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Threshold Concepts and Misconceptions

Megan Smart from Swavesey Village College considers threshold concepts and misconceptions, as part of her CTSN/UCL IoE 'How do we know it works? Leading Change' project.

When the time comes to plan for the following academic year, it is an obvious time to reflect on what could be done better. This, alongside some useful conversations with OfSTED inspectors during a pilot and actual inspection in 2019 and 2020, respectively, provided us with an opportunity to think about whether our curriculum was coherently planned and sequenced. We also considered whether the teaching was designed to help students to remember the content they had been taught in the long term and were able to integrate this knowledge into larger concepts. This led to us making changes to the curriculum to ensure that students had a secure understanding of the ‘threshold concepts’ which would open the door to further and more long-term understanding. As part of this we also focused on identifying and anticipating misconceptions which might be hurdles to students mastering these threshold concepts.

Misconceptions weren’t a new idea to me – in fact I had learned about them when I first started training to teach and I have thought about them throughout my teaching career since. However, I started to think about them in a slightly different light when I read about the idea of a ‘threshold concept’ having watched a talk by Niki Kaiser through the researchED Norwich event in summer 2020. This made me reflect on how important it was for students to have a secure knowledge of certain concepts before they could be successful when they moved onto more difficult ones. Linked to this idea is that of misconceptions - that this secure knowledge also needs to be free of these misconceptions - so I started to look at those that were specific to my subject, such as the example here.

In this report by Meyer and Land, threshold concepts are ‘considered akin to a portal, opening up a new and preciously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress’.

Before the school closures in March 2020, the subsequent restrictions on the full opening of schools, and then further school closures in January 2021, it was our intention as a department to start an optional curriculum ‘working group’. We would consider the sequencing of our curriculum and trial changes to the way we taught which would give more opportunity for students to master threshold concepts and challenge misconceptions so that a better understanding of further concepts could be achieved.

Unfortunately the aforementioned restrictions made this venture almost impossible as planned, with changing priorities involved in the shift to remote learning and difficulties in holding meetings in person only a few of the challenges. However, this year I have been working with a trainee teacher and during our weekly mentor meetings we decided to trial some changes to the way we planned whole units of work as sequences of lessons which would allow a focus on ensuring students had mastered threshold concepts and that we tackled misconceptions in order to do this. One of the benefits of working alongside a trainee teacher is that on reflecting on the practice of others you also reflect on your own, so we both trialled this simple but focused approach to thinking about our planning.

To aid our thinking and subsequent teaching we used the following format to consider how best to ensure we mastered the threshold concepts and tackled misconceptions:

Using this format to plan for whole sequences of lessons, we were able to ensure that the threshold concepts were secure, and that any misconceptions which would hinder the understanding of these threshold concepts were anticipated and specifically tackled through our lesson. It also led us to consider the most appropriate order to teach our sequence of lessons in, in some cases.

We assessed whether this deeper consideration of threshold concepts and misconceptions, and the subsequent impact it had on the strategies and activities we included in our lessons, was having a positive effect on students. We surveyed students and many of them commented that they felt the opportunity to recap the foundation knowledge they had visited before, which was linked to this new topic, was useful and helped them to grasp the new content. Many said that they appreciated the fact that this knowledge was not assumed but instead checked and revisited. As a mentor to a trainee teacher I had the privilege of being able to observe every Physics lesson taught after using the above format to plan for threshold concepts and misconceptions in a sequence of lessons. It was clear from observing, particularly from student responses to questions, that this consideration and the impact on lessons had led to students not just understanding ‘by rote’ – students were able to formulate their answers in their own words using scientific vocabulary and not just through mimicry. A more secure understanding of the underpinning ideas central to what they were attempting to explain certainly contributed to this. The trainee teacher planning the sequence of Physics lessons mentioned above felt that thinking about the threshold concepts and misconceptions was key to planning effective lessons. I also used the above format to inform the strategies and methods I employed in my lessons on bonding. Having taught the same topic many times before, perhaps without such in-depth consideration, I felt that this time I was more successful in helping students to build deeper understanding on top of existing knowledge, which was only possible by ensuring that the existing knowledge was first secure and free of misconceptions.

The initial plan was that a number of teachers would be involved in using this tool to enhance their lesson planning, however for reasons mentioned previously it was initiated on a much smaller scale and actually only involved two teachers and approximately sixty students. The project therefore could be considered a pilot. Its success on a small scale means I believe it would be worth scaling up over the remainder of this and next academic year to hopefully benefit all of the teachers in the department and therefore all students studying science. I would like to expand this small project to see whether identifying threshold concepts and misconceptions in all of the sciences, and the explicit use of strategies in lessons to ensure that they are secure and free of misconceptions before moving on, would have a positive impact on student learning. I would also like to expand this further to reconsider the order in which we teach concepts, to ensure that students have the foundation knowledge required to make progress in something more difficult; there may be a more appropriate sequence to enable this than the one we are currently using.

Learning about threshold concepts and misconceptions through this project was incredibly interesting, especially when it was explored in a subject specific context. Having significant experience of teaching Science already, it was enlightening to reflect on what might seem obvious to me but perhaps not to a ‘novice’ learner. I am looking forward to sharing this experience with other teachers who I hope find that the opportunity to reflect in the same way on a subject they may have taught for years, in a slightly different light, is an experience that is both interesting and developmental. I have always enjoyed the chance to engage in my own action research as you never really know what you will find, and every experience I have had so far has never failed to make me a better teacher. Although I wish that my project had happened on the scale I had planned originally, what I have learned about implementing change is that it is often better to trial something on a smaller scale, before taking too many other teachers and students on the journey with you! I am excited about sharing these ideas with my colleagues.

About the author

Megan Smart has been the Curriculum Leader for Science at Swavesey Village College for almost four years. She is passionate about Science and is always looks for ways to help students achieve their potential, in Science and beyond.

Megan participated in the CTSN/UCL Institute of Education 'How do we know it works? Leading Change' project in 2019-2021.

You can follow Megan on Twitter: @megansmart89

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