As readers may by now be very well aware, here are Rule Number One we’re all about the evidence when it comes to instruction. This being the case, I’m quite weary of “threshold concepts” as anything other than a moderately useful way to think about the deeper structure of what we’re doing. My skepticism about them is, largely, that they are not scientifically supported. Since they are the basis of much of the new ACRL IL Standards, however, I initially figured they must be based in the science of learning (for why else would we base our professional standards on them?!) and, after not being able to find any scientific literature on them, I once emailed a famous cognitive scientist of learning whose work I’ve read much of asking him if he could point me toward some of the literature. He wrote back saying “What’s a threshold concept?” i.e., you can’t define a threshold concept in any scientifically measurable way, and that’s why there’s no educational psychology literature on them.
Which brings me to the following (unscientific) anecdote. I’m on one of my universities major academic committees. This morning that committee met. Recently a faculty member for that committee attended a workshop on information literacy since we’re assessing it on this committee. He reported back that IL is a lot about threshold concepts. When he reported back to this group of faculty what a threshold concept is they literally thought it was the most insane thing they’d ever heard. One remarked, and I quote, “That [i.e., the idea that there is a concept that causes a permanent cognitive revolution within a student] is literally fantastical.” Like, it’s up there with tooth fairies and Santa Claus and leprechauns from the hood.
These are the kinds of things I think of, FWIW, when I think about librarian perceptions; how faculty perceive us; and why it might be important to understand the actual science of learning.
*Addendum: I haven’t read too much criticism of threshold concepts in IL, but when I was quickly Googling some stuff earlier, I came across Lane Wilkinson’s super, super smart post on all of this. It’s a great overview of some of the problems related to threshold concepts, and also more evidence that philosophy, and philosophical librarians, matter.