Threshold concepts in RE – or the bits that hurt the brain


I’ve been reading blogs and watching videos on threshold concepts (TC) to see how they might work in RE.

Having listened to Dylwyn Hunt at the NATRE conference and virtual discussion with Alan Brine, I’m building up a picture of what these might be in RE.

As part of my responsibility as Head of RE to create a new assessment system in my school I have looked at the GCSE content that has been released by the DfE. Whilst new GCSE specifications have not yet been released this isn’t a problem for content. They have to stick to this. I have used these to start thinking about the study of religion & what our threshold concepts might be.

To save me re-interpreting, I think that both Alex Quigley & David Didau explain them well in their blogs so check them first (links below).

My interpretation ( of which I’m happy for people to critique) is that in the study of religions, threshold concepts are those that hold the ‘key’ to understanding a part of the religion. Without grasping this belief, idea or concept the rest of the religion or at least part of it, doesn’t make sense.

I will give a simple example. I was teaching year 7 about the crucifixion of Jesus and then going on to the idea of salvation. In the middle of the video ( recapping the story) a student called out “oh, I didn’t realise he came alive again”. The class groaned and I admit I had a giggle. However since then I’ve been considering the idea of threshold concepts I think this may be one. If you don’t understand the resurrection of Jesus then you won’t be able to understand many other aspects of Christianity including resurrection of humans at Judgement, the idea of salvation and at a basic level why Jesus was different from other humans. So, the resurrection of Jesus is, I think, a threshold concept in RE.

I think that RE’s threshold concepts are different to those say in Maths or science. We have the added complication that some of these threshold concepts are beliefs. They aren’t taught to students as being ‘true’ ( unless in a faith school). This gives them an added dimension as we’re often asking students to consider concepts that may be beyond their logic or imagination. We’re asking them to try to understand ideas that even some members of the religion may struggle to fully understand. If we take the scientific threshold concept of gravity, then students can ‘see’ gravity in action, they can do experiments, they can ‘see’ the concept. In a way they have to believe these TCs are true to move on. But in RE we’re not asking them to believe in the TCs but to understand why others might and the implication of the beliefs on their lives. We often have to teach TCs that go against a student’s instinct; in some cases against their social & cultural experience of life. I think that whilst all TCs are tough for students to grapple with, RE has an added dimension that will challenge them further.

Recently I’ve had another encounter where I think TCs have come into play. I’m teaching the idea of ‘commitment’ in Sikhism and have looked at the symbols of a member of the Khalsa that show commitment; the 5 ks. My aim when teaching these is to try to ensure students understand the symbolism and the importance of this over the object/action itself. However this is where the ‘troublesome’ aspects of TCs come in.

Students find it very difficult to grasp that the thing itself isn’t what they think it is. Culturally they know a knife is either for food in the kitchen or to attack; they may not have considered a knife as symbolic for being strong and defining beliefs in the abstract. They obsess about ‘accidentally’ being stabbed with it. With the ‘uncut hair’ instead of focussing on it being a gift from God and as a reminder of commitment, students focus on the social aspects of not cutting/shaving hair. I can almost see their minds whizz through all the possibilities? They leave armpit hair? They don’t shave their legs? What if a woman has a beard?All of these comments come out. I don’t mind as I think it’s important for them to understand how the commitment may be particularly tough.

Whilst discussing potential problems with the 5ks however one student asked ” But what about if they’re bald?” Now this shows me that he clearly hasn’t understood. If hair is from God, than so is no hair. If he had understood the ‘reminder of commitment to God’ aspect then I don’t think he would have said this. He couldn’t get over why this question was not needed. He really wanted an answer. Without writing a single word I knew he hadn’t understood this TC. His understanding of commitment in Sikhism will be limited until he does.

After this class I rethought how I could teach this lesson ( I repeat it with 3 groups). It changed how I taught. I put my effort into deliberately teaching how to understand this TC. I think it worked.

So in RE a student’s cultural and social experience will limit their understanding of TCs. I think it is my job to try to get them to recognise this and think outside of these norms they’ve been brought up with.

One issue that Ray Land highlights with TCs is when students refer to them whether they’ve truly understood or are they just repeating the words of the teacher. I think in some cases students will just copy what I’ve said was correct and it may not necessarily reflect their understanding. This is why it is important to get students to show their understanding of the TCs in another context or asking them to somehow synthesise this learning. In my case I will be setting them a generic question about Sikhism in which their understanding of the TCs we’ve covered will be clear.

So I’m using the GCSE content to identify where I think the TCs are in each religion and how they might be taught. My aim is that the GCSE content will be also used in KS3 and that the key TCs for the religions taught at KS4 have a good foundation at KS3.


Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge – Implications for Assessment
Professor Ray Land, Durham University, UK


Alex Quigley

David Didau


Click to access ETLreport4.pdf


4 thoughts on “Threshold concepts in RE – or the bits that hurt the brain

  1. Interesting. Do you think the TC changes as a student gets older. So by the end of primary school there is a particular TC they need to have mastered to prepare them for KS3. Also do you think there are some TCs that are only appropriate a certain age? So you might expect a Year 9 student to understand a particular TC but it might be a stretch for Year 7 or 8 – they might need a stepping stone TC to prepare them for the main TC in Year 9?

    • Yes kind of. However what threshold and what age I’m not sure of, particularly as I only teach secondary and have no idea what younger students can comprehend.However it doesn’t need to be age linked as we get ourselves into a new issue which reflects what levels did;labelling students. My current thinking is to find out ‘do they get it or not?’, then teach accordingly.

      Great questions which I really need to ponder further

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