This series of posts outlines my talk at ResearchEd Rugby, July 2017.

Threshold Concepts: portals and lightbulb moments

In my first post, I talked about Threshold Concepts, and why I wanted to explore them. I explained how they have been described as “portals” to a new, deeper and transformed understanding, and how they trigger those lightbulb moments which, as teachers, we find so precious and rewarding to observe, but which can be so rare and hard fought. Meyer and Land (2003) define them as transformative, (probably) irreversible and troublesome. Most importantly from the point of view of a teacher, they are often tacit among experts, so we might not think to teach them explicitly. Cousin (2006) also talks about the difficulty of putting yourself in a novice’s shoes, and remembering the ideas that you once struggled with.


I wanted to identify the stumbling blocks in KS4 Structure and Bonding that hold students back from developing a deeper understanding. Using misconceptions literature, I identified and compiled a list of tricky concepts, and aimed to pinpoint the true threshold concepts via teaching and assessment.

Spaced practice

I was interested in using spaced practice to introduce and review the concepts, after reading the research behind it, and then seeing how Damian Benney had applied it in Maths and in Science, tracking the teaching and retrieval of various topics.


Using misconceptions literature, I compiled a list of common misconceptions for the Structure and Bonding topic. I used these to make a “teacher tracker”, so that I could keep track of when I had introduced each concept during a lesson, when I’d given examples that used the concept, when students had practiced using the concepts to answer questions, and when we had reviewed them in later lessons.

Cognitive Load and Explicit instruction

I had recently been reading about Cognitive Load Theory and the reasoning behind explicit instruction, and I was persuaded that this would be an effective approach to teaching these concepts, so that I could build in repeated practice and review over the year.


If I’m honest, this approach was not one that came particularly “naturally” to me. In the past, I have very much taken a “discovery” or “problem-based-learning” approach to teaching, and although I know many have written about the inefficiency of this approach, I wouldn’t personally write it off as something to be forever avoided. But in this particular context, at this specific time, I decided that explicit/direct instruction would be the best approach to take.


I designed lessons that incorporated a series of examples and demonstrations, combined with continuous questioning and checks for understanding, as well as a large number of questions for students to practice what they had learned throughout the lesson.


So this is where my first tangent comes in. Education research can, at times, provoke debate and a certain amount of controversy. There are people that believe very strongly that certain approaches are right or wrong, and I can understand this. When we teach students, we are taking a huge amount of responsibility. We are helping to shape their lives and support them to do as well as possible. And we are humans, each with our own personalities and beliefs. So it is inevitable that people will care about all this, and not just see it as something that stays within the pages of a journal somewhere.

Critique not Criticism

(with thanks to Suzanne Culshaw for my new motto!)


I really believe that this critique is important. I also don’t find it particularly surprising. I was an author on this paper a couple of years ago. You can see that it mentions a 15 year debate in the abstract! Basically, we had been looking to see whether certain areas of the Atlantic Ocean (the gyres or the “deserts”) were autotrophic (where phytoplankton production exceeds respiration) or heterotrophic (the opposite! Which would be very unexpected). A heterotrophic ocean would be surprising, and it would have implications for various models that aim to predict future climate, because it would suggest that in some regions, the ocean was acting as a source of carbon dioxide, instead of “soaking it up” as we would expect it to (a “sink”).

At times, this debate about the metabolic state of the oceans got rather heated! Luckily for me, my boss took a very level-headed approach to it, and she told me that the aim of my post-doctoral research was simply to examine the evidence, and increase the dataset, so that we could help answer the questions. And it turns out that the answer is pretty complex, and depends on a number of factors, such as seasonality.

Are lab-based studies even relevant to classroom practice?

My second tangent is about methods. I am particularly interested in how we can apply ideas from Cognitive Science to teaching. I am persuaded enough by the research I have read to integrate approaches rooted in Cog Sci into my practice, and to evaluate the impact that it has. But again, I think it important that this is not seen as a “panacea”, and that we question any research that we embed, however promising and robust it seems to be. This is touched on in a recent post by the Learning Scientists.

One of the criticisms levelled at Cognitive Science research is that much of it is lab based. But, again, this is something that I don’t find too hard to accept. In the ocean-atmospheric research I outline above, we were (in effect) trying to study the entire Atlantic Ocean. This introduces a few logistical difficulties! Having said that, you can actually use satellite measurements to obtain a great deal of data over huge areas (those beautiful rainbow-coloured maps use chlorophyll concentrations taken from satellite measurements). But these are proxies for what is actually going on at sea level.


The slide above shows the work that I did during each of my 5 research cruises. Each time, I’d be at sea for 6-7 weeks, and I would sample the ocean every day. Every day, I would get up before dawn (phytoplankton are “shocked” by daylight), which was generally about 3am, and I would work until about 5pm. I would sample water from multiple depths, carefully fill hundreds of bottles with seawater so that they didn’t gain or lose oxygen, “pickle” them, incubate them, and then titrate them. Every day. It was a fabulous experience, but it was very intensive!

The final photo, in the bottom corner of the slide, shows my husband (who wasn’t yet my husband here!). He would get up, take some surface water and analyse it using a mass spectrometer. Job done! We were both trying to answer the same question, but in different ways. Neither of us could sample the entire Atlantic Ocean, so we had to find ways of answering the question in other ways.


Similarly, educational research is just that. It’s research. It seeks to answer questions, but it is not “answers”. And it examines questions in a number of ways, including using lab-based studies.

Ethics and Workload

My final tangent was to think about the ethics of what I was doing, and to think about workload. I’m a teacher. I’m also a mother, a runner, a reader, a flautist, a friend, a TV-watcher, a swimmer…. Last year, I was also training for a marathon. I was interested in Threshold Concepts, but I didn’t want my interest to take over my (already very busy) life.


Furthermore, my motivation for all this, as well as satisfying my curiosity and interest, was to try and improve my practice and help my pupils. If this were a full-blown research study, I would’ve had to present my ideas to an ethics committee.


This post reassured me that, as long as I didn’t deviate from what I would’ve done anyway as a reflective teacher, I could be pretty sure what I was doing was within the realm of “subject-specific professional development”. My pupils only did classwork and homework activities that they would’ve done anyway. Any analysis that I did was the kind of analysis that I would carry out as their teacher anyway.


In my final post, I’ll talk about this analysis and the conclusions I came to about Threshold Concepts, concepts in general and how I will change my approach to teaching this topic in the future.