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Learning Clean Language: What are the Threshold Concepts?

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The idea that learning a new subject involves grappling with a number of “Threshold Concepts” arose in the world of Higher Education in 2003 when researchers Ray Meyer and Jan Land were investigating ways to enhance learning… 

CleanConference Presentation, 2015

“Every now and then a man's mind is stretched by a newidea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes

The idea that learning a new subjectinvolves grappling with a number of “Threshold Concepts” arose in the world ofHigher Education in 2003 when researchers Ray Meyer and Jan Land wereinvestigating ways to enhance learning…

"A threshold concept can be considered as akin toa portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking aboutsomething. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting,or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress."
Meyer and Land

According to Meyer and Land, a thresholdconcept has a number of properties. It is:

  • Transformative – it changes theway you view the discipline and may even change you as a person
  • Irreversible – once you havegrasped the concept, you can’t go back to how it was before, it can’t beunlearned
  • Integrative – once grasped, itallows you to see other aspects of the subject in a different light as well
  • Boundaried – it may well delineate a particular conceptual space and is likely to have its own languageor jargon
  • Troublesome – it is not easy tograsp and may seem alien, counter-intuitive or incoherent

Examples of threshold concepts that havebeen identified in different subjects include:

  • The concept of “opportunitycost” in economics
  • The concept of ratio inmathematics
  • The concept of heat transfer incookery

Ever since I came across the idea ofthreshold concepts (in a book called Making Learning Happen by Phil Race) I’vebeen curious about the threshold concepts involved in learning Clean Language. Whatare they and how can we design our training to increase the chances that peoplecan cross the various thresholds?

So at this year’s Clean Conference I ran asession designed to:

  • Discover some of the thresholdconcepts
  • Find out how people had crossedthose thresholds
  • Discuss the kinds of thingstrainers can do to help students across the threshold

In order to begin to identify what theymight be, I focused on the troublesome and transformative aspects of thresholdconcepts. I started by asking the group: “What did you struggle with that, whenyou “got it” it made all the difference to your facilitation skills?”

A few stories stand out:

Julie McCracken related how she had donenine days of training when she asked another participant, “Is this real? Or arewe just making it all up?” The other participant said she’d been wonderingabout the same thing. Now, Julie understands that the metaphors are isomorphic with real life experience – thatthey have the same structure as the person’s experience and that if themetaphor changes then so will the experience.

Stuart Clark spoke about the importance of getting into and stayingin a good state for facilitation. He used to lose his state if a trainerwas watching him as he facilitated. Then he began to value the feedback he wasgetting and told himself to “get a grip”. Now he relishes being watched andknowing he’ll get valuable feedback, and is able to maintain his state.

Penny Tompkins described how she asked aclient a question that didn’t seem to go anywhere, and then David Grove, whohad been watching, asked exactly the same question and the client was able torespond fully. It turned out that David was ‘throwing his voice’ into the exactspace where the symbol was located, and this made all the difference to theclient’s ability to answer. Through this experience she realised the importanceof delivering the questions into theclient’s space.

Later Penny spoke about another ‘aha’moment which occurred with David. He took a picture down from a wall and askedparticipants what they could see. People started naming the items in thepicture: a carthorse, a wagon, a fence and so on. David asked, “What else mustbe there?” and “Where does the carthorse come from” and such questions, whichPenny found mystifying. The penny dropped when she realised that there wereshadows in the picture, which pointed to the existence of a sun, which was notshown, but which must have been there for the shadows to be there. David Grovesummed this up as, “I’m looking for whatisn’t there but what must be there in order for what is there to make sense.”

Keith Gregory mentioned that when he sawthe title of Caitlin’s book, From Contempt to Curiosity it had a big impacton him and he realised that this was a core principle of this work. He thinksit’s important that the curiosity is benevolent, so thinks of it as “From Contempt to Benevolent Curiosity”.

James Jeffers said he doesn’t ‘get’ Clean Spaceat all and Doris Stahl reported that she’d had a similar experience. Afterthree days of Clean Space training she couldn’t see any point to the process,but later, during a conference presentation on the subject, she came tounderstand the significance of space in all the clean approaches to change.

A number of other threshold concepts werementioned:

  • Staying with the process (notbailing out)
  • That there is no right question
  • Taking notes and stayingconnected with the client at the same time
  • Differentiating betweendifferent levels in an outcome.
  • Letting go of having to makeanything happen, and being OK with ‘not knowing’
  • That we are guiding people’sattention
  • Asking questions people cananswer

When I asked what kinds of things trainerscan do to encourage the conditions that are needed for people to cross thevarious thresholds, the following suggestions were given:

  • Translating theory intopractice. One participant related how, during the conference, she had realisedthat if theory and practice are closely aligned (e.g. if trainers are puttingthe theory into practice or if there are opportunities to put theory intopractice immediately) then she is more likely to be able to take a concept onboard.
  • Having a variety of approaches,different exercises, language, and visuals.
  • Giving time for reflection onthe learning and the impact it is having – along with having exercises thatencourage the use of Clean Language to reflect on the learning process.
  • Finding out how people learn attheir best
  • Labelling the threshold concepts
  • Matching people’s expectations
  • Doing a Clean Set Up andhelping people to get into a good state for learning
  • Modelling people who alreadyhave the skills


About Marian Way

Marian Way's avatar

A highly skilled facilitator and trainer, Marian, who founded Clean Learning in 2001, has developed and delivered training across the world. She is the author of Clean Approaches for Coaches, co-author, with James Lawley, of Insights in Space and co-author, with Caitlin Walker, of So you want to be… #DramaFree.

Marian is an expert Clean facilitator, an adept modeller, a programme writer and an inspirational trainer. She has a natural ability to model existing structures, find the connections between them and design new ways for people to learn. Marian was a leading innovator within the Weight Watchers organisation, which included developing the “points” strategy, a local idea that went on to become a global innovation. She is a director of both Clean Learning and Training Attention CIC, world leaders in clean applications for corporate, educational and community development. She designs our programmes and workbooks, leads workshops and teaches on all our courses. She’s trained people in Great Britain, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Japan and the USA. Marian is also a recognised Clean Assessor.


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