TROUBLESOME KNOWLEDGE

Mastering threshold concepts often requires the acquisition of knowledge that is troublesome. Depending on discipline and context, this knowledge might be counter-intuitive, alien, tacit, ritualised, inert, conceptually difficult, characterised by an inaccessible ‘underlying game’, characterised by supercomplexity or perhaps troublesome because the learner remains ‘defended’ and does not wish to change or let go of their customary way of seeing things (Perkins 2006, Land, Cousin, Meyer & Davies 2005, Land, Meyer & Baillie 2010).

The following instances of troublesome knowledge have been taken from examples of troublesome knowledge revealed in threshold concept studies in engineering and science.

Inert, ritual or alien knowledge
Cheek has suggested that geological time (deep time) represents an example of knowledge that might be inert (retrievable for an examination test but not not connected to other ideas or transferable to real world experiences), and/or ritual (routinely applied but with little or no meaning) and/or alien (emanating from another culture or discourse).

       Deep time might be considered ritual and/or inert knowledge, particularly if students have memorized an age for the earth but then proceed to reason about deep time as if that age was irrelevant. More likely deep time can be considered both conceptually difficult and alien. A human lifespan is inconsequential in terms of geologic process such as mountain building or the sculpting of the Grand Canyon. To grasp that rocks behave plastically, continents move, and the mountains we visit will one day be gone are all conceptually difficult.     Cheek (2010)



      
Alien knowledge
Carbon atom For many engineering and science students (and some staff) quantum mechanics is a rich source of alien knowledge, i.e. knowledge emanating from another culture or discourse, in this case quantum mechanics versus classical mechanics where the latter appears to gel, most of the time, with a ‘common sense’ expectation and where the former certainly does not. Park and Light (2009) have shown that probability when discussing electronic orbitals and energy quantization is very troublesome, in this manner, for many of their first year chemistry students.

Dyce, Pegwell Bay
 
The ‘defended’ student
In the UK many engineering students meet only a definition of a linear one-dimensional electric field, −ΔVx, in their school physics courses. They rapidly need to be able to handle non-linear electric fields, e.g. −∂V/∂r equated to a non-linear function of r or even −∇V, in their first year at University. In the experience of this author (Flanagan), a significant number continue to attempt to solve problems using the ‘school’ linear equation, when a more advanced non-linear equation is required, for quite some time after they have been taught about non-linear fields. This reluctance to let go of their ‘school physics’ view hinders them, not only in exercises on electric fields, but, of course, in grasping many aspects of electronic and electrical engineering, e.g. the functioning of electronic devices such as the transistor. Flanagan and Smith (to be published) have examined this reluctance in terms of Bruner’s spiral curriculum and Flanagan et al. (2010) have illustrated the importance of considering such preliminal variation in identifying the compounded threshold concept associated with the mastery of transmission lines.

      V Lombardi quote
Transmission lines       Counter-intuitive knowledge
Many electrical engineering students find the concept of reactive power counter-intuitive. A power that is mathematically imaginary and appears to be an oxymoron (a wattless power that can do no work appears to be a ‘powerless power’) is troublesome, yet without a grasp of its meaning, role and significance a student will never truly understand power circuits, hence frustratingly troublesome. Flanagan, Taylor and Meyer (2010) have examined the role of reactive power in identifying the compounded threshold concept associated with the mastery of transmission lines.


References

Cheek, K. A. (2010), Why is Geologic Time Troublesome Knowledge?,
in: Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning, Land, R., Meyer, J.H.F. and Baillie, C., (eds), Sense Publishers, Rotterdam, pp. 117-129,   [book details].

Flanagan, M. T., Taylor, P. and Meyer, J.H.F. (2010), Compounded Thresholds in Electrical Engineering,
in: Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning, Land, R., Meyer, J.H.F. and Baillie, C., (eds), Sense Publishers, Rotterdam, pp. 227-239,   [book details].

Land, R., Meyer, J.H.F. and Baillie, C. (2010) Editors’ Preface: Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning,
in: Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning, Land, R., Meyer, J.H.F. and Baillie, C., (eds), Sense Publishers, Rotterdam, pp. ix-xlii,   [book details].

Land, R., Cousin, G., Meyer, J.H.F. and Davies, P. (2005), Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (3): implications for course design and evaluation,
In: C. Rust (ed.), Improving Student Learning - diversity and inclusivity, Proceedings of the 12th Improving Student Learning Conference. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), pp 53-64.
[http://www.brookes.ac.uk/services/ocsld/isl/isl2004/abstracts/conceptual_papers/ISL04-pp53-64-Land-et-al.pdf   last accessed 10 August 2009]

Park, E-J and Light, G. (2009) Identifying Atomic Structure as a Threshold Concept: Student mental models and troublesomeness,
International Journal of Science Education, 31 (2), 233-258 [published initially on-line as iFirst Article, 2008, 1-26]
See also http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/section?content=a785921373&fulltext=713240928
[Short poster summary of this paper by Park, E-J., Light, G. and Drane, D.: http://www.nclt.us/grg/31957.pdf   last accessed 21 September 2009]

Perkins, D. (2006) Constructivism and troublesome knowledge,
in: Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge, edited by Jan H. F. Meyer and Ray Land, Routledge - Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York, pp 33-47   [book details].

FURTHER TROUBLESOME KNOWLEDGE REFERENCES
Click here for the list of papers that are included in this bibliography and have troublesome in the title.



                                                      
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