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Troublesome Knowledge and Faculty Professional Learning

by Dr. Sarah Lohnes Watulak, Director of Digital Pedagogy and Media

In this OLC Innovate session, Dr. Lorna Gonzalez and Christopher Ozuna called out the ways in which those of us involved in faculty professional learning (a term I prefer to faculty development) sometimes take a deficit perspective of faculty learners, which positions the learner as deficient, focusing on what learners don’t know and what learners are not yet able to do. They introduced the troublesome knowledge framework as a way to help us interrogate, and reframe, the key concepts and strategies that we use to help faculty build knowledge and skills in digital pedagogy. According to Gonzalez and Ozuna, the troublesome knowledge framework “helps to avoid labeling faculty as part of the problem and gives us language to describe which parts of learning to teach online are inherently troublesome.” (This phrasing reminded me of Universal Design for Learning’s focus on the barriers to learning being present in the curriculum, rather than in the learner.)

The concept of troublesome knowledge was introduced by Perkins (1999), who described 5 types of troublesome knowledge: ritual, inert, conceptually difficult, foreign, tacit. (To find out more about these types of troublesome knowledge, check out the companion website created for the presentation.) To give one example, ritual knowledge is that which is “ingrained, routine, habitual.” The path we take through a website, the routine we use to set up a quiz in the LMS, these are common forms of ritual knowledge. Pedagogical knowledge can also become ritualized; for example, faculty for whom the lecture has become “ingrained, routine, habitual” may wish to transfer that ritual from one context to another – from the in-person classroom, to Zoom.

I was intrigued enough by the troublesome knowledge framework that I spent some time after the session going down the rabbit hole, where I found a related idea: threshold concepts, which are concepts that are gateways to understanding the foundations or fundamentals of a particular discipline. Threshold concepts can be, in and of themselves, troublesome knowledge – an idea which has significant implications, in that the very concepts that can unlock understanding are often the ones that are the most difficult to understand. Using the troublesome knowledge framework, allows us to identify what about the knowledge itself that might pose a challenge, and identify solutions for helping faculty to overcome that particular barrier. It also provides a framework for evaluating our learning materials and approaches; for example, we might ask, what are some concepts within good practices or principles for online course design that we have shared in our web resources, which are perhaps not explicitly or clearly explained to faculty? Which of these ideas are threshold concepts? What kind of troublesome knowledge do those concepts represent, and how might we best help faculty grapple with the concepts, based on their knowledge type?