Threshold Concepts in GCSE Photography


  • Year 10 GCSE mixed ability Photography class
  • 3 year GCSE course
  • Large, mixed comprehensive school in South East London


This Action Research study is concerned with the big ideas (Threshold Concepts) in Photography and how they might be meaningfully integrated into a programme of study for GCSE students. I was also interested in the tension between course content and depth of study and how best to encourage my students to think and behave like artists/photographers.

Research question(s):

If I develop a mini project focused on Threshold Concepts with my Year 10 photography class, will they become more persistent and imaginative, better able to stick with difficulty, make connections and play with possibilities?

Research method(s):

  • Action Research (approximately 12 weeks)
  • Beginning and ending student questionnaires
  • Evaluation of students’ ePortfolio documentation and quality of creative outcomes
  • Interviews with a sample of students

This mini project focused on one photographer’s practice (Saul Leiter) including a trip to see an exhibition of his images (March 2016). I identified the key Threshold Concepts relevant to the enquiry. I planned to encourage students to photograph ‘In the style of…’, developing and refining their images over a longer period than previously. I intended to explore imaginative research strategies with students ­ wondering, asking interesting questions, making connections etc. I was interested in exploring with the students the difference between copying (inauthentic) and inspiration (authentic influence). For example, I was keen to share Saul Leiter’s own influences and connections to work of other artists/photographers, including his own work as a painter and its influence on his photography. As well as using questionnaires for the whole class at the beginning and end of the project, I selected a small group of students (representing a range of abilities, talents and levels of interest in photography) who I interviewed about their experience, asking them a set of standard questions:

  • What have you found challenging in this project?
  • What do you think you have been taught about photography?
  • Where do you find good ideas for photography projects?
  • How do you know when you are working successfully in photography?
  • What questions do you still have about photography?


See attached report for full details. To summarise:

Spending a longer period of time exploring the work of a single photographer’s practice (in the context of a scheme of work on abstraction in photography) yielded greater confidence in disciplinary sub habits: crafting and improving; reflecting critically; developing techniques. Students enjoyed the practical activities associated with making images more than the cognitive demands of explanation and evaluation. However, confidence levels in thinking about photography appear to have increased somewhat. Students appreciated and responded well to the gallery visit (to see the work of Saul Leiter, the photographer they had been studying in detail). The related photo shoot, where they were able to put into practice some of the strategies they had observed in Saul Leiter’s work, proved very successful. Students made very sophisticated images and were very proud of their final outcomes. Students reported increased levels of confidence in understanding two key Threshold Concepts related to the project. Interviews with students and analysis of their ePortfolio documentation reveals some sophisticated awareness of disciplinary concepts, the ethos of the course, the value of exploring a photographer’s work in greater depth and the impact this has had on the quality of students’ work. Some students were keen to elicit more “criticism” of their work from me and sought greater extrinsic motivation. It was clear from some responses that some students were still struggling with their ontological relationship to the subject. They still felt that photography was just one of their GCSE subjects and struggled to see themselves as becoming artists/photographers, motivated more by an intrinsic desire to make great work on their own terms.


In response to some of the feedback from students, I have resolved to do the following in future:

  • Design a set of prompts, to be used at different stages of a photography project, to support students who are struggling to know what to do next? These will be published on the department’s GCSE website.
  • Review, collate and publish the existing resources designed to support students with written evaluations on the GCSE site.
  • Spend more time demonstrating how to use Photoshop in lessons to make fine adjustments to photographs. Test students on their knowledge periodically.
  • Consider ways to motivate and reward students who are struggling with making progress. These could include badges, public acknowledgement, postcards home and more opportunities to exhibit work in school and online.
  • Organise another trip and photoshoot for the first half of the Autumn term, making these a more regular feature of the course.
  • Create a rota so that I can give detailed feedback about ePortfolio development to specific students in lessons.


Spending a longer period of time exploring work by fewer photographers in greater depth appears to be the most effective way to embed Threshold Concepts in the programme of study. We have since re-designed our GCSE and A level courses, embedding Threshold Concepts and creating opportunities for students to tackle them explicitly. We have removed any superfluous course content, streamlining the schemes of work and allowing greater opportunity for debate and discussion about the underlying conceptual issues. We believe this will support students’ cognitive development which, in turn, will lead to more thoughtful and sophisticated visual responses.



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  1. Atkinson, Dennis Pedagogy of the Event
  2. Atkinson, Dennis The Blindness of Education to the ‘Untimeliness’ of Real Learning
  3. Cousin, Glynis An introduction to Threshold Concepts, 2006
  4. Hamlyn, Jim 10 Threshold Concepts in Art, 2013
  5. Meyer, Jan and Land, Ray Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines 2003
  6. Ray Land discussing Liminality and Threshold Capital
  7. Land, Cousin, Meyer & Davies Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: implications for course design and evaluation, 2005
  8. Do you think like an artist?
  9. Thompson, Pat Learning with Tate, some propositions, 2015
  10. Threshold Concepts: Liminality
  11. No Going Back: Threshold Concepts in Photography
  12. David Didau Learning is Liminal

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