Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge - GEES Subject ...

Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge - GEES Subject ...

Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge - GEES Subject ...


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Chapter 3<br />

<strong>Threshold</strong> <strong>Concepts</strong> <strong>and</strong> <strong>Troublesome</strong><br />

<strong>Knowledge</strong>: Towards a ‘Pedagogy of<br />

Climate Change’?<br />

Brendan M. Hall<br />

University of Gloucestershire<br />

Correspondence: bhall@glos.ac.uk<br />

Abstract<br />

This paper is intended as an initial attempt to identify a ‘pedagogy of climate change’ through<br />

examination of key concepts within the subject area using the theoretical frameworks of<br />

‘troublesome knowledge’ (Perkins, 1999) <strong>and</strong> ‘threshold concepts’ (Meyer <strong>and</strong> L<strong>and</strong>, 2003; 2005).<br />

The frameworks themselves are discussed in turn <strong>and</strong> applied to concepts identified through<br />

interviews with academics teaching climate change on Geography programmes at universities in<br />

Engl<strong>and</strong> <strong>and</strong> Wales. This provides potential c<strong>and</strong>idates for concepts that may be used centrally<br />

within a curriculum designed for teaching <strong>and</strong> learning climate change. Aligned with constructivist<br />

teaching methods these concepts may provide a starting point for the development of a specific<br />

pedagogy of climate change.<br />

Introduction<br />

Teaching about climate change presents many challenges, owing to the complex nature of the<br />

physical climate system (Holbrook <strong>and</strong> Devonshire, 2005), the many human factors affecting the<br />

system itself, <strong>and</strong> the various human responses to climate change (Rebich <strong>and</strong> Gautier, 2005).<br />

Nevertheless, climate change is widely acknowledged as being an important subject area for<br />

students to explore in their learning (Devine-Wright et al., 2004), not least to ensure quality decisionmaking<br />

about climate change in the future (Ulph <strong>and</strong> Ulph, 1995).<br />

The complexity of climate change means that it is a relevant subject area across a variety of<br />

disciplines; students therefore encounter climate change in a wide range of educational contexts,<br />

which may make learning about an already complex subject even more difficult. The frameworks of<br />

troublesome knowledge (Perkins, 1999) <strong>and</strong> threshold concepts (Meyer <strong>and</strong> L<strong>and</strong>, 2003; 2005) help<br />

to reduce some of this complexity by encouraging educators to reflect <strong>and</strong> discuss what concepts<br />

students find difficult <strong>and</strong> what, to put it simply, are the ‘big ideas’ within a subject area. This paper<br />

will introduce the frameworks of troublesome knowledge <strong>and</strong> threshold concepts, discuss some<br />

potential examples of concepts that fit the frameworks (from discussions with academics involved<br />

in teaching climate change) <strong>and</strong> ask whether these provide potential frameworks <strong>and</strong> a useful<br />

starting point for the discussion <strong>and</strong> development of a ‘pedagogy of climate change’.<br />

In: Haslett, France & Gedye (Eds) 2011, Pedagogy of Climate Change<br />


Chapter 3 <strong>Threshold</strong> <strong>Concepts</strong> <strong>and</strong> <strong>Troublesome</strong> <strong>Knowledge</strong>:<br />

Towards a ‘Pedagogy of Climate Change’?<br />

The Research<br />

Much of this paper is based on ten interviews conducted by the author with academics teaching<br />

about some aspect of climate change within Geography programmes at universities in Engl<strong>and</strong> <strong>and</strong><br />

Wales. The academics involved represented a wide range of academic backgrounds <strong>and</strong> interests<br />

<strong>and</strong> were drawn from institutions across the higher education sector, from newer, more teachingfocused<br />

universities to older, more research-oriented institutions. As part of the interviews the<br />

academics were asked to reflect on their teaching of climate change <strong>and</strong> identify concepts that they<br />

felt students found particularly troublesome in this context <strong>and</strong> concepts that they felt to be ‘key’ in<br />

terms of progressing students’ underst<strong>and</strong>ing of the subject. This, in turn, has led to the<br />

identification of potential examples of troublesome knowledge <strong>and</strong> threshold concepts within<br />

climate change.<br />

<strong>Troublesome</strong> <strong>Knowledge</strong><br />

The term ‘troublesome knowledge’ refers to several distinct types of knowledge initially identified<br />

by Perkins (1999) that may be potentially troublesome in some way for a learner. A focus on what<br />

students find troublesome, <strong>and</strong> why this may be, can provide an enlightening new perspective for<br />

teachers in considering their approach to their subject. The forms of troublesome knowledge<br />

identified by Perkins are detailed below:<br />

• Ritual <strong>Knowledge</strong> – is knowledge that has a “routine <strong>and</strong> rather meaningless character” (Perkins,<br />

1999, p. 8). Ritual knowledge is that knowledge that is routinely called upon when asked a<br />

certain question or when seeking a particular result. Names <strong>and</strong> dates may be considered to be<br />

of this nature, as may basic arithmetic. <strong>Concepts</strong> that become ‘ritualised’ in this way may be<br />

troublesome as they lose meaning <strong>and</strong> students fail to make connections between related ideas.<br />

• Inert <strong>Knowledge</strong> – is knowledge that “sits in the minds attic, unpacked only when specifically called<br />

for by a quiz or a direct prompt” (Perkins, 1999, p. 8). Simply put, inert knowledge is that which is<br />

learned but not used actively. <strong>Knowledge</strong> becomes inert in this way through students failing to<br />

make links between what they are learning in the classroom <strong>and</strong> their experiences of the real<br />

world.<br />

• Conceptually Difficult <strong>Knowledge</strong> – is knowledge that students find difficult to grasp <strong>and</strong><br />

may arise as a result of a combination of factors such as misimpressions gained from everyday<br />

experiences, pre-existing misconceptions or expectations <strong>and</strong> the complexity of the concepts<br />

themselves. Often, the response to conceptually difficult knowledge is a form of mimicry using<br />

ritual knowledge where students learn responses to definitional questions but their intuitive<br />

beliefs remain unchanged, thus making it difficult to apply these concepts in the real world<br />

(Perkins, 1999).<br />

• Foreign/Alien <strong>Knowledge</strong> – is knowledge that “comes from a perspective that conflicts with our<br />

own” (Perkins, 1999, p. 10). Students may struggle to engage with ideas that have arisen in<br />

social, cultural <strong>and</strong> historical contexts that are different or opposed to their own beliefs. This<br />

26 Pedagogy of Climate Change

may be extended to include concepts that are seen to ‘belong’ to different disciplinary cultures<br />

to the one students see themselves as ‘belonging’ to. The knowledge may also be regarded as<br />

‘foreign’ if it is in some way counter-intuitive, that is to say, concepts that are contrary to<br />

students’ own experiences or views of the world.<br />

• Tacit <strong>Knowledge</strong> – is that knowledge which exists implicitly either at a personal level (Polanyi,<br />

1958) or within a specific community of practice (Wenger, 1998). In building on the work of<br />

Perkins, it is perhaps related to the idea of ‘belonging’ outlined above <strong>and</strong> identified by Meyer<br />

<strong>and</strong> L<strong>and</strong> (2003). This knowledge may be described as forming the ‘background’ knowledge of<br />

a discipline or subject area, important for underst<strong>and</strong>ing (<strong>and</strong> potentially complex or counterintuitive)<br />

but not dealt with explicitly (Hall, 2006). Most students will, therefore, fail to<br />

recognise the significance of tacit knowledge, thus making broad underst<strong>and</strong>ing within their<br />

subject area, <strong>and</strong> the underst<strong>and</strong>ing of other troublesome concepts, more difficult.<br />

Examples of the types of knowledge described above may be identified in any subject area.<br />

However, it should be noted that troublesome knowledge can also create barriers to educators both<br />

in terms of curriculum design <strong>and</strong> teaching practice. It is easy to see the difficulty in teaching<br />

conceptually difficult or complex ideas, or addressing alien or counter-intuitive concepts. Tacit<br />

knowledge, however, may prove to be the biggest pitfall. Owing to its implicit <strong>and</strong> habitual nature,<br />

tacit knowledge is likely to take on an inert or ritual character for an individual researching or<br />

teaching within a subject area. As a result of this the meaning or relevance of concepts may be ‘lost<br />

in translation’ or not conveyed at all, leading to a shortfall in student learning. Recognising tacit<br />

knowledge may be a difficult or uncomfortable process for a teacher but could provide an<br />

interesting insight to their underst<strong>and</strong>ing of their subject <strong>and</strong>, hence, their teaching. Perkins (1999)<br />

suggests adopting constructivist, active <strong>and</strong> student-centred approaches when dealing with<br />

troublesome knowledge; these will be discussed in more detail later in the context of teaching about<br />

climate change.<br />

<strong>Troublesome</strong> <strong>Knowledge</strong> <strong>and</strong> Climate Change<br />

Many examples of concepts that may be considered troublesome in some way have emerged from<br />

the interviews with academics involved in teaching climate change. As one may expect, complex<br />

<strong>and</strong> conceptually difficult knowledge featured strongly in these discussions, with the academics<br />

being quick to identify those concepts that students acknowledge as being ‘hard’ <strong>and</strong> which may<br />

lead to a ritualised response that mimics true underst<strong>and</strong>ing. Interestingly, troublesome knowledge<br />

was also identified in concepts or approaches that students considered ‘alien’ in some way, in that<br />

they did not meet with students’ expectations of their university course or were seen to belong to<br />

another discipline. Furthermore, it was also noted that some of the academics’ awareness of<br />

troublesome knowledge was emergent from the discussion itself. It may be that much of this was<br />

tacit knowledge previous to the discussion <strong>and</strong> that the troublesome nature of the concepts<br />

themselves may have been exacerbated by the implications of tacit knowledge outlined above.<br />

Geography, Earth <strong>and</strong> Environmental Sciences <strong>Subject</strong> Centre<br />


Chapter 3 <strong>Threshold</strong> <strong>Concepts</strong> <strong>and</strong> <strong>Troublesome</strong> <strong>Knowledge</strong>:<br />

Towards a ‘Pedagogy of Climate Change’?<br />

Some examples of troublesome knowledge in climate change, which have emerged from these<br />

discussions with academics, are outlined below:<br />

• The Natural Variability of Climate – It was noted that students may have a particularly<br />

anthropocentric perception of climate change <strong>and</strong> that this may lead to a skewed underst<strong>and</strong>ing<br />

of the dynamic nature of climate. The fact that climate has changed throughout the Earth’s<br />

history (over vast <strong>and</strong> varying timescales – which in themselves may be described as<br />

troublesome) was described as being troublesome because it did not fit with students current<br />

underst<strong>and</strong>ing of climate in the light of human-influenced climate change. Perkins (1999) gives<br />

the example of ‘presentism’ in historical underst<strong>and</strong>ing as an example of foreign knowledge:<br />

“students tend to view past events through current knowledge <strong>and</strong> values”. If we extend this to<br />

geological thinking we can see how students may find the concept of climate constantly<br />

changing over time without human influence challenging.<br />

• The Earth System – Perhaps related to the concept of natural variability is the concept of the<br />

Earth as a complex system with a vast array of intricately linked components. The complexity<br />

of the system itself is troublesome as is the effective value of each of the components in terms of<br />

the overall effect they have on climate. The carbon cycle was identified as one element of this<br />

<strong>and</strong> a good example in that students may have a ‘low-level’ underst<strong>and</strong>ing gained from the<br />

media or school science but as they begin to encounter more elements of the cycle they struggle<br />

to integrate them into an underst<strong>and</strong>ing of the complex whole. The implications of complexity<br />

for designing climate models <strong>and</strong> students’ perceptions of their effectiveness were also noted as<br />

being troublesome.<br />

• Scientific/Mathematical Methods <strong>and</strong> Approaches – The use of what may be described as<br />

high-level scientific <strong>and</strong> mathematical methods used for underst<strong>and</strong>ing climate <strong>and</strong> climate<br />

change was identified as being troublesome within the context of this research. There was a<br />

feeling from several of the participants that students tended to have “an aversion to anything that<br />

they perceive to be too deeply scientific”. Examples of this included the use of equations to calculate<br />

radiation balance, geochronological techniques <strong>and</strong> the integration of geophysics. It was<br />

interesting to note in this last case that the participant felt that this was a result of students not<br />

expecting to encounter these types of concepts as part of a Geography degree, characterising<br />

them as foreign knowledge.<br />

• Uncertainty – Many participants identified that their students struggled with the concept of<br />

uncertainty in a variety of different contexts. Uncertainty stemming from the complexity of the<br />

climate system (Rind, 1999), uncertainty related to proxy-climate records <strong>and</strong> dating techniques,<br />

uncertainty related to the parameterisation of climate models <strong>and</strong> uncertainty about future<br />

climate prediction <strong>and</strong> projections of human-influenced change were all identified as being<br />

troublesome. More about uncertainty as troublesome knowledge in the context of teaching<br />

about climate change can be read in Hall (2006).<br />

28 Pedagogy of Climate Change

Above are just some examples of troublesome knowledge as identified by the participants in this<br />

particular study. This paper is not designed to be exhaustive in terms of assessing troublesome<br />

knowledge in the climate change subject area. What troublesome knowledge provides is a good<br />

starting point for considering what students find difficult <strong>and</strong>, therefore, how this may be addressed<br />

in teaching. This will be discussed in more detail later in the paper. Interestingly, many of the<br />

concepts that were identified as being troublesome in some way were also viewed as being<br />

fundamental to the discipline, which leads into the next section on threshold concepts.<br />

<strong>Threshold</strong> <strong>Concepts</strong><br />

Related to the framework of troublesome knowledge is that of threshold concepts. The basic<br />

principle of the threshold concept theory is that “within certain disciplines there are certain ‘conceptual<br />

gateways’ or ‘portals’ that lead to a previously inaccessible, <strong>and</strong> initially perhaps ‘troublesome’, way of<br />

thinking about something” (Meyer <strong>and</strong> L<strong>and</strong>, 2005, p. 1). The ‘troublesomeness’ of a concept forms<br />

part of the criteria that define it as a threshold concept i.e. students should experience difficulty <strong>and</strong><br />

discomfort when faced with the concept but they must overcome this as progress within their<br />

discipline will be all but impossible without an underst<strong>and</strong>ing of the concept (Meyer <strong>and</strong> L<strong>and</strong>, 2003).<br />

As well as troublesome knowledge there are six other main criteria that define a threshold concept.<br />

They are:<br />

• Transformative – occasioning a significant shift in the perception of a subject. In other words,<br />

learners now view their subject area in a new way. In certain powerful instances this may also<br />

occasion a significant shift in the identity of a learner <strong>and</strong> a repositioning of subjectivity (Meyer<br />

<strong>and</strong> L<strong>and</strong>, 2003). This may have a performative aspect, allowing the learner to ‘do’ something<br />

they were not able to ‘do’ before (Meyer <strong>and</strong> L<strong>and</strong>, 2003).<br />

• Irreversible – unlikely to be forgotten, or unlearned only through particular effort. Though this<br />

may be difficult to prove, the transformation undergone by the learner is so profound that it is<br />

unlikely they will regress to previously held conceptions.<br />

• Integrative – exposing the previously hidden interrelatedness of something. Underst<strong>and</strong>ing of<br />

a threshold concept allows the learner to make connections between concepts that were<br />

previously ‘hidden’ to them (Cousin, 2006).<br />

• Bounded – the new ‘conceptual space’ opened up by the ‘transfigured thought’ of the learner is,<br />

in turn, bounded by thresholds opening into new conceptual spaces (Meyer <strong>and</strong> L<strong>and</strong>, 2005).<br />

• Reconstitutive – this relates to the repositioning of subjectivity mentioned above; students<br />

connect their learning with the world around them <strong>and</strong> re-evaluate their thoughts <strong>and</strong> beliefs in<br />

response (Meyer <strong>and</strong> l<strong>and</strong>, 2005).<br />

• Discursive – the shift in perspective <strong>and</strong> identity is accompanied by a concordant shift in the<br />

language used by the learner. New ways of thinking are expressed through a new vocabulary;<br />

this vocabulary may be self-generated or related to a specific discipline or community of<br />

practice (Meyer <strong>and</strong> L<strong>and</strong>, 2005). “It may involve natural language, formal language or symbolic<br />

language” (Meyer <strong>and</strong> L<strong>and</strong>, 2005).<br />

Geography, Earth <strong>and</strong> Environmental Sciences <strong>Subject</strong> Centre<br />


Chapter 3 <strong>Threshold</strong> <strong>Concepts</strong> <strong>and</strong> <strong>Troublesome</strong> <strong>Knowledge</strong>:<br />

Towards a ‘Pedagogy of Climate Change’?<br />

In addition, threshold concepts provoke a state of ‘liminality’ – a metaphorical space of ‘stuckness’<br />

that must be passed through by the learner on their journey through the ‘portal’, analogous with<br />

rites of passage in anthropology (Meyer <strong>and</strong> L<strong>and</strong>, 2005).<br />

The criteria listed above help us to define concepts that may be considered as threshold concepts;<br />

however, the definition of threshold concepts is likely only to emerge through discourse among<br />

colleagues within a discipline or subject area. Similarly to troublesome knowledge, threshold<br />

concepts offer an excellent starting point for developing an underst<strong>and</strong>ing of the pedagogy of a<br />

subject area <strong>and</strong> encouraging a ‘less is more’ approach to curriculum design (Cousin, 2006). This will<br />

be explored in more detail in the final section of this paper.<br />

One implication of the threshold concept theory is that “describing conceptions as a relationship between<br />

an individual <strong>and</strong> a phenomenon is insufficient to capture the full extent of learning” (Meyer et al., 2006,<br />

p. 7). Learning is socially situated <strong>and</strong> the acquisition of new ways of underst<strong>and</strong>ing leads to social<br />

re-positioning on the part of the learner. This social re-positioning naturally leads to the creation of<br />

communities made up of like-minded individuals; this may inhibit or facilitate learners in their<br />

approach to thresholds (Meyer et al., 2006). That is not to say that learners cannot integrate threshold<br />

concepts from other disciplinary areas or that interdisciplinary threshold concepts cannot exist.<br />

Higgs <strong>and</strong> Hall (2008) note the similarities between models of integrative learning <strong>and</strong> threshold<br />

concepts <strong>and</strong> that threshold concept theory may offer a good approach to designing opportunities<br />

for learners to integrate knowledge from diverse disciplines as well as approaches to<br />

interdisciplinary learning.<br />

<strong>Threshold</strong> <strong>Concepts</strong> <strong>and</strong> Climate Change<br />

As mentioned in the section above on troublesome knowledge <strong>and</strong> climate change, many<br />

participants in the study identified troublesome concepts as also being integral to the discipline <strong>and</strong>,<br />

similarly, the concepts that were seen as central to an underst<strong>and</strong>ing of the subject were also viewed<br />

as potentially the most troublesome. These may include concepts such as natural variability, the<br />

Earth as a system <strong>and</strong> uncertainty. There is considerable overlap, therefore, between troublesome<br />

knowledge in climate change <strong>and</strong> potential threshold concepts. This is only natural given the fact<br />

that ‘troublesomeness’ is one of the key facets of a threshold concept. It is, therefore, relevant to<br />

examine further the concepts identified above through the threshold concepts framework.<br />

Uncertainty may be used as a good example to illustrate a potential c<strong>and</strong>idate for a threshold<br />

concept in climate change. It is reasonable to assume that an underst<strong>and</strong>ing of uncertainty may have<br />

a transformative effect upon a learner. Uncertainty challenges conceptions of truth <strong>and</strong> the existence<br />

of definitive answers. It also reveals the complexity of knowledge <strong>and</strong> how we rationalise our<br />

underst<strong>and</strong>ing of the world – likely to be an eye-opening experience for any learner. In this<br />

particular context it not only reveals the complexity of the climate change subject area but it also has<br />

30 Pedagogy of Climate Change

the potential to redefine how we think about all areas of climate change. In this sense it is also<br />

integrative - uncertainty being prevalent across the board in terms of underst<strong>and</strong>ing the climate <strong>and</strong><br />

how humans relate to it. It is, therefore, one of few commonalities shared by the diverse range of<br />

concepts <strong>and</strong> discipline-situated knowledge that make up the climate change subject area <strong>and</strong>,<br />

therefore, has the power to link underst<strong>and</strong>ing of all these concepts <strong>and</strong>, by extension, the subject as<br />

a whole. Irreversibility is more difficult to assess. However, it is not unreasonable, when one<br />

considers the profound nature of uncertainty as a concept, that it would be unlikely to be<br />

‘unlearned’ (Hall, 2006). It is also difficult to think of uncertainty in terms of being bounded, given<br />

its ubiquity <strong>and</strong> somewhat abstract nature. It does, however, open up new avenues for inquiry <strong>and</strong><br />

may be considered bounded in this sense.<br />

Uncertainty in climate change has a language all of its own that is likely to have an effect on how<br />

students think <strong>and</strong> talk about the subject. Terms such as ‘confidence’, ‘probability’ <strong>and</strong> ‘risk’ have a<br />

distinctive meaning in this context <strong>and</strong> they all imply uncertainty. It is likely that an underst<strong>and</strong>ing<br />

of uncertainty will be accompanied by an extension of a student’s language through using these<br />

terms, so uncertainty may be said to have a discursive impact. As alluded to above, it is also<br />

probable that the transformation associated with gaining an underst<strong>and</strong>ing of uncertainty is likely<br />

to be of a profound nature. If we also consider the potentially counter-intuitive nature of a<br />

conceptual underst<strong>and</strong>ing of uncertainty <strong>and</strong> the conflict with students’ conceptions of seeking a<br />

‘right’ answer, it is possible to see how uncertainty as a concept may provoke a state of liminality for<br />

the student leading them to a ‘space of stuckness’ <strong>and</strong> a feeling of a loss of power <strong>and</strong> control over<br />

their learning. There is little doubt, however, that once that underst<strong>and</strong>ing of uncertainty has been<br />

achieved the student will emerge with a new underst<strong>and</strong>ing of climate change <strong>and</strong> a new way of<br />

thinking about the subject. Uncertainty would then seem to be a good c<strong>and</strong>idate for a threshold<br />

concept in this particular context (<strong>and</strong> perhaps in other contexts as well). It is not unreasonable to<br />

attribute many of the same characteristics to ‘natural variability’ <strong>and</strong> the ‘Earth system’ <strong>and</strong> say that<br />

they too may be considered as threshold concepts. It is important to qualify this, however, <strong>and</strong> state<br />

once again that these suggestions are based on the study in question <strong>and</strong> are designed as a starting<br />

point <strong>and</strong> should not be considered definitive.<br />

The question of whether the remaining example of troublesome knowledge listed above - scientific/<br />

mathematical methods <strong>and</strong> approaches - may be defined as a threshold concept is a little more<br />

debatable. This may not be something which is applicable across the subject at large <strong>and</strong> may be<br />

limited to certain disciplinary contexts where it is linked to students’ expectations <strong>and</strong> abilities.<br />

However, it is important nevertheless – given the frequency that the point was raised - it would<br />

appear that a difficulty with these kinds of methods <strong>and</strong> approaches is a significant issue <strong>and</strong> not<br />

confined to teaching about climate change. Meyer <strong>and</strong> L<strong>and</strong> (2003) do note that a performative<br />

aspect may be involved in grasping a threshold concept, so this may represent a kind of ‘practical<br />

threshold’ which stops some students progressing in their underst<strong>and</strong>ing of climate change.<br />

Geography, Earth <strong>and</strong> Environmental Sciences <strong>Subject</strong> Centre<br />


Chapter 3 <strong>Threshold</strong> <strong>Concepts</strong> <strong>and</strong> <strong>Troublesome</strong> <strong>Knowledge</strong>:<br />

Towards a ‘Pedagogy of Climate Change’?<br />

Other potential examples of threshold concepts identified by the participants in the study are listed<br />

briefly below:<br />

• Geological Perspective – Perhaps linked to an underst<strong>and</strong>ing of natural climate variability is<br />

an underst<strong>and</strong>ing of how climate has varied in the past <strong>and</strong> the implications of this for<br />

predicting future climate. This also includes an underst<strong>and</strong>ing of the timescales that these<br />

climate processes operate over, which, as noted above, may be troublesome in their own right.<br />

• The ‘Palaeoclimate Toolbox’ – Many participants identified that a priority for their teaching<br />

was giving students an underst<strong>and</strong>ing of how <strong>and</strong> why palaeoclimatic proxies are used in<br />

predicting future climate change, although they also admitted that this was closely linked to<br />

their own research interests.<br />

• The Fundamentals of Climate Science – Several participants also identified that, in order for<br />

students to have an underst<strong>and</strong>ing of climate change, it is important for them to also have a<br />

fundamental underst<strong>and</strong>ing of how climate works. This included underst<strong>and</strong>ing atmospheric<br />

composition <strong>and</strong> the principles of radiative forcing, energy balance <strong>and</strong> radiation balance <strong>and</strong><br />

their effect on climate.<br />

• Modelling <strong>and</strong> Scenarios – Many of the participants felt it important that their students had an<br />

underst<strong>and</strong>ing of how climate models are constructed <strong>and</strong> how they are then used to predict<br />

climate change. In some cases this was linked to the human dimension of future climate<br />

scenarios, how these are constructed <strong>and</strong> how they affect our underst<strong>and</strong>ing.<br />

Again, the above synopsis is not representative of all the views captured by the study <strong>and</strong> it would<br />

also be premature to label the above ideas as threshold concepts. Potentially, however, it does<br />

provide a starting point for considering what concepts are integral to climate change as a subject<br />

area <strong>and</strong>, therefore, what the pedagogy of climate change may look like.<br />

Pedagogy of Climate Change?<br />

The question of what a pedagogy of climate change may look like is not a simple one to answer.<br />

Shulman (2005, p. 52) describes the existence of ‘signature pedagogies’: “these are the forms of<br />

instruction that leap to mind when we think about the preparation of members of particular professions”. The<br />

pedagogies in this case tend to have a strongly vocational dimension, coming from law, medicine<br />

<strong>and</strong> the like; but it is not unreasonable to draw parallels with teaching in other disciplines. In<br />

teaching climate change however, it is more difficult to define pedagogy owing to the complex <strong>and</strong><br />

multidisciplinary character of the subject. As noted above, this may prove troublesome for students.<br />

It is also likely to prove troublesome for educators in designing a curriculum.<br />

How then might we approach the design of a curriculum for teaching climate change? The sections<br />

above may have gone some way towards tentatively mapping out the ‘conceptual terrain’ of the<br />

subject, identifying potentially troublesome concepts <strong>and</strong> the concepts that are integral to an<br />

32 Pedagogy of Climate Change

underst<strong>and</strong>ing of climate change. Continuing in this spirit it may be worthwhile considering a ‘less<br />

is more’ approach to curriculum design, striving to avoid ‘stuffing’ the curriculum with too much<br />

content (Cousin, 2006) <strong>and</strong> allowing students to explore the complexities of climate science<br />

themselves. This brings us on to discussions of approaches to teaching: what are the best methods<br />

for achieving quality teaching <strong>and</strong> learning about climate change?<br />

Perkins (1999) advocates the adoption of constructivist approaches when dealing with troublesome<br />

concepts. Allowing students to take a central role in exploring ideas whilst relating them to their<br />

own experiences <strong>and</strong> being creative is seen as central to creating meaningful learning experiences<br />

<strong>and</strong>, therefore, quality learning outcomes. This was echoed by the participants in the study where a<br />

strong emphasis was placed on participation <strong>and</strong> getting students ‘involved’ in practical climate<br />

science <strong>and</strong> underst<strong>and</strong>ing climate change. Exercises involving h<strong>and</strong>s-on use of climate models,<br />

fieldwork <strong>and</strong> even mock climate summits were all described as valuable in enhancing students’<br />

underst<strong>and</strong>ing of climate <strong>and</strong> climate change. This is a view borne out by the literature on teaching<br />

<strong>and</strong> learning about climate change. Holbrook <strong>and</strong> Devonshire (2005) describe a research-led,<br />

interdisciplinary approach using climate models to stimulate students’ thinking about climate<br />

science <strong>and</strong> abstract concepts associated with the climate system. Gautier <strong>and</strong> Rebich (2005) <strong>and</strong><br />

Rebich <strong>and</strong> Gautier (2005) describe a mock climate summit combined with concept mapping as a<br />

good method of engaging students with the complexities of climate change. Schweizer <strong>and</strong> Kelly<br />

(2005, p. 83) note that students ‘became scientists’ over the course of a debate on climate change<br />

with “the importance of using large scale data-sets to solve problems in science <strong>and</strong> society becoming<br />

apparent.”<br />

Conclusion<br />

A curriculum for teaching about climate change may then involve some or all of the concepts <strong>and</strong><br />

ideas above being explored through student-centred, active <strong>and</strong> creative pedagogies. However, this<br />

is far from definitive. Curriculum design for a complex world presents many challenges (Barnett,<br />

2000) <strong>and</strong> climate change is an excellent example of this. The aim of this paper is to identify some<br />

potential frameworks for designing pedagogy for teaching about climate change; some tentative<br />

suggestions have been made for the kind of concepts that may act as stimuli to this process <strong>and</strong><br />

some suggestions of how learning outcomes may be achieved. However, <strong>and</strong> to reiterate, the best<br />

method for designing quality teaching <strong>and</strong> learning is often through discussion with colleagues<br />

working in the same subject area. In the case of climate change there is great potential for new ideas<br />

<strong>and</strong> strategies to emerge from the fertile ground of interdisciplinary discussion. Different<br />

disciplinary perspectives are welcomed, as are innovative ideas on approaches <strong>and</strong> experiences of<br />

teaching <strong>and</strong> learning. Perhaps in time we will then move towards a clearer view of a pedagogy of<br />

climate change.<br />

Geography, Earth <strong>and</strong> Environmental Sciences <strong>Subject</strong> Centre<br />


Chapter 3 <strong>Threshold</strong> <strong>Concepts</strong> <strong>and</strong> <strong>Troublesome</strong> <strong>Knowledge</strong>:<br />

Towards a ‘Pedagogy of Climate Change’?<br />

References<br />

Barnett, R. (2000) Supercomplexity <strong>and</strong> the curriculum, Studies in Higher Education, 25 (3), pp.<br />

255–265.<br />

Cousin, G. (2006) An introduction to threshold concepts, Planet, 17, pp 4-5.<br />

Devine-Wright, P., Devine-Wright, <strong>and</strong> H., Fleming P. (2004) Situational influences upon children’s<br />

beliefs about global warming <strong>and</strong> energy, Environmental Education Research, 10 (4), pp. 493-505<br />

Gautier, C., <strong>and</strong> Rebich, S. (2005) The use of a mock environment summit to support learning about<br />

global climate change, Journal of Geoscience Education, 53 (1), pp. 5-16.<br />

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34 Pedagogy of Climate Change

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warming debate, Journal of Geoscience Education, 53 (1), pp. 75-84.<br />

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Geography, Earth <strong>and</strong> Environmental Sciences <strong>Subject</strong> Centre<br />


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