Teaching with Big Ideas: How a Late Addition to the ACRL Framework Might Make Us Rethink Threshold Concepts

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Eveline Houtman, Coordinator of Undergraduate Library Instruction at the Robarts Library, University of Toronto.

We see the Framework draft as a part of an ongoing conversation and an attempt to nudge our profession in a positive direction toward conceptual teaching. Threshold concepts gave the Task Force one starting place to think about big ideas in information literacy. As we all know, many librarians already take a challenging, big picture approach to content and have been teaching that way for years without threshold concepts or the new Framework.

From What’s the matter with threshold concepts? ACRLog Jan. 30, 2015

The notion of threshold concepts is at the heart of the new ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education, and has been since Draft 1. The notion has also been problematic to many librarians since Draft 1. (For an overview of the discussion, see Ian Beilin’s recent Lead Pipe article. For an earlier, in-depth critique, read Lane Wilkinson’s take on the topic.) I’d summarize my own position as a big yes to conceptual teaching, big reservations towards threshold concepts.

In the face of questioning and opposition, the Task Force did in fact soften the language around the threshold concepts in subsequent drafts – the original six threshold concepts became “frames” in Draft 2, for example, though each frame still contained a threshold concept. When I recently came to take stock of the final approved version of the Framework, I discovered the language was softened even further. Each frame, for example, now contains “a concept central to information literacy” (p. 2) rather than a “threshold concept.”

I also discovered this statement:

At the heart of this Framework are conceptual understandings that organize many other concepts and ideas about information, research, and scholarship into a coherent whole. These conceptual understandings are informed by the work of Wiggins and McTighe, which focuses on essential concepts and questions in developing curricula, and on threshold concepts. (p. 2) [I’m pretty sure that should read “informed … BY threshold concepts.”]

But wait, what? Conceptual understandings are now at the heart of the Framework? And when did the work of Wiggins and McTighe (2005) become a second major influence on the Framework, along with threshold concepts? Did I miss something? (Actually, yes, because it turns out the the changes occurred in the November 2014 draft and and I just didn’t notice. I blame a combination of busyness and Framework fatigue.) Was there any discussion of this late addition? Shouldn’t there be? After all, the threshold concepts were talked nearly to death.

Wiggins and McTighe’s book, Understanding by Design, focuses on the importance of drawing on core concepts or “big ideas” in order to teach for understanding. I suspect it’s been brought into the Framework at least partly in order to bolster the argument for teaching with threshold concepts (that’s how I see its use in the ACRLog post quoted above), though possibly also to signal the usefulness of their design approach in implementing the Framework. But are Wiggins and McTighe’s “big ideas” actually the same as threshold concepts? Do all our big ideas really need to be threshold concepts? What do Wiggins and McTighe have to say to us now that they’ve been placed in our Framework?

To start with, here are a few things they say about big ideas:

  • “A big idea is a concept, theme, or issue that gives meaning and connection to discrete facts and skills” (p. 5).
  • “Individual lessons are simply too short to allow for in-depth development of big ideas, explorations of essential questions, and authentic applications” (p. 8).
  • “Teaching for understanding must successfully predict potential misunderstandings and rough spots in learning if it is to be effective. Central to the design approach we propose is that we need to design lessons and assessments that anticipate, evoke and overcome the most likely student misconceptions” (p. 10).
  • “Teaching for understanding requires the learner to rethink what appeared settled or obvious” (p. 11).

These are all things that could be/probably have been said about threshold concepts. Here’s the thing though: in 370 pages, Wiggins and McTighe never once mention threshold concepts.

So the first big takeaway is that we can engage in conceptual teaching — we can teach with big ideas, we can address students’ stuck places, we can challenge students’ assumptions — without having to invoke threshold concepts. There are many librarians who have already been arguing this, and now their argument is bolstered by a work whose importance has already been recognized in the Framework. I don’t want to suggest that we need the Framework’s “permission” to teach without threshold concepts. At the same time, it means something to have the ACRL’s main pedagogical document acknowledge, if indirectly, that threshold concepts are not necessarily the be-all and end-all of conceptual teaching.

A second big takeaway is that if we’re wondering how to implement the Framework, we could do a lot worse than consult Wiggins and McTighe. In fact their design approach is likely to be very helpful in redesigning our instruction, learning outcomes and assessment around our big ideas. There’s a lot in their book to digest, and I’m only going to point out a few things that struck me.

  • Wiggins and McTighe connect their big ideas to core tasks, which is likely to be helpful as we connect the skills we still need to teach to the ideas in the Framework.
  • They connect their big ideas to essential questions that get students thinking about the big ideas. Here’s a Faculty Focus article that provides more information. And here’s Nicole Pagowsky with examples of essential questions related to the Framework.
  • They connect their big ideas to a purpose, such as understanding or connecting to other concepts. I occasionally get the sense in discussions around implementing the Framework that the purpose is to teach the frames. “How can we teach scholarship as conversation?” for example. Shouldn’t we also be thinking past learning the concepts to what students can do with the concepts? Maybe the scholarly conversation metaphor could help students think about their own writing (as in “They say/I say”). Maybe it could help them think about disciplinary discourses, or the effect of different academic cultures, paradigms and epistemologies on the conversation, or the role of social media in the scholarly conversation, or the effect of power relationships and gatekeeping on the conversation….

spiralA third takeaway (it’s part of design but worth pulling out on its own) is the idea that students will need to revisit the big ideas, not just over the course of a class but over the course of their curriculum, each time deepening their understanding of the ideas. This is the concept of the spiral curriculum (which Wiggins and McTighe explicitly invoke) advocated by John Dewey and Jerome Bruner. So elementary students can learn about information literacy at a level appropriate to them.  They can be taught to use Creative Commons licensed images. Students will spiral back to information literacy instruction at various points in their academic life, hopefully gaining a deeper understanding of the concepts each time. So early undergraduates can begin to learn about the scholarly conversation but their understanding will inevitably be limited because they just haven’t seen very much of it yet. Graduate students, who have begun to identify as scholars, who need to map who is talking to whom for their lit reviews, who want to figure out their own niche, will have a much richer conception of the scholarly conversation.

The spiral curriculum is a very different metaphor than the threshold that’s crossed once. I think it’s the more useful metaphor. While it doesn’t address all the diversity of our learners, it does take into account students’ growing knowledge, experience and abilities over their college years.

My fourth big takeaway comes out of Wiggins and McTighe’s assertion that “answering the “why?” and “so what?” questions … is the essence of understanding by design…. Without such explicit and transparent priorities, many students find day-to-day work confusing and frustrating”(p. 15-6). This reminds me of the challenge in a great Chronicle of Higher Education article (unfortunately paywalled) that I still go back to: “I am asking instructors to see the two questions that the new epistemology emblazons across the front of every classroom — ‘So what?’ and ‘Who cares?’ — and then to adjust their teaching accordingly” (Clydesdale, 2009).

The Framework is a pedagogical document meant for librarians. Obviously (to us) it contains big and important ideas. But it’s sadly lacking in answers to the “so what?” and “who cares?” questions. In much of our teaching, the answer to “so what?” has been “this will help you with your assignment.” But if we’re teaching with big ideas we need a bigger answer. Something along the lines of: “You need to be able to use information to learn, now and after you graduate. This involves ways of thinking as well as skills…. Here’s how this core concept will help you….” Okay, this needs work!

To go back to my beginning: after so many months of discussion, we all “know” that threshold concepts are at the heart of the Framework. But if we look at the final version of the Framework with fresh eyes, we can see they’ve been moved to the side, at least in part, opening new possibilities for the ways we teach with big ideas. I suggest we seize those possibilities and run with them.

Clydesdale, T. (2009). Wake up and smell the new epistemology. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 55 (20).

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. 2nd expanded ed. Alexandria,, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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