On Threshold Concepts and Experiences

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In a recent post, “On Knowledge and Curriculum,” we reviewed a few disruptive ideas from cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, with the most incendiary implication being:

a school needs to come to a consensus on the topics, texts, vocabulary, and concepts that are most essential to know within and across each academic domain and carefully sequence and reinforce those concepts across classrooms and grades.

So how can a school embark upon this quest? In this post, I will attempt to provide some guiding ideas and protocols for this work.

How Do We Reinforce Knowledge?

First off, a few guiding documents to equip you with the cognitive principles of affirmative testing, which are essential to reinforcing knowledge over time:

—Annie Murphy Paul, “Affirmative Testing” (she has designed an entire e-course around these concepts!)

—Deans for Impact, “The Science of Learning

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How Do We Determine the Knowledge that is ESSENTIAL?

Folks are going to disagree about this, including the “experts,” so ultimately, this determination should be made collaboratively within a school (and beyond). The key is that the school comes to a consensus on this essential knowledge, then teachers carefully sequence it across the curriculum and quiz it repeatedly in a low stakes manner.

There’s a useful frame, known as threshold concepts, for drilling down to this “essential knowledge” within a specific academic domain. Threshold concepts come out of higher ed academia, and it’s admittedly a bit esoteric in the literature, but I think it’s a useful lens with practical implications. Threshold concepts are very much related to Wiggins and McTighe’s “big ideas,” but with a few interesting twists.

I first stumbled over the threshold of these concepts in blogs from UK educators, to whom I’m indebted for starting me on this journey:

—Alex Quigley, “Designing a New Curriculum: What are your ‘Big Ideas?’

—Joe Kirby, “One scientific insight for curriculum design” (he also sums up research on affirmative testing really well here)

What we’re really trying to get here is that 20% of the knowledge that is most essential to understanding an academic domain in a specific grade. Here’s a frame for this:

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How can threshold concepts help us to determine that 20% of essential knowledge within a specific academic domain? I decided to review some of the literature for further clues:

—Ray Land, Jan Meyer, and Jan Smith,”Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines” (Land and Meyer are the rockstars who originated the concept)

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—James Rhem, “Before and after students “get it”: threshold concepts” (a useful overview)

This idea of a transformation of understanding that is essential for progressing deeper into the academic content is really interesting.

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—James Atherton, “How do people ‘get it’?” (another useful overview)

There are many other characteristics that were identified, but they don’t all seem very useful in a practical sense for K-12. I think the three outlined above are the most relevant and applicable.

—Tracy Fortune, Priscilla Ennals, and Mary Kennedy-Jones, “The Hero’s Journey: Uncovering Threshold Barriers, Dispositions, and Practices Among Occupational Therapy Students

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I love this idea of viewing a student’s passage through a threshold concept as akin to a hero’s journey. In considering this journey, what are the troublesome obstacles and bottlenecks that student will face? The idea of “bottlenecks” comes thanks for the link immediately below. In thinking through this, I also think we need to acknowledge that bottlenecks may not be purely conceptual — they can also be procedural, in the form of skills required to complete academic tasks, as well as social-emotional (this can be a tremendous and often unaddressed barrier for many kids).

In this sense, then, we can expand the notion of crossing a threshold to not solely refer to concepts, but furthermore experiences. As educators, we seek to design experiences in which students engage in an academic form of a hero’s journey, learning to overcome barriers and gain the intellectual accomplishment of mastering skills and knowledge.

—Joan Middendorf & David Pace, “Decoding the Disciplines: A Model for Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking” (they offer a useful protocol that I’ve drawn from below)

OK, So How Do We Discover These Threshold Concepts and Experiences?

But we still need some kind of process for distilling away all the cruft and getting down that 20% of the most essential knowledge within a content and grade.

Here in the US, we have a general list of skills we use as guidance in the form of state standards. And as I’ve done with the Common Core standards, we can do a deeper analysis to begin unpacking what that knowledge might be.

But this can still be at a pretty abstract level, and we want this to be relevant to classroom teaching. By focusing on the topics and texts that will be studied, we can make this more concrete.

Because English Language Arts is my specific area of expertise, I’ve focused my efforts in this area, especially since this content area is probably the most difficult to pin down in terms of a progression of knowledge.

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There’s two ways we could utilize this protocol: 1) unit of study, or 2) over the entire school year.

1) Consider the topics and/or texts that will be taught.

2) What will be the product or products that students will be expected to create that can demonstrate their mastery of learning? (This product could also be a performance).

3) What are the primary modalities that this product is focused upon? In literacy, of course we’re focused on all modalities, but it helps for a department to focus upon the one they consider most essential.

4) Now consider the standards that your district adheres to. For the Common Core, they are helpfully broken up by modality, so turn to that modality. Then, narrow down which specific, few standards you will primarily be targeting.

5) What are the bottlenecks, most especially those that are conceptual and specific to this content, that students will encounter?

6) Evaluate the list of items you have generated. Do they fit the criteria of a threshold concept or experience? Are they transformative, integrative, and troublesome? If not, they may not be essential.

7) You don’t have to do this, but I find that at this step it can be useful to phrase the threshold concept in the form of a message or lesson, akin to a theme statement.

For example, for an upcoming professional learning session I’m working on about supporting struggling middle school readers, I’ve identified the following threshold concepts:

  • Students that struggle with reading comprehension also often struggle with a lack of academic and world knowledge. An English Language Learner can also be understood as native English speakers that do not understand the language of math, science, social studies – i.e. academic, formal, domain specific language.
  • A teacher must work through a task/text in order to identify key takeaways, key vocabulary, and potential barriers to learning, regardless of whether a curriculum is provided.
  • All learners can be engaged in reading and comprehending complex academic texts through well-designed activities, tasks, and resources.
  • An environment in which a student feels safe to take risks in front of peers is a prerequisite for learning — most especially for struggling readers.
  • Learners should be explicitly equipped with strategies and mindsets for when they encounter challenging vocabulary on their own.

It’s important to note that threshold concepts will vary completely depending on any teacher’s specific set of knowledge, perspectives, and interest, and I think that’s OK. What’s most important is that once these most essential concepts and experiences have been identified and voiced, they will not only help to focus that teacher’s instruction on what they feel is most important, they will serve as a basis for arriving at a consensus as a department and as a school.

Here’s a few really basic examples at a unit level of study:

Now that threshold concepts and experiences have been identified, here’s the really hard part:

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This is where the rubber hits the road. This is the part that is so very contrary and disruptive to the norms of public education.

 

I hope some of these resources in this post are useful to your work. The slides outlined above and the protocol are accessible and downloadable here:

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Obliquity, Zen, and a Cultural Science of Schools

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Dominic Randolph, the head of Riverdale Country Schools, and Max Ventilla, the founder of AltSchool, have written a thought provoking series of letters on Medium, on the topic of “What’s the Point of School?

Randolph’s final letter, “Reimagining School,” contained two great concepts I wanted to especially highlight:

If schools took learning more seriously and aimed indirectly but intentionally, like a Zen archer, then I think they might be in quite different places.

This is an interesting way to phrase the principle of obliquity and pair it with the concept of social-psychological interventions! I agree strongly with Randolph on this. I tire of hearing leaders in education harp on shallow and direct sources of targets, such as test scores or standards or compliance rates, as if these are the ultimate drive or purpose in our work. Data and standards are only powerful when contextualized and analyzed from multiple perspectives, in consideration of the needs and interests of students and the curricular focus of the department and school. Compliance rates . . . well, that’s a baseline, not a target. Yet the messages I and other educators too often receive is that our focus should lie on such desultory targets.

How can we bring “applied anthropology” into schools so we can learn about how to more effectively construct the right culture of engaged and deep learning for our students, teachers, and parents?

People talk about the effect of a leader on a school environment or the way a particular class is difficult, but where is the science of the culture of schools?

Matt Candler’s ideas about “Tiny Schools,” in which small schools are begun as prototypical experiments, then brought to scale as they experience success, seems to be a great opportunity for such an expansion of “applied” science, most especially if the learnings from the failures of these experiments are shared transparently and openly.

I certainly hope there’s more thirst out there for such an education-specific science! I know I have this thirst myself. It’s hopeful that schools are pairing more often with academic researchers or design firms like IDEO, though I fear that such pairings end up focusing on schools and communities, like Randolph’s, that are already set up for success.

I’d perhaps be more interested in those pairings if they sought to expand the concepts of design thinking and character education to their broader community in the Bronx. How can school learning experiences build connections between students and schools of varying skills and backgrounds? And how can those connections be leveraged to actively overcome the physical and mental silos of our city and nation?

Don’t Quit on Me: The importance of relationships in graduation

We talk a lot about the importance of relationships in education on this blog.

Here’s a great report from the Center for Promise on the importance of relationships in graduation outcomes, based on the perspectives of the youth themselves. Concrete resources and advice for educators is provided:

WHAT YOUNG PEOPLE WHO LEFT SCHOOL SAY ABOUT THE POWER OF RELATIONSHIPS
http://gradnation.org/report/dont-quit-me
http://gradnation.org/report/dont-quit-me

Release Date:

09/16/15

Ecological Advice for New Teachers

By HitroMilanese (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Here’s some nice ecologically minded advice for first year teachers from middle school teacher Jennifer Gonzalez. She takes the idea of ecological guilds and applies them to two possible archetypes that might be encountered by new teachers: marigolds (allies) and walnuts (toxic):

Marigolds exist in our schools as well – encouraging, supporting and nurturing growing teachers on their way to maturity. If you can find at least one marigold in your school and stay close to them, you will grow. Find more than one and you will positively thrive. …

While seeking out your marigolds, you’ll need to take note of the walnut trees. Successful gardeners avoid planting vegetables anywhere near walnut trees, which give off a toxic substance that can inhibit growth, wilt, and ultimately kill nearby vegetable plants. And sadly, if your school is like most, walnut trees will be abundant. They may not seem dangerous at first. In fact, some may appear to be good teachers – happy, social, well-organized. But here are some signs that you should keep your distance: Their take on the kids is negative. Their take on the administration is negative. Being around them makes you feel insecure, discouraged, overwhelmed, or embarrassed.

Sound advice. Forming a guild and finding your positive niche within a school is fundamental to your professional growth and sustainability.

During my first year teaching, I remember asking my Fellows advisor—a 35 year veteran teacher in the South Bronx—what it was that kept her going in those first challenging years as a new teacher. She spoke about a group of colleagues that she could cry with, eat lunch with, and share resources with. She maintains contact with most of those colleagues to this day.

You’ll most likely find this is a common theme. Teaching, especially in high needs schools in communities facing great challenges, is an incredibly difficult profession, and there is little beyond experience that can prepare you for it (and hence why apprenticeship is such an important model). It can be spiritually, emotionally, and cognitively demanding in a minute-by-minute manner.

Isolation can be a damaging reality of many public schools. Forming positive professional social networks is a critical key to thriving.

If you are a new teacher gaining your foal footing, make sure to form your guild!

Reference

Gonzalez, Jennifer. “Find Your Marigold: The One Essential Rule for New Teachers.” Cult of Pedagogy. N.p., 29 Aug. 2013. Web. 26 Aug. 2015. <http://www.cultofpedagogy.com/marigolds/&gt;.

More on Guilds

Human Guilds: Cultivating Inclusion and Adaptivity

Guilds and Diversity in Schools & Ecosystems

The Mirage of a Mirage: On the New TNTP Report on PD

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Today I went down to DC* for TNTP’s release of their Mirage report on the (non)impact of professional development on teacher effectiveness. TNTP presented an overview of the findings, then journalist Amanda Ripley facilitated an interesting panel with USED’s John King, teacher Jennifer Corroy Parras, DC’s Kaya Henderson, and AIR researcher Dr. Michael Garet.

The big story is that teacher PD is 1) enormously expensive, yet 2) there’s no silver bullet. In other words, teaching is complex (glad ed reform world is beginning to acknowledge this), so we still are very far from knowing what improves teacher practice at scale, yet we’re investing a lot of time, energy, and money in it willy nilly.

There are a lot of aspects to explore, and the panel touched on a number of them. Ripley provided some nice framing of the systemic issues, such as that most PD (and US system of ed at large) is disjointed and incoherent, and that there is a general lack of clarity around what effective teaching looks like, accompanied by high expectations. She noted that this lack of clarity and high expectations for teachers parallels student experiences in our educational system, with both teachers and students leveling off in performance after an initial 5 years.

Both John King and Kaya Henderson pointed out that an oft missing link in PD is a focus on curriculum, a point on which I strongly concur. Curriculum provides the frame, the backbone, the structure that daily guides student and teacher experiences in the classroom. Without that structure and purpose, we are left with the incoherent gloop that Ripley first referred to.

TNTP’s report is incredibly insightful and useful–if enervating–material. I feel like it’s also important to define the kind of PD which the report mainly seems to abide by. I’ll admit that I haven’t yet dived too deep into the report, but from an initial scan of the survey questions and findings, I obtained the distinct impression that they mostly mean “PD” as in a specific dosage or frequency of a prescribed intervention that results in a change in an individual’s teacher practice within the classroom (and which should then ideally translate into improved student outcomes).

When I think of PD, I think of teachers sitting together around a table and collaborating to design common assessments, curriculum, resources, and examining student work and data. This was a component of TNTP’s teacher survey (noted as informal & formal collaboration, and peer time), but the report notes that an equal amount of such time was dedicated to this in both “improvers” and “non-improvers.” But I think there’s one key aspect of such collaborative time that we need to delineate, and which I believe could distinguish between those two populations: how teacher collaboration and planning time connects to a school-wide system.

Let me give some specific examples of what I mean to make this tangible:

  • A bi-weekly 8th grade-level team meeting working to horizontally (within the grade) align curriculum and assessments and strategically build  and reinforce content knowledge and skills
  • A weekly ELA department team meeting working to vertically align curriculum and assessments (and strategically build  and reinforce content knowledge and skills)
  • A PBIS system of agreed upon (developed both school-wide and via grade-level teams) infractions, consequences, and rewards
  • An established vision for utilizing advisory time to provide social-psychological interventions, accompanied by planning time to design these interventions, and time to analyze and assess their impact

You could go into both an effective and ineffective school and witness such use of collaborative time–but the key is how that teacher collaboration ties into a coherent, school-wide system.**

Admittedly, though, this all goes back to the great complexity not only of teaching, but of working in a school. There are so many variables behind what goes into anything remotely approximating either “PD” or “teacher practice” that it is difficult to define what we’re looking for, and even more difficult to do well consistently and to replicate and scale across different contexts.

I came back to NYC with three takeaways that best summarize my thoughts from the TNTP report . We would do well to consider the following in education reform:

  1. Coherency (in curriculum & assessment, first and foremost)
  2. Clarity (in expectations, feedback, and roles for teachers and students)
  3. Hard work (and more hard work)

*Thanks to Educators 4 Excellence for this opportunity

**I think this is what may have contributed to the differences between the charter and district schools in this study. The charter network was more effective in supporting their teachers effectiveness and growth over time. Charter schools often have much tighter and coherent school-wide structures and systems tied to assessment, curriculum, teacher practice, and observation.