Inspecting the Frame: The Draft Information Literacy Framework, Pt. 1

Posted on 11 December 2014 at 6:34 pm in Musings.

I came out as a supporter of the ACRL’s Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education’s central and somewhat controversial tenet — threshold concepts — earlier this fall. I promised “more on this soon,” but as is often the case, the fall academic semester was too busy a time for me to write down and publish my thoughts. But Friday, December 12 is the deadline for public comments on the third draft, which has prompted me to reflect more deeply on the Framework.

Post and Beam Barn

Threshold Concept Theory

I acknowledge that many of my peers, whose opinions I respect, are concerned about the foundation of threshold concept theory. Threshold concepts are “those ideas in any discipline that are passageways or portals to enlarged understanding or ways of thinking and practicing within that discipline” (ACRL, 2014). According to educational theorists Jan Meyer and Ray Land, threshold concepts exhibit four characteristics within their disciplines: they are transformative, changing the perspective of the learner; integrative, connecting different aspects of the discipline to each other; irreversible, once learned, never unlearned (much like riding a bike); and troublesome, sometimes difficult to grasp for discipline outsiders or the cause of reflection (Meyer, Land, & Baillie, 2008).

I have seen concerns about university faculty responses to the theory of threshold concepts, and the difficulty librarians may have in explaining it. In response I have a suggestion. When presenting these ideas to faculty, use the threshold concepts that have been identified for their own disciplines as examples and analogies for the information literacy threshold concepts identified by ACRL. These examples will resonate much more strongly with their own experience as teachers and learners. There has been substantial research into threshold concepts for a wide range of academic disciplines, both by Meyer and Land themselves, and by other educational theorists exploring the idea. Merinda Kaye Hensley referred me to a useful bibliography that will guide you to many of them.

For example, when I explained threshold concepts to our chair of Math and Sciences, a biology professor, I used Meyer and Land’s example of a threshold concept for biology: the testable hypothesis. Once a student understands the idea of the testable hypothesis, and how the entire practice of biological sciences are built on this core concept, the discipline itself is clearer and easier to understand. This seemingly simple concept underpins the entire world of science, and if a student grasps the range of implications of the testable hypothesis, it is not something they can simply unlearn. It’s not a miscellaneous fact, easily misplaced by memory; it’s a method of practice. It sticks. It alters how they perceive science and how they learn it.

Connecting the Dots

Part of my growing enthusiasm for the new framework derives from connecting the dots between the identified threshold concepts and the work we already do at my institution. Over the past couple of years my colleague Nicole Branch and I developed a curriculum map for our undergraduate information literacy instruction based on the ACRL Standards. We provide a series of scaffolded one-shot workshops integrated into our university curriculum at different levels in the hopes that students will have the information skills they need at each point in their education.

After each workshop, we track our work using an instructor’s survey. This creates an institutional record of our work. Starting this year, we added the threshold concepts to these surveys; for each workshop we lead, we identify on a scale which threshold concepts were addressed and to what degree. We also rank the addressed ACRL Standards in the same way. We have a similar (but less nuanced) scale for our reference interactions.

We are trying to capture how well our existing instruction and reference services already address the elements in the new framework. So far, we’ve found so much of what we already do is reflected in the threshold concepts. We have also found significant, consistent connectivity between certain Standards and Threshold Concepts. In other words, the new framework is not as abrupt a departure from the previous Standards as it appears on first glance, but rather it’s an evolution.

Shifting the Conversation

However, even if you are a threshold concept skeptic, I suggest the debate about their scientific validity is a distraction from what we should really be focusing on: the content of the frames themselves. How well do they represent the academic discipline of information literacy? If these six frames can successfully inform our practice as educators, whether or not they genuinely represent this wider notion of “threshold concepts” (and whether the theory of threshold concepts itself is valid) is not entirely relevant. We’ve been making do with the existing information literacy standards published in 2000, and I certainly don’t believe that those static, binary descriptors (“the information literate student is…”) are reflective of the students we work with or their learning needs. The Framework is a far more flexible document that comes much closer to capturing the complex and evolving world of information and scholarly communications, whatever you think of threshold concepts as an educational theory.

Again, I believe the questions we should be asking — the ones that will actually affect our practice — are about the content of the specific frames, not the overarching threshold concept theory. So in Part 2 of this post, I will delve into the Framework more deeply, compare some of the changes between the 2nd and 3rd drafts, and share the comments on the third draft I intend to submit.

Correction: The original version of this post inaccurately described Kevin Michael Klipfel’s post on faculty response to threshold concepts. I apologize for the error and recommend reading his perspective on the subject:


  1. Comment by Emma on December 12, 2014 at 8:17 am.

    Love this post. Although personally I’m a threshold concept fan, I’m completely with you that we shouldn’t be getting bogged down in a TC “do-they-don’t-they-exist” debate. This is what matters:

    “The Framework is a far more flexible document that comes much closer to capturing the complex and evolving world of information and scholarly communications, whatever you think of threshold concepts as an educational theory.”

    Thank you so much for helping to clarify my thinking around the importance of what ACRL has done in making this significant shift!

  2. Comment by Daniel Ransom on December 12, 2014 at 9:38 am.

    Thank you! I feel like the “threshold concept” debate has become a distraction from the more important question: does this document do a better job of informing and supporting information literacy instruction? And I would say that it does.

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