Today the Association of College and Research Libraries released the latest iteration of the new information literacy framework. This has been a multi-year revision process that is now drawing to a close, with the final presentation of the Framework slated for next January. I've expressed my appreciation for the new framework on this blog, and also wrote an article about it for Communications in Information Literacy.
The new framework emphasizes "threshold concepts," defined as "those ideas in any discipline that are passageways or portals to enlarged understanding or ways of thinking and practicing within that discipline." The task force has identified six threshold concepts relating to information literacy, my favorite of which remains that "Authority is Constructed and Contextual."
There has been much discussion in the blogosphere and on Twitter about each iteration of the information literacy framework, and today's release will generate more of the same. For now I want to turn my attention to this meta-question: are threshold concepts viable concepts in their own right? Lane Wilkinson and Patrick Morgan have both offered cogent criticisms regarding the utility of threshold concepts, which deserve review and response.
Review: Wilkinson stresses that threshold concepts can be defined so broadly that almost anything can be one ("Libraries Jump Spanish Sandwiches?" Threshold concept"). He also notes that there has been almost no criticism of threshold concepts, just a lot of bandwagon hopping because these threshold thingies must be good for us. Morgan observes that "threshold concepts are treated as immanent entities, unique to specific disciplines, and not as essentially contingent phenomena."
This is an extremely cursory review of two thoughtful pieces that you should read yourself.
Response: I agree with the thrust of Wilkinson and Morgan's critiques. Threshold concepts are contingent on the engagement and interest of each student, and are not immutable forces that apply to everyone equally.
But so what? They are aspirational expressions of concepts that the information literate student needs to absorb, and seen this way they serve a useful purpose.
Indeed, Wilkinson acknowledges the utility of the six particular threshold concepts put forth in the framework while challenging the value of threshold concepts themselves. "Really, the six concepts in the Framework are a good start and they make sense. More importantly, they can stand on their own quite independently of the threshold concept hypothesis." So perhaps we just have a needless bit of theoretical dross, which can be removed without sacrificing the essence of the idea. Occam's Razor, you know--the simplest explanation is likely to be the best.
Perhaps so, particularly if more librarians begin speaking up against the utility of information concepts in the information literacy framework (which seems unlikely at this late stage, but could happen.) But I see great value in the use of thresholds. They are the spaces between what came before and what will come after. In our quest to develop information literate students who are productively skeptical and critically astute, the threshold symbolizes the doorways through which they must walk.
Sure, that's squishy. Most human development is, and will never be reducible or nail-down-able no matter how much we try to do so. The critiques of threshold concepts are simultaneously perceptive and unpersuasive. They take apart the concept without diminishing its core value.