Threshold Concepts and Teaching Ancient Religion (or: what has educational development ever done for us?) (Jason Davies, UCL)

Senate House, London. September 23rd 2015


Educational developers are the Euripidean oistros of teaching in higher education, pushing for small changes that could accumulate into a transformation. But this does not always appear to pose intellectual challenges within a discipline so it becomes “teaching, not research”. One framework in this area is ‘threshold concepts’ which, instead of smoothing out the learning journey, emphasises its initiatory aspects. It hovers inquisitively around the perplexity and intellectual transformation that we are seeking to induce as teachers of ancient religion, and invites the kind of reconceptualisation that blurs distinctions like ‘teaching’ and ‘research’.


To open the session I presented the people with a slide that read:

3+4 = 8

Then asked them ‘what’s wrong with this?’

There were some extremely imaginative answers ranging from invisible rounding up and down processes (i.e. 3.4 +4.4) to the suggestion that this was not a mathematical statement at all – i.e. we were speaking a different language.

This was really just a warmup so that people could experience what it was like being the wrong side of a threshold concept. Threshold concepts generally have the following characteristics:

  • Transformative
  • Troublesome
  • Irreversible
  • Integrative
  • Bounded
  • Discursive
  • Reconstitutive
  • Liminal (recursive)

Returning to the slide, I pointed out that the = dictated that what was on the left was the same as what was on the right: that is actually quite a radical statement if you’re not used to it. This is, I suggest, a threshold concept that is mastered early on in life. What is interesting about this experiment (which I’ve done a few times now in different groups) is that nobody questions whether the equals sign is the specific problem in a statement like 3+4 = 8. It is generally the numbers that people think are misleading and not the notation: we are so accustomed to he power of the equals sign that we do not even see it or remember how much its meaning is acquired.

So this was a useful reminder what it is like for a student who has not grasped some of the fundamental concepts being used by a teacher or a book (etc) but also a way of driving home the point that it is almost impossible to remember what it’s like not to understand a threshold concept once you have grasped it.
The implications of building a curriculum around threshold concepts include the following:

  • An increased focus on getting key concepts across

  • The possibility of detaching the essential context from the specific threshold concept, at least initially, so that they can get started on thinking about it

  • Not just an increased tolerance for students struggling but a much greater interest in where these moments occur, and different kinds of support

  • Expecting a zigzag of learning rather than elegant smooth curve of progression.

So we considered a threefold cycle for teaching threshold concepts.

  • Introducing them

  • Creating a space for struggle, articulation, experimentation, creation

  • An opportunity to review and discuss them, preferably linked to formative assessments with students had actually done something that could be commented on and discussed.

Workshop section

We came up with several candidates for threshold concepts in teaching and learning ancient religion.

  • Myth

  • Religion

  • Social and political aspects

  • Sophistication and empathy (i.e. they weren’t stupid)

  • Responsible citizenship, decision-making

  • All-pervasiveness


We decided to experiment a bit with ‘all-pervasiveness’ in ancient religion.

Introduction of the concept

Electricity emerged as handy way to have students think about this idea. It’s ubiquitous enough, mysterious enough and familiar enough. The way that it is present in so many ways and yet is not (e.g. effectively invisible most of the time) seemed promising. How do we deal with, think about, ignore (etc) the all-pervasiveness of electricity? What did people do about it? How much do people actually know about it? Does one ‘believe’ in electricity?

Struggling with the concept

At this point we thought it would be interesting to show students different translations of sections of the Sicilian expedition story, to suppress or reduce divine aspects, and then to really bring emphasise them in a different version.

The idea of multiple readings might also be a useful springboard for thinking about myth and different versions of stories in different contexts.

Then, introducing the notion of sacrifice through images, texts, other media would allow us to expose them to all kinds of material from the ancient world. Students had started thinking imaginatively about all pervasiveness and could build on that to explore the ancient materials.


The process of review and consolidation could for instance involve creation of an artefact with commentary. The artefact itself could be unassessed as long as there was one for the commentary to work with, and more nuanced assessment could be applied to the commentary describing how the artefact evoked the all pervasiveness of the gods. The artefact could be a poem, a virtual artefacts such as temple built in Minecraft, a physical artefact etc.

This could then firstly allow students to play to their strengths and being creative without the prescriptiveness of a potentially restrictive marking scheme but also set them up nicely for essays and exams when it comes to summative assessment.

That’s my take on it as the person who led the session. There was interest in running a workshop in the spring where we build on this and extend the thinking to produce an outline curriculum and even possibly think about resources that could be shared.



Animating the Ancient Gods (Sonya Nevin, University of Roehampton)

Senate House, London; November 19th, 2014 at 5pm

Think you can do better than Disney? This session will explore the potential of the vase animations created by the Panoply project ( for enriching the teaching and learning of ancient Greek religion. Current animations include mythical scenes depicting key religious moments, including Herakles wrestling and Achilles and Ajax gaming; scenes of gods, including Aphrodite admiring herself and Persephone’s abduction; and ritual scenes of a soldier sacrificing and performing a hepatoscopy.The session will be led by the project’s co-creator Sonya Nevin who has wide experience teaching ancient religion in HE and in using animations as a teaching tool with BA and school students. Sonya will discuss her experiences teaching through animations, and will lead a discussion of the benefits of this approach and of alternative approaches and applications. For hands-on experience of the challenges and opportunities of this method, participants will have an opportunity to design a story-board for a vase animation.If you plan to attend, it would be helpful if you could let one of the organisers know (see top), so we can keep track of numbers (but this is not essential).TLAR is planning to hold a seminar twice a year (Autumn and Spring/Summer); if you’re interested in presenting or want to suggest an event, please let get in touch.

Please see the blog write-up here

and the Storify at

TLAR at the CA, Nottingham 2014

TLAR took advantage of a new format offered at the Classical Association 2014 (in Nottingham). We set up a roundtable to explore the experience of teaching, and being taught about, ancient religion in HE institutions.

TLAR was hoping to open up a space at the CA to think about the complexities of teaching and learning about this difficult topic, taking advantage of the wealth of experience likely to be present at such an event. And we were overwhelmed!

Over 40 people attended, from all levels of academic life and including national and international scholars. Some brief presentations were made during the event by Theodora Jim and Katerina Kouloutourou, who shared their thoughts on teaching ancient religion in Hong Kong, and religious concepts, respectively. The then-President of the CA, Martha Kearney, also popped in for a while.

There was a lively discussion, and the participants enjoyed sharing their insights into teaching practice and experiences. Some of the challenges identified as facing teachers and students of this subject included working with or against current attitudes to religious practice and beliefs (e.g., popular perceptions of the relationship between science and religion); difficulties in understanding abstract concepts such as belief or faith in a predominantly secular society; and showing sensitivity to the religious beliefs of individuals.

If there is the opportunity, TLAR hopes to hold a similar event at another CA conference soon.

About TLAR

The TLAR (Teaching and Learning about Ancient Religions) network was set up by Esther Eidinow (Bristol), Susan Deacy (Roehampton) and Jason Davies (UCL) in November 2013 during a colloquium at Roehampton. Our aim is to establish an international network interested in teaching and learning about ancient religions. This reflects a sense that there is something distinctive about this particular area, even within the broad field of classics. Our initial expectation is that the centre of interest will be the classical world though we are not deeply interested in patrolling boundaries on this.

Beginnings — roundtable at Roehampton

This was where the network was founded…

Call for interest

This roundtable, supported by the Classical Association, will explore the experience of teaching, and being taught about ancient religion in HE institutions.Some of the challenges facing teachers and students of this subject include working with or against current attitudes to religious practice and beliefs (e.g., popular perceptions of the relationship between science and religion); difficulties in understanding abstract concepts such as belief or faith in a predominantly secular society; and showing sensitivity to the religious beliefs of individuals.Examining the experience of teaching and being taught about, ancient religion in HE institutions will help generate a deeper understanding of the experience of teaching and learning about sensitive subjects in HE more generally, and will provide a model for embedding interculturalism within the curriculum.This roundtable would be part of a larger project that aims to raise data about teaching and learning about ancient religion in HE institutions, which will start with an initial exploratory meeting of HE teachers and students on this topic (provisionally scheduled for Tuesday November 5th 2013 at the University of Roehampton, London). We hope that the roundtable will offer the opportunity to raise new topics, as well as deepen existing discussions, and to advertise the project to new participants.


Ralph Anderson, Hugh Bowden, Elena Chepel, Allan Cross, Jason Davies, Caroline Gudge, Theodora Jim, Katerina Kolotourou, Ellie Mackin, Alexander Millington, Lindsay Driediger
– Murphy, John North, Nick Lowe, Sonya Nevin, Keiran Redmond, Chloë Roberta Sadler, Irene Salvo, Hannah Saunders, Amy Smith, Julietta Steinhauer, Thea Woolf.

Opening and introductions

Organisers: Susan Deacy, Esther Eidinow

Bessborough Room, Parkstead House, University of Roehampton, LondonSusan warmly welcomed the participants to the Bessborough Room, a beautifully proportioned room in Parkstead House, Whitelands College; she pointed out the restored 1760s neoclassical temple in the gardens below, the capitals of which may have been collected from Italy by the 2nd Earl of Bessborough. After a brief description of the workshop’s origins and aims by Esther Eidinow, the meeting began with two brief introductory briefings.

Teaching and Learning: Believers and Unbelievers (Elena Chepel and Hugh Bowden)

Elena raised questions about the extent to which it is relevant and ethically permissible to draw parallels between ancient religious practices and modern ones, and to appeal to students’ own religious experience and upbringing. She pointed out the variety of contemporary religious practices, and how this destabilises the assumption that attitudes to religion are universal or self-evident. Depending on the context, it could be helpful to set out rules for acceptable modes of speaking in the teaching room. She also suggested that finding themes around which individuals could find commonality might be a useful approach: experience of religious practice might be one example.Hugh was concerned with the overestimation of the importance of abstract concepts in religion as it is actually practised. He argued that students are not necessarily coming with Christian or Jewish assumptions. More fundamentally, he drew attention to the way in which religion is characterised nowadays by many as something private to the individual, and a matter of choice, associated with liberal claims to freedom of thought and conscience; he suggested that comparisons to modern religion might not be a useful place to start when teaching ancient religion.The discussion that followed raised questions about whether or not it was a useful and/or necessary approach for teachers and students to identify their own religious beliefs, and if so how to do this (most felt that it was not helpful). The axis polytheism vs. monotheism was rejected as too simplistic a contrast to make between ancient and modern religions. Suggestions were explored for how to enable students to explore key terms.

Teaching and Learning: Terms and Concepts (Nick Lowe and Ralph Anderson).

Nick explained that he had come to find out how religion was taught around the country. He was interested by the question of how one draws a line around the topic ‘religion’ since ‘the secular’ does not really exist in the ancient world. He wanted to understand what he called the ‘pistics’ of the ancient world, and how we might go about examining what is, in effect, a mega-text of culturally invested narratives, both supernaturalist and naturalist.Ralph began by exploring the significance of the term ‘interculturalism’ which had been part of the workshop description, and asked how one should aim to position Greek culture as one of many. He explored the difficulties of using key concepts that we encourage our students to deconstruct and challenge: if we ask them to unthink their mental furniture and deconstruct their language, then don’t we rob them of an effective vocabulary and set of concepts. He pointed out that it is difficult to get students to engage with anthropological texts, and also to teach those that have no background in ancient languages.There was extensive discussion of how different teachers introduce theoretical concepts and theories to their students—whether this should be done initially or later in a course. There was also some debate about when students are ready to be taught about ancient religion: many argued that it was only possible once the students had sufficient historical knowledge, and so it had to be towards the end of their course. However, some participants had experience of teaching students with no background in ancient history, and noted that this did not in fact seem to be an obstacle. Some of the students present noted how useful they found it to be taught about religion as being a part of ancient culture more generally.It was noted that teaching ancient magic seems to introduce some similar problems to those of teaching religion, but also raised distinctive challenges related to students’ preconceptions and assumptions about the topic.

At the end of the morning, participants highlighted the following themes as topics that they wanted to pursue in more detail:
– Modularisation

  • Mixed groups

  • Which level?

  • Secularism

  • Manipulation

  • Language; terminology

  • Greek/Roman; Late Antiquity

  • Hands-on experience (e.g. sacrifice)

  • Religious interactions

  • Credulity (e.g. magic)

  • Belief

  • Learning outcomes

  • Selection of material

  • Frustration, including assessment

  • Backgrounds

  • Background of teachers

  • Pitch to religious/non-religious students

  • Mythology and ritual

These were summarised under the three headings ‘curriculum’, ‘content’ and ‘assessment’.

Curriculum, Content and Assessment

After lunch, the group returned to talk further about topics under these three broad categories. The afternoon discussion was structured around individual descriptions of teaching and learning experiences.Some teaching tools/approaches raised during the session included:
– Online blogging to explore themes—as groups or individuals
– Mind-maps to explore themes, questions or concepts
– Start with gods
– Introduce conceptual questions at the end of the module
– Try to bring elements of religion into modules on other areas
– Bring in current experience; make parallels with modern phenomena, e.g., processions

Concluding thoughts

It was decided:
– That the group would like to start a network: a mailing list will be developed
– A regular seminar series should be established: the final conference of this project will be the first of these. Suggested timing: end of 2014/early 2015. (Action: Susan, Esther and Jason Davies)

As many as possible will come to the roundtable at the 2014 Classical Association, at Nottingham. Topics for discussion in Nottingham were invited from the group, and included:

  • Resources for teaching: currently being used/that are missing
  • How ancient religion is taught in school/HE and focus on a topic on the school syllabus for Classical Civilisation
  • Teaching magic and teaching religion—overlaps and differences

The meeting was concluded at 4.30pm.