Research School Network: Threshold Concepts for Teachers This year, we are framing our CPD around four threshold concepts that we believe are fundamental to effective teaching.

Threshold Concepts for Teachers

This year, we are framing our CPD around four threshold concepts that we believe are fundamental to effective teaching.

by Durrington Research School
on the

  • threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress. As a consequence of comprehending a threshold concept there may thus be a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view.” (Meyer and Land, 2003)

    Both as people and professionals we will have encountered threshold concepts, be it how to interpret the London tube map or teaching students phonics. There is no going back once learnt and they are transformative in nature.

    This year at Durrington we have framed our teaching and learning priorities around what we consider to be the key threshold concepts for teachers working in our context. I stress our context, as undoubtedly other schools may choose different concepts and there would be a debate as to which would make the top four. Our rationale is that we believe that once teachers truly and deeply understand these concepts, their teaching will be tranformed for the better and will never be the same.

    As a Research School our threshold concepts are based on areas of strength in terms of research-evidence together with what we consider to be essential for our staff. They are:

  • Formative assessment (feedback and questioning)
  • Metacognition (modelling and practice)
  • Vocabulary deficit (challenge, practice, modelling, explanation)
  • Cognitive load theory and memory (explanation, challenge and practice)

The extra elements in brackets are where they relate to our six princples, which those familar with our approach at Durrington will be aware of. During our first day back INSET myself and Fran Haynes split these between us to share with staff. We focused on where we were on our journey with these concepts and where we wanted to be.

Formative assessment

We know from the work of Dylan Wiliam and others that formative assessment is capable of dramatic increases in the quality of student learning. Chris Runeckles has previously blogged about it here. The slight problem we’ve encountered recently, is while the mechanisms of formative assessment are happening in lessons, the results are not always being used formatively, i.e. to directly affect teaching, learning or the curriculum.

To support teachers with this, we have narrowed formative assessment to four key types for teachers to work on this year, and provided advice on how these methods of assessment can be used formatively. This is not to say other methods of formative assessment are outlawed, but rather to give the implementation of this sometimes hidden form of assessment, greater focus. The four are (with suggestions on how to make them formative):

Quizzes & multi-choice questions
◾Ask: how many people got this one right?”
◾Scan the books during the quiz.
◾Have a look at the end of the lesson.

Reading or observing student work
◾Keep a book! Read a class set of books and note down what are the key misconceptions ready to re-teach them next lesson.
◾Change the plan. If you see something is worng, go off script to correct it.
◾Use summative assessments formatively. Whole class feedback is particularly effective here.

◾Elaborative questions. Use these to find out how deeply students understand a topic in order for you to fill the blanks.
◾Ask a lot. The more you ask the more learning you uncover!
◾Plan them – what they are and who to ask.
◾Ask for an audit. Get a colleague to sit in a lesson and record who in the class asks or answers a question.

Breaking a complex task down into several component parts and assessing one part at a time
◾Assess just that section with formative comments. Chose one single part of a complex procedure. Just practice this part and then either through live marking or written marking give formative comments on how to improve.
◾Live mark. Either verbally or through written prompts or ideally questions mark student wotk as it is being completed.


While metacognition has been on our radar for some time, it is only in the last year that we have made it a teaching and learning priority. You can find a previous blog about it here. As with formative assessment, the evidence that this is a strategy that can potentially have a transformational effect on learning is compelling. However, it is a tricky concept to crystallise for teachers and so has the potential to fall short of this level of impact in practice.

During the summer term I completed an evaluation of where we were with metacognition. This involved three parts: trace observations; questionnaires for teachers who had been specfically working on metacognition as part of their appraisal; questionnaires with curriculum leaders (for which I had done a baseline questionnaire in September).

The results were interesting. The questionnaires revealed that while teacher understanding and use of metacognitive strategies has increased this year, this has not year filtered through to our students. Our teachers are doing a lot different due to their learning around metacogition, but as yet, it seems, this is not having a significant effect on student behaviour. This is then our next big focus as the value in metacognition is all about student behaviour and self-regulation. Our next steps to make this shift are therefore to:

◾Use the language of metacognition with staff, students and parents.

◾Plan, monitor, evaluate

◾Explain the purpose of tasks – a lot.

◾Ask the right questions when we intervene to explicitally teach metacogntive knowledge and regualtion.

◾Teach them the cognitive strategies that we as experts possess.

◾Use the 7‑step model from the EEF guidance report to teach these strategies.

◾Provide scaffolded monitoring activities such as checklists.

◾Build structured reflection time into our curriculum.


At Durrington, we started our whole-school literacy focus based on using explicit vocabulary instruction in November 2017 (which you can read about here). Since the launch, explicit vocabulary instruction has been adopted widely across curriculum areas and we are now confident that all teachers are aware of the link between student success and their breadth and depth of vocabulary knowledge. For example, staff are confident at differentiating between tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary as it is used in different contexts and have made careful decisions about which repertoire of words (and therefore concepts) would most benefit students in the subjects that they teach. Curriculum areas are also embedding vocabulary instruction in lessons through the use of knowledge organisers, which you can read about here.

An area that we have found requires more in-depth CPD is ensuring teachers know the difference between modelling vocabulary when teaching and explicitly instructing students in their own vocabulary use. To support teachers in effectively teaching vocabulary we shared several evidence-informed strategies including the Frayer model, sentence stems and use of morphology and etymology. This has proven to be a successful move as curriculum areas felt able to adopt the practices that best suited their subject pedagogy whilst ensuring that the active ingredients’, or non-negotiables, of vocabulary instruction are consistent across the school.

The next stage of implementation for vocabulary instruction at DHS will involve:

◾All curriculum areas adopting evidence-based practices for vocabulary instruction as part of the daily diet of lessons, including effective use of knowledge organisers;

◾The creation of five-year vocabulary curriculum maps so that vocabulary instruction is planned as part of a progression model. This will help students to strengthen their vocabulary breadth and depth more sustainably through careful, incremental instruction;

◾Better use of formative and summative assessment of vocabulary so that the impact of the literacy strategy can be monitored and evaluated, thus ensuring maximum gains for students.

Cognitive Load Theory and Memory

Cognitive load theory and the research evidence around the role of memory in learning is probably our least visited threshold concept at Durrington at this time. As a teaching staff, there is a clear but somewhat generalised awareness that memory’ is important to learning. This has resulted in some excellent pedagogical practice across curriculum areas, especially in terms of retrieval quizzes, cumulative assesment, use of live modelling and worked examples. However, the reality is that whilst this classroom practice is sound, and certainly something that we wish to see developed and embedded over the next few years, not all of our teachers could articulate why they have put these strategies in place.

As a research school it is important to us that all of our our teachers develop as evidence-informed practitioners so that they can make the best possible decisions for the specific students sat in front of them. With this in mind, our aim over the next year is to deepen our shared understanding of the most influential ideas that underpin cognitive load theory so that every approach and strategy used in a classroom is informed and strengthed by this knowledge base. Key components of this will be the work of John Sweller and his explanations of the types of information held in the working memory: intrinsic load, extrinisc lead and germane load. This in turn will lead to greater appreciation of the negative effects of cognitive overload on learning and how these can be mitigated in the classroom. You can read about the reserach evidence of cognitive load theory that we will be using in this blog by Andy Thaby here.

We are very excited to be setting out on this part of our journey as an evidence-informed school. Guiding our next steps through the framework of threshold concepts means that teachers can benefit from both implementation of the best subject-specific pedagogy as well as a rich understanding of how to increase the effects of of those practices for all students in all lessons.

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