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Visualising Threshold Concepts in Social Care through the Semiotic Lens of Inquiry Graphics: Developing Threshold Graphics

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

  • Denise Mac Giolla Ri
Publication date22/02/2023
Number of pages247
Awarding Institution
Award date22/02/2023
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


This study applied the recent concept of 'threshold graphics' (Lackovic, 2020) and developed it further in the context of professional social-care education. Threshold graphics are pictorial images selected and analysed by a learning community for critical and deep thinking about threshold concepts across disciplines (ibid.).
Many studies of threshold concepts (TCs) have followed the seminal work in this field by Meyer and Land (2003). However, there is a scarcity of studies that research the teaching of TCs in depth through pictorial images such as photographs, other than Lackovic (2020). This study addresses this gap, building on the concept of 'threshold graphics' (Lackovic, 2020): it develops a unique threshold graphics classification for the field of social care. The key novelty of the threshold graphics approach applied in this thesis is that it embeds inquiry graphics theory and method, based on semiotics (how signs of communication make meaning to learners).
An inquiry graphics analysis was applied, which is, in principle, a photo-elicitation method that integrates inquiry graphics. The method was applied to 45 participants, including students, graduates and educators at Irish higher education institutions, within the programme in social-care education. Four researcher-provided photographs and varying numbers of participant-provided images were analysed by the participants in semi-structured interviews at various locations across Ireland. Of the 45 people who participated, 27 educators taught various subjects on social-care programmes, including knowledge contributors or those who had researched and published in social care. Six students were currently in a level 7 or 8 social care programme, and 12 graduates had a level 7 or 8 social care qualification and were working in social care. NVivo™ software provided a platform for a mix of thematic and inquiry graphics analysis guided by the following research questions:
(1) What ‘threshold concepts (TCs)’ are identified within social care subjects, by three key user groups (lecturers (knowledge contributors), current students and graduates), via an ‘inquiry graphics’ photo-elicitation research method?
(2) How is an 'inquiry graphics’ (IG) & ‘threshold graphics' visual teaching method evaluated by lecturers, graduates and students with regard to learning ‘threshold concepts’ and overcoming ‘troublesome knowledge’?
(3) How is visual content related to the conceptual meaning of TCs when applying IG in both research methods and teaching contexts? What does that mean for teaching and learning threshold concepts with images (as an approach to threshold graphics)?
(4) What does this experience and method tell us about how we think about concepts and images?
The researcher identified the overarching threshold concept of Self-Other in social-care education, 14 threshold concepts (TCs) and 80 integral concepts (ICs). The introduction of integral concepts (ICs) is one of the key innovations of this study, offering an original perspective that threshold concepts are broad, overarching concepts that underpin disciplines and represent a larger field of knowledge that students often struggle with – they embed many integral concepts, which are integral to TC development and represent more concrete but also troublesome concepts. Threshold and integral concepts form a rhizomatic concept network. This network helps our understanding of how concepts in a domain (here: social care) are not standalone entities but form connections with and between themselves and threshold concepts (TCs) within a wider rhizomatic network of disciplinary concepts, programmes, learners’ and teachers’ experiences and interpretations. This conceptualisation builds on the proposition that concepts are complex, ever-growing interpretative entities called 'rhizomatic concepts' or 'concept-rhizomes' (Lackovic, 2020). Their meanings branch depending on the interrelations of learners' and teachers' interpretations (of studied concept resources), experiences and the given context where threshold graphics are applied.
The inquiry graphics photo-elicitation method was found to be effective in accessing the troublesomeness of concepts and for the exploration of their meaning through reflective engagement and active analysis by participants of visual signs in images. The threshold graphics method applied is a critical visual, pedagogical and analytical tool in higher education pedagogy, not just in social care but beyond it. The study suggests that it has significant potential as a teaching and learning approach, as it can reveal troublesomeness, and offer new interpretations of and perspectives on social-care concepts. However, it is recommended that educators receive specific educational training regarding an inquiry graphics approach and analysis skills, especially the process of selecting images (by a student and/or an educator), providing emotional support, tackling time restraints and working with large/small groups that can present challenges for implementation.
The findings contribute to our knowledge in conceptual learning. In particular, it advances our knowledge of how concepts are formed through pictorial images and, therefore, adds to the specific fields of: higher education teaching and learning as an umbrella field, threshold concepts, visual semiotics/learning in education, inquiry and threshold graphics and social-care education as domain-specific knowledge. The findings can inform future threshold concept studies by addressing how troublesome concepts interconnect and underpin threshold concepts to form rhizomatic networks and how they can be investigated through pictorial images, an area which is mostly under-recognised, under-researched and unacknowledged. The study can also inform a comprehensive design and methodological approach to planning and teaching social-care programmes as well as related disciplines. Further research could investigate, evaluate and develop threshold graphics in other disciplines and with other pictorial media, such as videos, illustrations, diagrams, paintings, and sketches of infographics.