Creating Unicorns and ‘AHA’ Moments in Health and Physical Education (HPE)

Threshold concepts at Rototuna Senior High (RSHS)  have become integral in our course design, we are a senior school with years 11-13 only. The idea of threshold concepts has helped move students (and teachers!) away from course design that is solely focussed on assessment. Not that assessment is a bad word, it is important, however if it is the sole focus students are only engaging in a snapshot of our HPE curriculum area. Assessment and learning needs to be connected in meaningful ways to help students and teachers appreciate the significance and bredith of bodies of knowledge within our learning area. Learning a new skill requires courage; Well being is holistic, Anyone can lead; Whakamana is an everyday activity. These are examples of threshold concepts (AHA moments) for HPE at RSHS. At face value they may seem quite a simple idea to the trained eye of a HPE educator. But to a student who is a novice and brings their own perspectives and experiences of Health and PE these statements can seem quite troublesome. 

What is a Threshold concept? Threshold concepts are basically big conceptual ideas that once are understood (we like to call these AHA moments for the students) it changes the way a person thinks about an idea of learning. Jan Meyer and Ray Land (2003) explain them to be: ‘as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress’. (p1). The idea of students gaining knowledge and understanding of aspects of Health and PE curriculum which will transform the way they view the world is what gets me pretty excited about reading theory around Threshold concepts (gasp, horror!)

Troublesome knowledge? The best place to start is with your curriculum document. What jewels of your curriculum are relevant for your kura (school)? What do your students struggle to understand when it comes to Health and Physical Education bodies of knowledge? Unpacking these jewels and troublesome knowledge is important as it guides your local curriculum design with your programs. 

Schwartzman (2010)  points out that ‘real learning requires stepping into the unknown, which initiates a rupture in knowing’ (p.38). This is exactly what needs to happen within a threshold concept approach to teaching and learning. Pushing the student into a space where they are having to be uncomfortable and curious. Using James Nottingham (2007) learning pit design as an example below you can see how a student can move through the stages of threshold concept learning. Threshold concept and different learning provocations are put to the student. For example in TC ‘anyone can lead’ students may look at different articles, people, roles around leadership concepts and see if they can put together a leadership profile from commonalities/tends they might see. However the teacher will then push them (figuratively) into the learning pit by applying some cognitive conflict. This might be for students that they might not see themselves as a leader. For students this is troublesome because for them to truly understand that anyone can lead then they must see themselves as leaders. The issue we have found in the learning pit is that students hate it (shock, horror) and sometimes as reflective practitioners we take that as a means to give them a leg up to get out of the pit by changing the approach to the learning because it feels unsuccessful or messy. Instead of embracing the push back from students and using dispositions to equip them with skills to handle the uncomfortable learning space. An example of this in our kura is using our CLOAK values. One of our C dispositions is ‘challenging our mindset’. By incorporating this disposition within the learning environment it has equipped students with skills to help guide them through the learning pit.

TCs have an integrative quality to them in that once the student comes to the liminal space (they are now climbing of the pit) the idea that only once a threshold is crossed will the learner be able to access other, more sophisticated learning because the door has now been opened. For example once they get that ‘AHA’ moment of anyone can lead then their view of leadership changes. They are open to new ideas and ways of thinking and they are transformative in the way they can apply this new idea. Imagine what your local future community would look like if you were breeding these unicorns of threshold bandits that could go forth and make change in the way we view leadership in the workforce? CEOs, Mcdonald’s managers, teachers, doctors, librarians etc etc that have a view that anyone can lead. The impact will be something special. 

How to create a Threshold concept? 

Unicorns. Threshold concept design for teaching and learning has definitely been a learning experience for myself and my team. I have sat ‘deeeeep’ within the learning pit numerous times going in circles between the curriculum document, what we value within our kura for teaching and learning in health and physical education and the constraints of assessment. However I have experienced ‘AHA’ moments which keep the traction going in the ever evolving design of our local curriculum. The most important thing to take away is that your learning design should not centre around assessment. But focus the jewels of your local curriculum and the significant learning that we have within HPE. I like to think that threshold concepts help us identify our jewels of the curriculum and assessment gives us an indication of students understanding. Remember to also celebrate the AHA moments when students reach them! I believe every AHA moment represents a new unicorn being born. That unicorn and new way of viewing the world will transform future thinking in your communities!

Nga Mihi

Amy Kaukau

Poutiaki (Leader of Learning) Health and Physical Education

Rototuna Senior High

Hamilton, NZ

This microblog post was a featured post in #slowchathealth’s #microblogmonth event. You can search for all of the featured posts here. Please do follow each of the outstanding contributors on social media (including Amy Kaukau, the author of this post) and consider writing a microblog post of your own to be shared with the global audience of

Pair this post with the following:

A Poem About Stories by Amy Dawson

Mental Health ≠ Mental Illness by Georgia Dougherty

2 thoughts on “Creating Unicorns and ‘AHA’ Moments in Health and Physical Education (HPE)

  1. Pingback: Ubuntu in Education: Conflict & Compromise – #slowchathealth

  2. Pingback: 21st Century Learners’ – #slowchathealth

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