Environmental Scanning Part 3: Threshold Concepts

As part of my environmental scanning exercises over the past couple of months, in order to find out more about current trends in the HE library environment I could use within my workplace, I wanted the LILAC keynote speech by Roy Land from Durham University

When I saw the hashtag explode with Threshold Concepts during LILAC I knew nothing about this theory, which is the background of the new framework for information literacy within Higher Education from the American Association of College and Research Libraries. I was therefore very grateful to be able to watch and listen to the whole speech by Professor Land. Having the talk slides, an introduction to the key concepts of the talk, and an easily navigational tool to the content of the talk was a brilliant tool, and although I understand there is some (understandable) resistance to lecture capture technologies, in this instance it was invaluable, as I felt I could learn from the content of a conference without having to be there. As I mentioned in my first blog of this series austerity and a lack of understanding about the importance of CPD and environmental scanning to libraries means many librarians never get the chance to attend important events where concepts such as Thresholds and Liminal Spaces are discussed, explored and debated. These sharing technologies allow for all librarians to learn from keynote speakers and I would encourage librarians to watch them, and read up on the theory.

To me, the theory behind threshold concepts makes perfect sense. In fact, it is almost reassuring as it completely negates the idea of ‘professional expert’ and authority as a hierarchy within education. If we’re all on a journey through a liminal space and going through troublesome times in order to move to new cognitive terrain, leaving what is comfortable and known behind, then  the person teaching us isn’t “more important” or “better”, merely a guide to another world of thought. I’ve found the best teachers are those who are guides and allow me to explore and arrive at learning in my own way and time and I think this way of looking at education makes it a more exciting and dynamic place to be.

Professor Land’s keynote drew on the works of Shulman (Pedagogies of Uncertainty from 2005) and John Dewey and highlighted how students go through an emotional journey as they move from a safe to a risky space. This is a liminal space of learning-and gives a theory I think to that feeling of loss during the learning process. I would say starting a new job is a perfect example of this; over the last four months I have been, and continue to be, experiencing a shift in thinking and being as I have discovered more about HE and felt more like a member of the community of practice. Whilst I believe I am still in a liminal state, and am still discovering what the conceptual difficulties of HE librarianship are, it is reassuring to know that my learning is changing me in a powerful way.  I may never go back to thinking about HE in the same way as I did before I got this job, I already think my values have changed somewhat owing to my experiences, and that, from a professional development point of view, is a good thing.

Threshold concepts also challenge the neoliberal marketing of education as it promotes the idea that learning is an experience rather than a product. However, by the same token the insistence of some within HE libraries to market services as a business rather than as a learning aid and safe space for exploration means that threshold concepts can be hard for students to attain; they expect instant results rather than being prepared to enter a liminal state.

Within Information Literacy, our main teaching subject in HE libraries, the following threshold concepts were identified, and make up the ACRL IL framework (http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework)

  • Authority is constructed and consensual
  • Information creation is a process
  • Information has value
  • Research as inquiry
  • Scholarship as conversation
  • Searching as strategic exploration

I’d been in a liminal state about IL for years-during my MSc I think it was about my second module when I really started to enjoy the actual process of researching. Seeing finding out more information about stuff as exploration-that could be fun and exciting and following a breadcrumb trail of references and citations was a learning experience in itself-this is what makes me a librarian I think, that I LIKE finding stuff out and can impart that joy of research to other users of my service.

Libraries, be they IRL or online, are a good place to be during liminal periods and I believe that is what we should be marketing-our value as a space to be free. When I first starting using libraries as a research tool, back when I was doing my Year 9 project on Railways in Scarborough, using the reference room of the public library in town, I was at the start of my liminal state, but I had to be a confident and welcomed user of the space to even enter the corridor of knowledge. I think embracing threshold concepts allows libraries to get back to what they’re good at-just being there for people who need them. I’m excited to see what comes of this trend and the expected flurry of articles and books expanding on this theory more.


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