Troublesome knowledge: what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander?

Over the past 12 months, I’ve consciously started to move my own research agenda away from working on school-based projects to those focusing on curriculum and pedagogy in higher education contexts. This has been an exciting time as higher education provides a fertile ground for developing innovative pedagogical approaches based upon a notion that lecturers can be trusted to create, develop and execute modules and courses which relate to their subject expertise. The past 18 months has been the first time in my professional life that Ofsted has not cast a long and negative shadow over my professional autonomy and opportunities for innovative practice.

In re-orientating my pedagogical and, as a consequence, research interests, I have also started to attend a different set of conferences. I’ve just got home from my first attendance at the annual conference of the Society for Research in Higher Education which has been a very positive and thought-provoking experience. There has been a very wide-ranging set of presentations from considerations of organisational leadership and governance in universities, through developing reactions and alternatives to policy, international work, the work of lecturers and student experiences, to utopian perspectives concerning the futures of universities, learning technologies and digital universities as well as teaching and learning. Because my own research interests centre on pedagogy, curriculum and increasingly research methods, I have spent much of the last three days listening to and discussing issues as wide-ranging as the use of concept mapping to understand student conceptualisation of master’s dissertations (Dr E Buyl), and the opening up of the ‘Space of Reasons’ (Dr G Hinchliffe) (based on the work of John McDowell) as an alternative to understanding what is essentially a case of ‘epistemic access’ as outlined in Plato’s cave.

One session was presented by Ray Land who developed an interesting perspective on threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge as it focused on the role these concepts can play in disrupting and counteracting neoliberal discourses within the University. I’ve used these ideas in my own research for more than five years to help in developing curriculum models and pedagogies at both school and university level. Because their work is focused on the troublesome knowledge which students face in making sense of their studies as they begin to move towards crossing thresholds at a conceptual level I have tended to view this theoretical perspective in the same way. However, perhaps due to my relatively recent adoption of a focus on higher education pedagogy linked with the opportunity to listen to a lot of interesting and theoretically rich perspectives across the three days of the conference, it dawned on me that in understanding both my own emergent subject knowledge and my continued emergence and growth as a teacher troublesome knowledge and threshold concepts are as relevant to my own changing thinking and practice as it is for helping the development of knowledge and understanding in students.

In one of those moments where two ideas come together, I happened to be giving a presentation on the use of Lesson Study in higher education, in particular considering our current research into research methods pedagogy. One technique which we are using in this research is to ask students to create concept maps at the end of each session, which they are then asked to record a short audio commentary about before sending both files to us so that we can begin to gain another perspective on their emerging understanding. In some recent interviews a couple of the students talked about the importance of the concept maps and explanations in helping them to begin to get a more conscious understanding of the degree to which they do or don’t understand important principles and concepts within research methods. Having discussed this in the seminar with academic colleagues, it dawned on me that we all have conceptual and knowledge-based schemata that however knowledgeable or expert we are within a field, always offer new thresholds and troublesome knowledge with which to engage. By considering my own work and research in this way it is beginning to help me reframe the degree to which risk, grappling with the unknown and long periods of uncertainty and hard graft are as important for me as a researcher and teacher as it is for the students with whom I work. How often do we tend to inhabit a space which feels comfortable and from which we can feel a sense of authority, rather than searching out new areas of troublesome knowledge through which we can stumble towards new thresholds in our own understanding? Perhaps there is as much to gain from thinking about our own knowledge and work in this way as there is in considering how we engage students in their learning.

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