Learning Clean Language: What are the Threshold Concepts?

Doorway, Ely Cambridgeshire

Clean Conference Presentation, 2015

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

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…

"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."
Meyer and Land

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

  • Transformative – it changes the way you view the discipline and may even change you as a person
  • Irreversible – once you have grasped the concept, you can’t go back to how it was before, it can’t be unlearned
  • Integrative – once grasped, it allows 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 language or jargon
  • Troublesome – it is not easy to grasp and may seem alien, counter-intuitive or incoherent

Examples of threshold concepts that have been identified in different subjects include:

  • The concept of “opportunity cost” in economics
  • The concept of ratio in mathematics
  • The concept of heat transfer in cookery

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

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

  • Discover some of the threshold concepts
  • Find out how people had crossed those thresholds
  • Discuss the kinds of things trainers can do to help students across the threshold

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

A few stories stand out:

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

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

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

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

Keith Gregory mentioned that when he saw the title of Caitlin’s book, From Contempt to Curiosity it had a big impact on him and he realised that this was a core principle of this work. He thinks it’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 Space at all and Doris Stahl reported that she’d had a similar experience. After three 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 to understand the significance of space in all the clean approaches to change.

A number of other threshold concepts were mentioned:

  • Staying with the process (not bailing out)
  • That there is no right question
  • Taking notes and staying connected with the client at the same time
  • Differentiating between different levels in an outcome.
  • Letting go of having to make anything happen, and being OK with ‘not knowing’
  • That we are guiding people’s attention
  • Asking questions people can answer

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

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

Tags: clean language, threshold concept, troublesome knowledge, clean set up, learning, training, keith gregory, penny tompkins, stuart clark, julie mccracken, education, clean conference, david grove

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About the author

Marian Way

Company Director & Trainer, Portchester, Fareham
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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