Learning is liminal

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I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
Tennyson, Ulysses

I offered my definition of learning here, but there is, I feel, something more to be said on the subject.

Learning is a messy, complicated business. Imagine yourself standing before a dark, ominous doorway. Through it you can glimpse something previously unimagined, but entering and crossing through entails a risk – anything might happen. Not passing through, while safe, means you will never know what’s on the other side.

It can sometimes seem that the distance between knowing and not knowing is negligible: we teach students something they didn’t know and then they know it. But this appearance of learning is, in many cases just the first tentative steps in embedding new concepts in long-term memory. In actual fact, the gap – or liminal space – between knowing and not knowing is mysterious and largely hidden from us. Liminality is a transitional, transformational state where we are in the initial stages of a process, or occupying a position at, or on, both sides of a boundary; what the anthropologist Victor Turner described as “betwixt and between”. This state of restless flux is something all of us struggle to pin down even in our own minds. There is little hope of being able to pinpoint a moment in time and claim that to be the precise moment at which a pupil crosses a particular threshold and learns.

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Students come to our lessons already knowing many things. Some of these things are useful foundations for future learning, but others are naive misconceptions about the way the world works. When we teach a new concept, this new idea may, momentarily, displace the existing misconception; students’ performance will increase and they may well be able to do something they were previously unable to do. This performance might represent a last change in long-term memory, but it is likely to be just mimicry.

When students leave our lesson, the new idea we have introduced begins to fade and older, more established ideas return to prominence. This might explain the frustrating phenomena of students forgetting what they have been taught between lessons.

Although students will often remember a topic being covered and believe they know the material, this can sometimes be an illusion. They remember that they knew a thing but will not be aware that they no longer know it. Assuming students’ performance is reliable evidence of learning can be disastrous. Instead, no matter what students think they know, we should plan to reintroduce new concepts on multiple occasions and in a range of different contexts. Remarkably, New Zealand professor of education, Graham Nuthall was able to use the data from his Project on Learning to predict, with a remarkable 80–85 percent accuracy, exactly which concepts, principles, generalisations and procedures each student would learn and remember. In The Hidden Lives of Learners he observed that if students had encountered a concept on at least three different occasions there was an upwards of 80 percent chance they would still know it six months later. If they hadn’t experienced three exposures, the probability a concept would be retained decreased in proportion to their exposure to it.

When new ways of seeing the world are continually reintroduced they make ever increasing links and connections to different mental schema and become better stored in long-term memory. Gradually, these new conceptions weaken and replace pre-existing ones. In Emerging Minds, Robert Siegler visualised this process as a tide coming in and overlapping waves ebbing and flowing. As a new concept is encounter the tide rushes up the beach only to ebb back as old ideas reemerge. At any given moment in time students may not appear to be making progress – a misconception may have returned to the fore during a particular performance – but, with repetition and reinforcement of key ideas, the tide will continue to rise. This is probably a more useful metaphor for progress than the brutal linearity of the flight path or the ladder.

If we give students time and encouragement to remain in liminal space for as long as is necessary, they are more likely to make cognitive changes and master troubling new concepts rather than simply mimicking what they think we want them to say or, worse, learning that they ‘can’t do’ a particular subject.

Entering a liminal space engages us in the exciting process of mastery but it can feel dangerous – grasping difficult new concepts changes us and change is always uncertain. Although pre-liminal understanding of the world is vague, it’s safe; small wonder some students prefer the safety of mimicry rather than the risk of mastery.

Imagine yourself standing before a dark, ominous doorway. Through it you can glimpse something previously unimagined, but entering and crossing through entails a risk – anything might happen – but not passing through, while safe, means you will never fully see what’s on the other side. Crossing a threshold also risks losing something; we have to let go of old ideas, something which isn’t always comfortable. This discomfort of being uncertain lies at the heart of our refusal to experience cognitive dissonance for long; we rush to the safety of certainty as soon as we’re offered a possible interpretation of new and troubling information. Few can bear the confusion of negative capability. Lack of certainty in our hunter-gatherer ancestors likely led to sticky and untimely ends. If it looks like a duck, or more to the point, if it looks like a sabre tooth tiger, it’s probably safer to assume it’s a sabre tooth tiger. It could be that we’re genetically predisposed to rush to certainty and merely mimic rather than master new ways of looking at the world.

As well as passing through, the process of learning is also a voyage of discovery in which we boldly seek out brave new worlds. If our journey through life is full of adventure and adversity then we will 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.

7 Responses to Learning is liminal

  1. Roberto says:

    It can sometimes seem that the distance between knowing and not knowing is negligible: we teach students something they didn’t know and then they know it. But this appearance of learning is, in many cases just the first tentative steps in embedded new concepts in long-term memory.
    Our teaching is parametrized by the credit system. The students are divided between learning and passing. Learning may be a difficult way to pass; iin some cases, (math) it is just the impossible way. In all cases, learning requires and effort. So, when we teach, the student asks him/herself: do I have to learn this? For instance, the students find the maximum of a curve by trying and error with the calculator. Then I teach them to do it by equating the differential to zero. Invariably they ask: in the exam, may I do it my way? Of course, my answer is: no, I am not teaching you how to solve a problem, I am teaching you a method to solve a problem.
    Generally, when we teach A (math) the student learns B (how to pass without learning A).
    See http://www.jceps.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/13-1-4.pdf

  2. Great piece, thank you! also maybe helpful video, The Learning Challenge available at

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  4. […] I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades For ever and for ever when I move. Tennyson, Ulysses I offered my definition of learning here, but there is, I feel, something more to be said on the subject. Learning  […]

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