Threshold Concepts in A level Photography


  • A level photography
  • Threshold Concepts
  • Critical understanding


What are the key Threshold Concepts in A level photography? Would time spent explicitly discussing them with AS level photography students improve their critical understanding of the subject, helping them to think and behave like artists/photographers?

Research question(s):

  • How well do we teach students how to think and behave like artists/photographers? What does this mean?
  • Do we spend enough time questioning and discussing the nature of the subject? Is this necessary or would it get in the way? Is there sufficient time for this kind of discursive enquiry?
  • How effectively do we ask students to reflect on how they feel about photography, specific examples of photographic practice and the value of photography? Is it possible or appropriate to engage explicitly with aspects of affective, axiological and ontological learning?
  • Does the AS course adequately prepare students for the demands of increased individual study at A2 level?
  • Do we agree in the department about the key threshold concepts in photography? How can we adopt a shared approach to the teaching of threshold concepts in an imaginative and engaging way? What do we think is the benefit of doing this?

Research method(s):

Action research over a period of 1 term, collaborating with a practising artist and including a visit to Tate Britain.

  1. I would undertake an attitudinal survey at the beginning and end of the intervention period in order to establish the extent to which the students felt they had made progress in developing specific habits of mind, particularly the ability to be persistent and reflect critically.
  2. The students and I would create a classroom gallery space entitled ‘What is photography?’ We would nominate works for inclusion in the gallery at the start of each lesson (up to a maximum of 20 images). The criteria for inclusion would be a description by the nominator of the particular reason why the image helped to explicate the title of the exhibition ‘What is photography’? Once we reached 20 images, any new image added to the gallery would have to replace an existing picture. The nominator would propose a rationale for replacement and the class would debate the relative merits of both images before deciding which one to include. These discussions would attempt to draw out some of the threshold concepts so that they could be debated and interrogated by the group. I was open to the idea that the students might want to either challenge and adapt the concepts devised by colleagues or devise new concepts. I would initiate this process by setting the students a home learning assignment over the Christmas holiday which required them to curate an exhibition entitled ‘What is photography?’
  3. In one­-to-­one tutorials I would attempt to engage students in reflecting on the threshold concepts as they related to their own practice. I was particularly interested in supporting students who were seemingly stuck or struggling with a particular concept, what researchers have called a state of liminality. As Glynis Cousin has noted, “Threshold concept research is sited in this space, establishing a dialogue with the students about their struggles to comprehend.” I planned to record examples of these discussions with a representative sample of students.
  4. I would use a sequence of short video extracts over a number of lessons featuring artist photographers exploring their practice.
  5. I would conduct structured interviews with a small group of representative students at the beginning, middle and end of the intervention period. These interviews would attempt to explore issues related to affective (feeling differently), axiological (changed values) and ontological (differently orientated) learning.
  6. I would organise a trip to an art gallery in collaboration with artist Anna Lucas in order to encourage the students to work alongside a contemporary artist, perhaps understanding certain aspects of her practice in relation to light and lens based media.


See attached report. Students appear to have gained a better critical understanding of photography using the Threshold Concepts. Stronger students were able to make explicit refence to them in their evaluative writing. Students tended to develop a clearer sense of their own learning habits, which ones they felt needed more practice but also those which they felt had become stronger. Students tended to have developed a more confident self image (as an artist/photographer) but also a clearer idea of which skills/habits still needed to be developed to further secure this identity. The notion of a “liminal space”, in which students negotiate “troublesome knowledge” linked to one or more threshold concepts, has helped me reflect on my role as a teacher in supporting students’ intellectual, aesthetic and practical development.


Further debate about the most effective way to refine and communicate the Threshold Concepts is needed, hopefully with colleagues in other schools via the new Photopedagogy site. The notion of threshold concepts could form the basis of curriculum development at KS3 and 4.


The triangulation of methods used in this study (student questionnaires, interviews and lesson diary) provided a useful combination of qualitative and quantitative data. However, the scope of the study was too broad and would have benefited from a tighter focus. Subsequent studies could focus on particular Threshold Concepts, for example, using closer analysis of students’ critical understanding through the analysis of their extended writing


  1. Ambrozic, Mara and Vettese, Angela (Ed.) ‘Art as a Thinking Process: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production’ Sternberg Press, 2013
  2. Adams, Robert ‘Why People Photograph’ Aperture, 1994
  3. Cotton, Charlotte ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’ Thames & Hudson, 2004
  4. Bate, David ‘Photography – The Key Concepts’ Bloomsbury, 2009
  5. Bull, Stephen ‘Photography’, Routledge, 2010
  6. Durden, Mark (Ed.) ‘Fifty Key Writers on Photography’ Routledge, 2013
  7. Edwards, Steve ‘Photography – A Very Short Introduction’ Oxford, 2006
  8. Elkins, James ‘Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook for Students’, University of Illinois Press, 2001
  9. Fisher, Elizabeth and Fortnum, Rebecca ‘On Not Knowing – How Artists Think’, 2013
  10. Kelsey, Robin and Stimson, Blake (Ed.) ‘The Meaning of Photography’ Clark Studies in the Visual Arts, Yale University Press, 2008
  11. Szarkowski, John ‘Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960’, Museum of Modern Art, 1984
  12. Shore, Stephen ‘The Nature of Photographs’ Phaidon, 2007
  13. Sontag, Susan ‘On Photography’ Penguin, 1979
  14. Trachtenberg, Alan ‘Classic Essays on Photography’ Leete’s Island Books, 1980
  15. Wells, Liz ‘Photography – A Critical Introduction’ Routledge, 1996
  16. Wells, Liz ‘The Photography Reader’ Routledge, 2003


Leave a Reply