Using Threshold Concepts to design a KS4 English curriculum

The big change a-coming for curriculum design is that the final vestiges of modularity will soon have been licked clean from the assessment spoon; from September it will linearity all the way. Many English teachers have never worked in such a system and there’s widescale panic about how exactly we can expect children to retain the quantity of textual information they will need to know in order to have something to analyse in a closed book exam.

An obvious solution is to redesign your curriculum to harness what we know about the best ways of getting students to remember stuff. I’ve written ad nauseum about the benefits of spacing, interleaving, testing and the rest of the gang, but now it’s time to put it all into practice.

Another area of theory I think it’s worth trying to capture is that of the Threshold Concept. The process of learning can be seen as a voyage of discovery in which we boldly seek out brave new worlds. If our journeys are full of adventure and adversity then we’ll learn from these experiences. If we never leave the safety of familiar environs and stay within the bounds of what is known then we’re unlikely to develop or be much changed.

Although no metaphor can adequately describe it, learning can sometimes be a little like this. This led to a fascinating attempt by education professors Jan Meyer and Ray Land to map the unmappable and plot pupils’ journeys within subject domains: the ‘threshold concept’.

A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress. As a consequence of comprehending a threshold concept there may thus be a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view. This transformation may be sudden or it may be protracted over a considerable period of time, with the transition to understanding proving troublesome. Such a transformed view or landscape may represent how people ‘think’ in a particular discipline, or how they perceive, apprehend, or experience particular phenomena within that discipline (or more generally).[i]

So, what makes a Threshold Concept different from, say, a ‘key concept’? Well, it appears that the areas of a subject at which students get stuck seem to be the most important bits. Further, more advanced ideas depend on the understanding of certain important fundamentals. In all subject domains and disciplines there are points which lead us into “previously inaccessible ways of thinking”. If a concept is a way of organising and making sense of what is known in a particular field, a threshold concept organises the knowledge and experience which makes an epiphany or ‘eureka moment’ possible.

Meyer and Land suggest a threshold concept will most likely possess certain important qualities.[ii] Some of the adjectives we could apply to these concepts are:

  • Integrative: Once learned, they are likely to bring together different parts of the subject which you hadn’t previously seen as connected.
  • Transformative: Once understood, they change the way you see the subject and yourself.
  • Irreversible: They are difficult to unlearn – once you’ve passed through it’s difficult to see how it was possible not to have understood before.
  • Reconstitutive: They may shift your sense of self over time. This is initially more likely to be noticed by others, usually teachers.
  • Troublesome: They are likely to present you with a degree of difficulty and may sometimes seem incoherent or counter-intuitive.[iii]
  • Discursive: The student’s ability to use the language associated with that subject changes as they change. It’s the change from using scientific keywords in everyday language to being able to fluently communicate in the academic language of science.

So how can we identify the threshold concepts of our subjects? Most obviously, they’re the places students commonly get stuck. What are the knots of your subject? The bits that give you the most trouble in communicating to classes? Often, these areas are the points at which many, seemingly unrelated, pieces of knowledge coalesce into meaning. With this as our starting point we can start to map out what these concepts might be for a particular subject area.

For my subject, English, some of the threshold concepts might be:

  • Understanding the relationship between grammar and meaning.
  • Understanding the effect of context, both on writers and readers.
  • Understanding the need to use supporting evidence for ideas.
  • An awareness of the ways in which language can affect readers.
  • Understand how different ways of structuring text can produce different effects.
  • Understanding that language can be analysed to reveal a variety meanings.

You could certainly argue for others to be included, but each of these concepts is, I think, fundamental to being able to perform at the highest level in English Language and Literature. Until they are grasped, students’ ability to find and make meaning is limited.

Piecing together these concepts and mapping them onto the curriculum is the very opposite of misguided attempts of generic taxonomies to describe linear and universal stages of learning. It might not feel comfortable, but it’s essential that we acknowledge that there’s is no straightforward linear route from ‘easy’ to ‘difficult’. Mastery of a threshold concept is a messy business and will often require retracing our steps back, forth and across unfamiliar conceptual terrain. The idea of a threshold concept is in itself a threshold concept. We find it hard to grasp not just because of its transformative implications but also because of it’s tough to wrap your head around: what’s the difference between a ‘threshold concept’ and a more traditional way of looking at the basic principles of a subject? Is it just a fancy name for something we’re already familiar with? This is a briar patch through which it can seem too onerous to pass and it’s all too easy to get ‘stuck’. This might help us appreciate the frustration our students often feel for what to us seem the most straightforward and natural ways of thinking.

Before I reveal my curriculum plan, one point remains to be made: for the first time in my career, English Literature has been given the same value and English Language. Almost all English teachers are literature graduates and students tend to do better in Literature than they do in Language. And because there are no set texts in the new English Language specifications it makes sense to concentrate on teaching the very best literature course we can and fitting in the skills of language around the margins.

With that, here’s a generic, adaptable version of the plan:

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 08.29.21

And here’s the specific version we’ll be using:

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 10.11.57

Year 10 is spent telling stories. Instead of feeling scared about how on earth it’s possible to cover a Victorian novel in a term, why not stretch out and abandon ourselves to the luxury of great literature? Eleven weeks for both a Shakespeare play and even the lengthiest novel offers a real opportunity for students to be seduced by the stories and the storytelling. Instead of worrying over much about analysis, I would suggest keeping an ongoing portfolio of observations about character, theme, plot, setting and the rest. These will be revisited in Year 11 but should not, I think, be over-egged in Year 11; it’s enough perhaps that they get to know the stories. The three set texts would be interspersed with opportunities to learn poems from the anthology (and Poetry by Heart will prove an invaluable ally here) as well as reading the wide range of literary non-fiction with students will need to be familiar to do well in Language. I would recommend that lessons make frequent and regular use of low stakes testing as a means to both remembering and thinking about these texts. One piece of useful advice might be to begin each lesson with say 5 multiple-choice questions – some about last lesson, some about last week and some on last term’s topics. The emphasis should always be that students need to remember this stuff in the long-term.

Then in Year 11 the hard work really begins. Study can – and should – take the opportunity to space and interleave not just the threshold concepts of English but also the curriculum content that’s been covered in Year 10. The model above isn’t intended to be seen as something off-the-peg which you can simply copy, rather it’s intended to demonstrate what this might look like in practice. Each week I would take a different curriculum area and view through the lens of a couple of the threshold concepts. So the first time we look at Shakespeare we might consider Act 1 in terms of structure and grammar, the next time it comes round we might unpick the techniques and contextual factors of characterisation. The point is that students will already be familiar with the stories – they’re not having to remember character and plot at the same time they’re trying to understand how to be analytical.

So there it is – an English curriculum designed to maximise students’ long-term retention and ability to transfer ideas. There’s a lot more detail I could go into and there are, I’m sure, areas on which I’m confused. I hope readers will take the time to build on and challenge my thoughts below.

And if you’re interested, here are some further thoughts on English curriculum design.

[i] Jan Meyer and Ray Land, “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines”, ETL Project, Occasional Report 4, May 2003

[ii] Adapted from

[iii] Perkins, D. (1999). ‘The many faces of constructivism’, Educational Leadership, 57 (3)


26 Responses to Using Threshold Concepts to design a KS4 English curriculum

  1. Howard Scott says:

    Interesting links between Land and Meyer and the curriculum. I think of ‘Threshold Concepts’ in the manner of human growth/development, as in stemming from it’s roots in (cultural) anthropology. It is difficult, potentially impossible, to map such abstracts against certain learning objectives which are a different beast, but yours looks a rational, scaffolded way of doing it with English. I wonder about this concept of liminality and the degree at which students arrive there. It seems to me an internalised experience and one that comes together at the intersection of many things, not just curriculum knowledge but informal learning, life-world experience, readiness, ability to reflect and communicate, and very often working at one’s own pace. As you point out, these processes are at odds with the notion of linearity and “will often require retracing our steps back, forth and across unfamiliar conceptual terrain.” In English, for example, we can reap the full meaning of some texts only when they have some orientation to real life experience, not only by understanding, say, metaphor or irony.

    • David Didau says:

      Hi Howard – thanks for this. Learning objectives are problematic – I’m less convinced than ever tof their efficacy. You’re probably right to say that mapping TCs onto a curriculum is a flawed endeavour – I guess I see them as markers of the terrain that most needs retreading – it definitely needs acknowledging that students won’t ‘get’ them as and when teachers want them to.

      • Chris Jennings says:

        Hi David. Do you have any links to studies or any posts that look at the efficacy of learning objectives?

  2. @cazzwebbo says:

    This is great. Although it’s possible to talk about delivery of the course over two years in mainstream E&D though, for those students who didn’t get a C in either language or literature, they will have to do language in FE over 9 months. It’d be cool to see a plan for that. They will have three hours a week, with assumption of no homework. They won’t start until September 2016 doing this.

  3. Bryn Goodman says:

    I’m not a secondary English teacher but I can see how the idea of teaching threshold concepts could be applicable at primary too. For example, teaching written methods of division. Also, how you suggest revisiting content with a different emphasis so that ch can concentrate on the concept rather than the concept. I can see this being useful in teaching reading at KS2. Revisiting the same text but working on different comprehension skills. Thanks for another great post.

  4. Bryn Goodman says:

    I meant concentrate on the concept rather than the content, sorry.

  5. Scott says:

    Do you have any ideas about how this could be applied to a Geography curriculum?

  6. […] in pupils’ books will only provide evidence of performance. Were we to put the effort into producing a curriculum which spaced and interleaved the troublesome threshold concepts of our subjec… then misconceptions become predicatable and performance data misleading. If we’re serious […]

  7. […] Didau Indeed: See The Secret Literacy: Making the Implicit Explicit and ideas on Threshold Concepts –… […]

  8. […] are likely to get stuck and help guide them through liminal space. Here’s my example of a Key Stage 4 English curriculum designed along these lines. This is all very well, but how can you ever hope to assess how students […]

  9. […] was an acceptable way to drive. This suggests we must make a special effort to make relevant the threshold concepts – those ideas that most shape and alter students’ understanding – of the […]

  10. Sam says:

    What are your thoughts on measuring progress in threshold concepts?

  11. Hi David,

    I’m just dipping in to the literature surrounding threshold concepts at the moment.

    But it does seem, as it’s described by Meyer and Land, to have weaknesses. Significant ones.

    That said, I’m a TC newbie.

    Meyer and Land seem to argue that Threshold concepts may have, likley have, possibly have, or probably have the criteria and characteristics they lay out. The might (or might not) be troublesome. They are probably ( but might not be) integrative. The often are (but mightn;t at all be) transformative. And they are likley to be irreversible. Except when they turn out not to be true.

    The characteristics seem to be so hedged about with qualifiers as to be extremely loose. And so vague as to be approachingn meaningless.

    The characteristics are also subjective – they are based on individual experience. But the concepts themselves are not subjective – they are defined as being prerequisites for procedding to further learning.

    What I mean here is, whether a concept is troublesome, transformative and to a degree integrative may often vary from student to student. So it’s difficult to square the idea that something which is objectively necesssary to understanding a topic, is defined by criteria which are subjective.

    It also seems to be something of a rebranding. Look at medieval guilds for example. A long apprenticeship, often engaged in mastering techniques, which served to act as a gateway or portal to both expertise and the professional community – exactly the things Meyer and Land argue are key to Threshold Concepts ideas of liminality, it’s place as a rites of passage experience, and the prerequisite for learning aspect.

    Guild knolwedge could be troublesome ( I’m guessing the guild of pie-makers had hot water crusts as a troublesome concept, blacksmiths had forge welding and scrollwork as one), tranformative – it transformed you into a professional, and transformed you into a nolwedgeable professional), integrative, discursive – you began using guild jargon…

    From my initial reading, it feels like it might be vaguely defined criteria, which may actually be repackaged common sense.

    As I said, I’m a newbie to the ideas, and critical commentary seems relatively cantankerous and thin on the ground…

  12. […] was an acceptable way to drive. This suggests we must make a special effort to make relevant the threshold concepts – those ideas that most shape and alter students’ understanding – of the […]

  13. […] threshold concepts, since I read this article about their use in A level Chemistry teaching, and this one by David Didau, but I am still trying to work out exactly what they are, and how to use them most […]

  14. […] David Didau has written extensively on this subject, both in his book, What if Everything You Knew About Education was Wrong? and on his blog here. […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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