Threshold Concepts, LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® and whole systems thinking: towards a combined methodology

Graham Barton, Alison James


This paper sets out a methodology for enhancing student and curriculum engagement with Threshold Concepts (Meyer and Land 2003; 2006) and associated notions of liminality (Land, R., Rattray, J., Vivian, P., 2014) across a range of disciplinary fields. The methodology builds closely on application techniques developed in LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®, the evolution of which is informed by systemic views of, for example, organizational and strategic leadership, and systems theories such as Complex Adaptive Systems (Oliver and Roos, 2000). In recent years, we, and others, have adapted this methodology for use in educational settings, particularly as a vehicle for metaphorical exploration of dimensions of learning associated with professional and personal development (James, 2013; Gauntlett, 2011). Illustrating such approaches through exploratory practice undertaken with students at the University of the Arts London, we describe how they can be used to explore further dimensions of student learning: the models built in LEGO® offer mediating artefacts (Vygotsky, 1930/1978; Engeström, 1999) for mapping the epistemological terrain of a discipline, for supporting student learning of threshold concepts, and in particular for creating representative constructions to help learners negotiate liminality. The paper continues with a conceptual analysis of these experiences; through evaluating the methodology and theoretical context described, the paper suggests an emerging rationale for locating the Threshold Concepts Framework within a whole systems view of disciplinarity, and for using LEGO®-based activities to engage learners and practitioners with this view in potentially generative ways.

Full Text:



Allen, B. (2014). Creativity as threshold: learning and teaching in a liminal space. In C O'Mahony (Ed.), Threshold Concepts: From Personal Practice to Communities of Practice, Proceedings of the National Academy's Sixth Annual Conference and the Fourth Biennial Threshold Concepts Conference. Cork: NAITRL

Allwright, D. (2005). Developing Principles for Practitioner Research: the Case for Exploratory Practice. Modern Language Journal, 89(3), 353-366.

Anonymous blogger from UAL SUARTS (2014). Managing stuckness - LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® [Online] Retrieved 27th June 2014 from:

Arnheim, R. (1969). Visual thinking. Berkeley: University of California Press

Bateson, G. (1972). Steps Into an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine

Baumann, Z. (2000). Liquid modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Biggs, J., & Collis, K. (1982). Evaluating the Quality of Learning: the SOLO taxonomy. New York: Academic Press.

Checkland, P., & Poulter, J. (2006). Learning for Action: A Short Definitive Account of Soft Systems Methodology and its Use, for Practitioners, Teachers and Students. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons Ltd.

Claxton, G. (2014). School as an epistemic apprenticeship: the case of building learning power. Infancia y Aprendizaje: Journal for the Study of Education and Development. 37(2), 227-247. doi: 10.1080/02103702.2014.929863.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial.

Engeström, Y. (1999). Activity theory and individual and social transformation. In Y. Engeström, R. Miettinen, & R - L. Punamäki (Eds.), Perspectives on Activity Theory, pp. 19-38. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Forrester, J. (1961). Industrial dynamics. Massachusetts: M.I.T Press.

Gauntlett, D. (2007). Creative explorations: new approaches to identities and audiences. Abingdon & New York: Routledge.

Gauntlett, D. (2011). Making is Connecting: The Social meaning of Creativity, from DIY and Knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0. Cambridge: Polity.

Gourlay, L. (2009). Threshold practices: becoming a student through academic literacies, London Review of Education, 7(2), 181-192. doi: 10.1080/14748460903003626

Groundwater-Smith, S. (2013). Transforming Disciplines: Emergent learning and threshold concepts: a post-conference commentary. Retrieved 2 July 2014 from:

Illeris, K. (2007). How we learn: learning and non-learning in school and beyond. London: Routledge.

Illeris, K. (2014). Transformative learning and identity Abingdon: Routledge.

James, A. (2013). LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®: A three-dimensional approach to learning development. Journal for Learning Development in HE, 6. Retrieved from ldhe&page=article&op=view&path%5B%5D=208

James, A. (2014). Learning in three dimensions: using LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® for creative and critical reflection across time and space. In P. Layne & P. Lake (Eds.), Global Innovation of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Transgressing Boundaries, pp. 275-294. London: Springer. doi: 10.1007/9783-319-10482-9

James, A., & Brookfield, S. (2014). Engaging Imagination: helping students become creative and reflective thinkers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Keefer, J. (2014). My metaphor of the liminal black box via Lego Serious Play Available from: [Accessed 16 October 2014]

Kinchin, I. (2008). The qualitative analysis of concept maps: Some unforeseen consequences and emerging opportunities. Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Concept Mapping, 22-28 September 2008. Tallinn, Estonia and Helsinki, Finland. Retrieved 2 July 2014 from:

Kristiansen, P., & Rasmussen, R. (2014). Build a better business with the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® Method. New Jersey: Wiley

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Land, R. (2012). A Closer Look at Liminality: incorrigibles and threshold capital. Keynote Presentation, Fourth Biennial Conference on Threshold Concepts: From personal practice to communities of practice, Trinity College, Dublin, 28-29 June 2012. [On-line video recording]. Retrieved 2 July 2014 from:

Land, R., Rattray, J., & Vivian, P. (2014). Learning in the liminal space: a semiotic approach to threshold concepts, Higher Education, 67(2), 199-217.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social. New York: Oxford University Press.

Latour, B. (1996). On actor-network theory: A few clarifications Soziale Welt Jahrg., H.4, pp.369-381. Retrieved 2 July 2014 from:

Lea, M., & Street, B. (2006). The “Academic Literacies” Model: Theory and applications. Theory into Practice, 45(4), 368-377.

Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2005). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning, Higher Education, 49(3), 373-388.

Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2006). Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. New York: Routledge.

Meyer, J, H, F., & Timmermans, J. (2014). Integrated Threshold Concept Knowledge. Opening plenary presentation at the 5th International Biennial Threshold Concepts Conference, 9-11 July 2014, Durham University, UK.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Nolan, S. (2010). Physical Metaphorical Modelling with LEGO as a Technology for Collaborative Personalised Learning. In J. O'Donoghue (Ed.), Technology-supported Environments for Personalized Learning: Methods and Case Studies, pp. 364-385. Hershey: New York: Information Science Reference.

Oliver, D., & Roos, J. (2000). Striking a balance: Complexity and knowledge landscapes. London: McGraw-Hill.

Osmond, J. (2009). Stuck in the bubble: Identifying Threshold Concepts in Design Dialogues in Art and Design: Promoting and Sharing Excellence, In GLAD Conference Proceedings, 21-22 October, pp. 131-135. York St John University: UK

Papert, S. (1999). Papert on Piaget. [Online]. Retrieved 17 June 2013 from:

Papert, S., & Harel I (1991). Situating Constructionism. [Online]. Retrieved 25 October 2013 from: First published in Papert, S and Harel, I (1991) Constructionism. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Rowbottom, D. P. (2007). Demystifying threshold concepts. Journal of Philosophy of

Education, 41(2), 263–70.

Savin-Baden, M. (2008). Liquid learning and Troublesome Spaces: journeys from the threshold? In R. Land, J. H. F. Meyer & J, Smith (Eds.),Threshold concepts within the disciplines, pp.75-88. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Schwartzman, L. (2010). Transcending Disciplinary Boundaries: A Proposed Theoretical Foundation for Threshold Concepts. In J. H. F, Meyer, R. Land & C. Baillie (Eds.), Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning, pp.21-44. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Sibbett, C., & Thompson, W. (2008, June 18–20). Nettlesome knowledge and threshold concepts in higher education, organizational and professional cultures. Paper presented at the 2nd International Conference on Threshold Concepts, Threshold Concepts: From Theory to Practice, Kingston, Ontario: Canada.

Sterling, S. (2003). Whole Systems Thinking as a Basis for Paradigm Change in Education: explorations in the context of sustainability (PhD thesis). Bath: Centre for Research in Education and the Environment, University of Bath. Retrieved 3rd July 2014 from:

Stibbe, A. (2010-11). Identity reflection: students and societies in transition, in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, (5) [Online]. Retrieved 2nd February 2014 from:

Taleb, N. (2012). Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. London: Penguin.

Varela, F., Thompson, E., & Rosch, E. (1991). The Embodied Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner & E. Souberman., Eds.) (A. R. Luria, M. Lopez-Morillas & M. Cole [with J. V. Wertsch], Trans.) Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. (Original manuscripts [ca. 1930-1934])

Warburton, K. (2003). Deep learning and education for sustainability. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 4(1), 44–56.

Wood, J. (2008). Changing the change: a fractal framework for Metadesign. [Online] London: Goldsmiths College. Retrieved 5th July 2014 from:


  • There are currently no refbacks.