Can bottlenecks have benefits?

It would probably be easier for everyone in education if learning always happened step by step in a predictable fashion. Instead, learning can be uneven, with some steps so much harder to take than others that they can be experienced as something akin to a rite of passage when we finally manage to move on. We may be most aware of these bottlenecks when we make the transition from one stage in our education to another, for example when we first go to university. But wouldn’t it be interesting if these bottlenecks became teaching opportunities?

Díaz, Middendorf, Pace, and Shopkow (2008) thought so, writing about  ‘a mismatch between what college history teachers expect of their students and what those students imagine their task to be’ . Díaz and colleagues became involved in a research project designed to ‘decode’ their students’ difficulties, and then to develop teaching approaches that might be helpful to their students. They identified a series of bottlenecks, shown here.

bottlenecks

These bottlenecks may be an example of threshold concepts. These are ideas within a discipline,  Meyer and Land (2003) ,  that are so fundamental to our understanding within a subject, that  we need to grapple with them successfully to make progress in our thinking. Many subjects since 2003 have taken an interest in this idea, recently referenced by BERA in a publication called Making the case for the social sciences- Education.

Turning these bottlenecks into opportunities for learning is something that interests school teachers as well as university lecturers. David Didau @learningspy has written about threshold concepts in  What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology  (2016).

If this is an idea that interests you, then Twitter is a great place to find other enthusiasts, including @MrsThorne (History) and @chemDrK  (Chemistry) who has a blog with an extensive reading list and some fascinating ideas about teaching implications. To read more, see:

https://sallythorne.com/2015/05/10/threshold-concepts-in-history-part-1/ and https://ndhsblogspot.wordpress.com/2016/12/21/threshold-concepts-4-confidence-and-retrieval/

But is there empirical evidence for the ideas of Meyer and Land? Interestingly Nick Rose, aka Evidenceintopractice,  who wrote What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology  with Didau, is sceptical, arguing that learning is more incremental. I agree that the extent of the claims made for threshold concepts should give us some pause for thought. Nick referenced this paper as an example of research suggesting that weaker, earlier theories are not replaced in a transformative fashion, but merely suppressed. The researchers do say though, that ‘ Science educators are thus charged with two tasks: not only must they help students learn the correct, scientific theory at hand, but they must also help students unlearn their earlier, less accurate theories.’ (Shtulman and Valcarcelas 2011).

My current take on this is that although misconceptions are problematic for us as learners, they are pedagogically very interesting. If, as teachers, we take an interest in the bottlenecks created by misconceptions, we will be in territory rich with teaching opportunities. If these bottlenecks are stressful or alienating for students of any age, all the more reason for us to find approaches to dealing with this kind of ‘troublesome knowledge’ (Perkins 1999 in Meyer and Land, 2003).

Bottlenecks that then produce benefits?

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