Threshold Concepts in History, part 1

Threshold Concepts: Take Twice Daily I’ve been thinking a lot about progress in history and assessing it this year. There are lots of reasons for this. Firstly the demise of NC levels requires it, as we’re having to build a new model to assess progress at school. My senior team has decided to go with a system where we extrapolate from GCSE assessment criteria to build a model. I have Thoughts on this (and I capitalise purposefully) but, since it’s (thankfully) not my job to set whole-school policy, I have been getting on with it since November and I think I am approaching a workable system.

Secondly, I’ve been working alongside some really fantastic history teachers from Bristol, as part of something we affectionately call the History Pizza Group. These include Rich Kennett and Adele Fletcher from Redland Green, Philip Arkinstall from Hardenhuish, David Rawlings from Chepstow and Matthew Bryant from Malmesbury, as well as Kate Hawkey, PGCE tutor at Bristol University, who also plays our host and moderator. We’ve met three times this year to discuss what we’re doing in terms of assessment and presented our findings at the Historical Association conference this weekend.

Finally, I’ve been pursuing a qualification with the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors, at the behest of the exam board for whom I toil every summer. This has involved four very full-on days of instruction with tutors from CEM and three assignments, the writing of which has once again brought home to me the importance of providing crystal-clear guidance and possibly exemplar answers to underconfident students. Nerves about the assignments aside, I have absolutely loved completing this course. We’ve looked in depth at theories of learning, whilst also looking at the setting of exams: how to do it and how to tell if you’ve done it well. There were some frankly terrifying pieces of maths for someone who never really “got” algebra (Cronbach’s Alpha, anyone?) but also some fascinating methods for analysing data that I think are going to make me a better test-setter at school, if nothing else.

Out of all of this, though, Threshold Concepts is the thing that has most tickled my fancy. It came up among the theories of learning presented on the CIEA course and I have revisited it in idle moments ever since. As we’re building a new assessment model and also rewriting our KS3 program of study to account for the increase in teaching hours we’ll have next year, I have been doing some reading about what threshold concepts in history might be. I’m still in the liminal space with it, to be honest (little insider joke there), but I wanted to share some reading that I have really found helpful today.

Firstly, for a basic explanation of Threshold Concepts, try Alex Quigley’s blog post. As there’s so much out there already I won’t go into it, other than to say they are difficult concepts that fundamentally change a student’s understanding of history, and my example would be, “All history is subjective.”

Secondly, here is some fantastic research done by some professors at the University of Indiana – Diaz, Middendorf, Pace and Shopkow. They polled their history professors and students to identify “bottlenecks”in learning, and this is the best thing I have yet come across in terms of subject-specific reading. There was lots of finger jabbing and shouting of, “Yes!” from me as I read this. To give you a taste, here is a quote from near the beginning:

[Students] believe that their job in history courses is to regurgitate the dates and events they have memorized. Students who hold such notions of history may be overwhelmed in a classroom where instruction revolves around such unfamiliar mental operations as analysis, interrogation, interpretation, subjectivity, and argumentation.

There. Doesn’t that sound like something you want to read more of?

Initially, I have identified five threshold concepts in history that we’re going to be focusing on incorporating into our teaching going forward. These represent working concepts, rather than any sort of absolute list.

  1. All history is subjective
  2. Connected with the above, sources are pieces of evidence, not just pieces of information
  3. There is usually no single correct answer to historical questions
  4. History is infinitely interconnected – the “ripple effect”
  5. The “otherness” of different eras, which is to say, it’s important not to look at history through a modern lens.

I think that a grasp of these should equip our students who drop history at 14 for life (creating “citizen historians”, as suggested at our first pizza group meeting by John Cordle from Castle School) as well as better setting them up for success at GCSE and beyond. This is particularly salient at the moment as my students beg for a formula to answer the source questions on the GCSE, seemingly unable to cope with the idea that there isn’t one. Over the next term we’ll be rewriting our schemes of work and setting up the assessment model, so I will be back to share more.

Picture: Introducing Threshold by Ronaldo Quercia on Flickr. Amazing colour!
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10 Responses to Threshold Concepts in History, part 1

  1. Freddie Lyon says:

    As a History teacher just about to start in September, this is great stuff! Excited to see what you come up with!

  2. Freddie Lyon says:

    David Didau’s book is great for this!

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  5. Mrs Samantha Claire Stacey says:

    I’m currently reading Didau and Rose’s book ‘ What every teacher needs to know about psychology’. Really interested in your blog re threshold concepts in secondary History education. Have you worked more on this, and if so, can you direct me to your blogs/findings?
    Sam Stacey

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  7. Suggest you look at Peter Sexias’ work on Historical Thinking Concepts (big Six). See
    PS would suggest sources and evidence are not the same. Evidence is selected from a source to support a hypothesis.

  8. Harry Mickalian says:

    Big Ideas Main Ideas these are not concepts Formally, concepts have names with one or two words. These concepts encompass facts, ideas, concepts, and much more.
    Perspective, Values, Diversity, Patterns, Relationships, Context, Time, Place, Change, etc…

  9. Harry Mickalian seems to be talking about the Canadian research by Sexias et al I mentioned above. However History Content also has its own Threshold Concepts. Can one teach Fall of the Roman Republic if students don’t get Mos Maiorum?

    Suggest you look at Peter Sexias’ work on Historical Thinking Concepts (big Six). See
    PS would suggest sources and evidence are not the same. Evidence is selected from a source to support a hypothesis.

  10. sallythorne says:

    Thanks Sue. I have been back to Seixas’s work this year while looking at second-order concepts for this podcast I’ve been working on. I haven’t thought about threshold concepts in history for a while but it’s something I keep coming back to and I realised last week that at least one of the links from this post is dead so I should update.
    I’m not sure about the idea of a threshold concept in content. I’m not convinced I’ve come across anything that quite fits the bill or requiring people to occupy that liminal space for a time before they finally understand it. I’d also argue that the significance of the Mos Maiorum changes depending on what you’re studying, so grasping it doesn’t necessarily change your view of history as a whole. But it’s certainly something to think about!

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