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How to Cheat at Teaching

(These notes are based on the presentation on 28 March 09; see the bottom of the page for a link to the slides)

“Cheat” is used in the same sense as Delia Smith uses it in “How to Cheat at Cooking” (2008). Life is too short to peel a tomato (but if you must, plunge it into boiling water for a few seconds first) when you can buy excellent cans of peeled tomatoes. It’s not cheating, it’s just a sensible use of time.

That would seem to imply that the best way of cheating at teaching is to use resources which have already been developed for you by someone else (or ones which you prepared earlier). That is of course part of what you have already been looking at in this series of Study Days. But it works only up to a point. The resources have to suit you and your students; so they can rarely be used straight out of the box.

Another strategy is to target your teaching where it will do most good. There are many approaches to deciding how to do that.

One of them, familiar to those of you working in the health field, is “triage”. That is learner-focused; who are the students with whom can I stimulate the most progress or achievement, and who are those with whom am I wasting my time (or who don’t need me in the first place)?

Another is the “Pareto Principle” or the 80/20 rule. (Note that it does not apply in all circumstances, but it does seem to apply to teaching.) This is focused on the content of teaching rather than on the learners. The principle suggests that in many areas of practice we can achieve 80% of what we set out to get, with 20% of the total effort. But of course the remaining 20% of what we want soaks up the remaining 80% of our effort. Even so, doesn’t it make sense to put our effort into teaching those parts of the curriculum which will generate most change?

Much of the time we concentrate on just “getting through the syllabus” without prioritising the material. Over the years, in every discipline, we (in the broadest sense of the “educational community”) have developed what some commentators aptly call a “stuffed curriculum”. But what if there were some topics in your discipline which were not simply “important”, but transformative?

“Transformative” in the sense that they change for ever the way you see the subject. They open up new perspectives; they make sense of ideas; new material “falls into place” with their aid. But without them you will be forever going through the motions of understanding, without really “getting” it. You might even get qualified in the discipline and not get some of it until much later after years in practice.

What are these miraculous topics and why have we never heard of them before? You have of course heard of them. They are your stock in trade. There is nothing radically new here—just a call to focus on this good stuff, and a claim that the rest will follow.

Research in this area began formally about seven years ago, but of course experienced teachers have been playing with these ideas and using them to great effect since the ancient Greeks and earlier.

What is new is the recognition that these topics share certain characteristics and that we can set about looking for them, teaching and assessing them, in a systematic way.

First, these topics are not just “concepts” or intellectual ideas. They were first described as such, because the researchers were concentrating on higher education; but your predecessors last year drew our attention (and via an international conference and the web, that of colleagues across the world) to the fact that concrete practices—sheer skills—can have threshold qualities. And then that some overall perspectives, which may not even be provably “true” but focus thinking in particular directions, have the same qualities. Hence our current language of “threshold topics”.

Second, the topics are embedded in your own disciplines. It takes both an intimate knowledge of your subject or discipline, and an ability to stand back from it and to put yourself in the position of a newcomer, to detect the topics. Outsiders, such as teacher educators, can’t just make a snap judgement of what is or is not a threshold topic. So although we gave some examples in the plenary, you won’t find a list here.

Third, threshold topics are often precisely where learners get stuck. Sometimes they are simply hard to understand, like calculus (calculus is a technique, but the threshold topic is being able to think in terms of a variation in a rate of variation…) Sometimes they just run counter to “common sense”; “price has nothing to do with the cost of production? Rubbish!” “So you are saying that the fact that someone’s legs don’t work is not a disability? Come on!” Sometimes they have knock on effects. “OK, if a disabled person is the expert on her own problems, where does that leave me? Why am I training to be an occupational therapist?” They make learners think differently not only about their work or area of study, but also about themselves.

·   Washing hands in a professional context is one powerful threshold topic, which shares elements of concept, skill and perspective. It’s a menial, trivial task; it is patronising to teach how is should be done, and yet? Semmelweiss (look him up); MRSA, C. difficile, and why doctors may be more part of the problem than the solution… Look at the issues trailing in its wake!

Fourth, once you have grasped a threshold topic, it’s hard to imagine what it is like not to know it or be able to perform it. Do you remember what it was like not to be able to read? But you have to step back to that state in order to empathise with an adult literacy student. Ditto how to hold a hammer… They rapidly become utterly taken-for-granted, to the extent that we sometimes forget even to mention some topics which are actually critical to a developing understanding. Why do colleges insist so explicitly that you cover “healthandsafety” first in every course. (Yes, partly because they are afraid of being sued, but also…) Because some of it is so obvious we might forget. (The status of “healthandsafety” as a threshold topic is problematic, incidentally. It isn’t; managing risk is.)

And finally for now, the “threshold” descriptor comes from the similarity to passing through a doorway, on the other side of which you can now see many new aspects of your discipline or area of practice. It’s not the only doorway. Every discipline includes many such doorways, but on the other side of each is a brave new world, which makes more sense because you have come to it through that doorway. And because it makes more sense, it is easier to learn about it.

And if students put their effort into these threshold topics, difficult though they sometimes are, they learn more effectively and confidently.


Smith D (2008) Delia’s How to Cheat at Cooking (revised edn.) London; Ebury Press


To reference this page copy and paste the text below:
ATHERTON J S (2010) Support site for University of Bedfordshire PCE programme:   [On-line] UK: Available:  Accessed:

(Note that if you are using Internet Explorer, and it is doing its "nanny" thing, the full reference will not display. There will be a bar across the top of the screen advising you of "blocked content". Click on it and select "Allow blocked content" and confirm in the pop-up box. I know it's a pain, but we're stuck with it.)

Original material © James Atherton: last up-dated 9 January 2008

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