In Michael Carter’s “The Idea of Expertise: An Exploration of Cognitive and Social Dimensions of Writing,” he outlines a late 1980s/early 1990s debate in the field of composition over the value of general versus local knowledge in terms of students becoming “expert” writers.  Pete’s post provides us with a table comparing the elements that make up these two types of knowledge, and since he does an excellent job of summing of the key elements of the article, I won’t rehash it all here.  I will just say that Carter spends about 22 pages to get us to a pluralistic model of knowledge (general to local knowledge = a continuum), which when applied to writing instruction tells us:  “[T]he writers who possess local expertise in a domain must continue to rely on the more general strategies of the competent writer when writing outside that domain” (282)

The article, “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Epistemological Considerations and a Conceptual Framework for Teaching and Learning,” returns us to the concept of threshold concepts that Pete has already written about.

Jan H.F. Meyer and Ray Land revisit a definition of threshold concepts as “conceptual gateways” or “portals” that ultimately lead to a “previously inaccessible” way of thinking about a concept.  “A new way of understanding, interpreting, or viewing something may thus emerge — a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view” (373).  They reiterate that threshold concepts “may be”:

  • transformative
  • irreversible
  • integrative

Meyer and Land describe the “conceptual framework” that they offer up in this article as providing a means of locating “troublesome aspects of disciplinary knowledge within transitions across conceptual thresholds…” (they call this transitional state of not knowing or being “stuck” as “liminal) “and hence to assist teachers in identifying appropriate ways of modifying or redesigning curricula to enable their students to negotiate such epistemological transitions and ontological transformations in a more satisfying fashion for all concerned” (386).  They describe the tension between thresholds and liminality as that between leading a learner toward a “pre-ordained end” (threshold) and unpredictability — the “‘liquid’ space” (liminality).  On account of this, their framework attends to figuring out how/why certain students experience a transformation while in liminal space of learning and others get “stuck.”  To understand these phenomena their framework insists educators take into account “the notion of variation within learning” (380).  Student-centered teaching, they tell us, requires as certain “responsiveness” to “variation in the manner in which students engage with the context and content of learning” (380).

The “emerging framework” that they offer up in this article is really quite general (by their own admission):  “Ultimately of course it is not for us (and we would not wish) to generalize across the varied and complex settings within which discipline-based colleagues might negotiate such transitions in the context of their own institutions and students” (386).  In other words, Meyer and Land see the value of offering up a generalized heuristic or “conceptual framework,” while acknowledging this will be adopted and implemented differently based on the local knowledge of a specific discipline.

While their goal in this piece is not to debate the virtues of general versus local knowledge, as Carter does in “The Idea of Expertise: An Exploration of Cognitive and Social Dimensions of Writing,” Meyer and Land seem to tacitly understand that general to local is a continuum and that both types of knowledge have impact and are, in fact, necessary in an educational space.  Pete puts it this way, “I would say that these problematic concepts represent ones that cannot be understood using only a general knowledge framework.”  Here Pete is referring to threshold concepts when he says “problematic concepts.”  He understands that a pluralistic model is necessary, as do Meyer and Land.

The generalized heuristic is necessary for those “new to a knowledge domain,” as Carter describes novices, in order for them to “gain more and more specific knowledge” (270).  However, “to go beyond competence is to go beyond the reliance on general strategies” (Carter 271) — just as Meyer and Land acknowledge that to help remove problems with teaching threshold concepts we might “create an authentic scenario…that presents an opportunity to think like an economist'” (384).  In other words, to think in a discourse community immersed in the local knowledge of a specific discipline.  I find it interesting that this 2005 piece on the psychology of learning treats as a given what Carter worked very hard to make a case for in 1990.




2 thoughts on “General versus Local Knowledge: The Great Debate

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