Are Threshold Concepts the new Growth Mindset? Thoughts on the Importance of ‘Blockers.’

I was at a training conference recently where running effective meetings was being discussed. Eventually, the discussion segued into the so-called ‘types’ of members of staff who might be at the meeting. For instance, there are ‘blockers’. You know the type, the ones that question every idea and find faults in everything? (Cue eye-rolling and simultaneous knowing smiles)

But we need blockers. Blockers keep us grounded. Blockers are beautiful.

Tonight on #engchatuk we discussed ‘Threshold Concepts’, including how we might use threshold concepts in our own schools. I don’t want to upset any people involved in this chat. They are fantastic, marvellous, generous individuals who regularly help me in ways they probably don’t realise. But, I wondered tonight that we might be getting a little bit ahead of ourselves. Might threshold concepts be the new ‘growth mindset’?

The reason I say this is because ‘growth mindset’, though clearly embedded carefully and thoughtfully into a lot of school’s practice, seems to be a phrase that is widely used, though perhaps not widely understood. Indeed, I’ve heard it mentioned often by teachers who I’m fairly certain have never read Dweck’s ‘Mindset’. (I haven’t read it either by the way, so clearly have no idea what it really means). This might not be too problematic until the concept is implemented hastily into lessons, assemblies and policies, without proper thought and consideration. In this edition of schools week, Dweck herself acknowledges issues with how her theory seems to have been altered and applied in some schools. I worry that the idea of threshold concepts, though clearly very different from growth mindset, might be vulnerable to the same misapplication.

I’ve seen glimpses of this in the idea of ‘desirable difficulties’ as well. On the face of it, ‘desirable difficulties’ seems like a pretty simple idea. You make things more difficult, and that’s necessarily better, right? I’m not so sure. In David Didau’s What if Everything you Knew about Education was Wrong?the underlying principles of desirable difficulties are laid out. And, surprise surprise, they seem to be much more specific and measured than simply ‘making things really difficult all of the time.’ Principally, these difficulties concern themselves with educational practises which help students retain knowledge in the long term, including techniques which might reduce ‘performance’ yet enhance learning. It’s much more deliberate and nuanced than just making stuff really hard all the time. Again, I don’t really grasp this idea fully myself… yet.

And there’s the rub. Often ideas in education are nuanced, difficult and require a lot of thought. But, we are only human. We hear things like threshold concepts, which sounds like an incredible idea, and through our energy and enthusiasm, we straight away look for ways to apply this idea to our own contexts. Maybe, we need to find a good blocker somewhere to question us, challenge us, and make us think more carefully before we overhaul our scheme of work for the seventh consecutive year.

Good ideas are great, but good ideas applied badly could be worse. Because this way, the good idea might be lost forever.


For thoughtful accounts of growth mindset, I enjoyed John Tomsett’s and Chris Hildrew’s posts about embedding a growth mindset culture in their schools here and here respectively.

Also, David Didau’s blog has lots on desirable difficulties and threshold concepts

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