strategic planning. Nothing new or controversial about it. I also find “theoretical” as an odd way to describe them. You’re not going to set up a TC as an objective in a single instruction session, but hopefully it’s something that drives the lesson planning.

And if you’re being really nitpicky, you might point out that TCs are more co-curricular in nature. That is, it’s more of a secondary goal than a primary goal for the course instructor. And then it’s that faculty member that’s doing the planning and designing, not the librarian, right? Well, not to adopt the rhetoric of the task force, but I think that’s what makes this a tool for discussion. This framework provides well-articulated concepts that faculty are more likely to be able to get on board with and hopefully then consider the librarian as more of an instructional partner than service. But more on that in a future post.

I know when I started part 3 of this discussion that I could take this pretty long, but I want to conclude for now with one criticism I have of the draft framework document: There’s no real discussion of backward design or the threshold concepts as the product of design thinking. This isn’t a connection I’m creating out of thin air. A document that they draw heavily from for these TCs uses backward design to frame their argument:

Townsend, Lori, Korey Brunetti, and Amy R. Hofer. “Threshold Concepts and Information Literacy.” Portal: Libraries and the Academy. 11.3 (2011): 853-869. Print.

Why leave it out? I won’t speculate, but I think this is a must-read to improve productive conversation around TCs.

Okay, done for now. Props on getting through my verbosity. This blog is how I get it out of my system. 

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