Mike the headless chicken disproves the theory of ‘threshold concepts’. Let me explain. I recently started reading David Sudnow’s Ways of the Hand – A Re-written Account, on loan from a friend. It’s an ethnographer’s approach to learning improvised jazz piano, and is interesting to me in the context of the question of the embodiment of (for want of a better term) knowledge. After I got into the first chapter of the book I picked up a couple of others, getting stuck on a Sci Fi thriller that was a present from my sister, Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, among other things. Anyway today a colleague (another Richard) emailed about ‘threshold concepts’ in canoeing, which reminded me to get back to Sudnow. Threshold concepts (Meyer and Land, 2003) are supposed to be difficult bits of learning that we tend to get stuck on but ultimately allow a kind of breakthrough moment. The thing is, most of the work on these has been done in areas where knowledge is thought of as something you obtain through careful thought, not by practicing something by tinkling the ivories, or in my case, treading the boards. In Lee’s case, it also involves kicking people’s teeth in (in self defense of course) because he teaches Pencat Silat and just finished his anthropology PhD thesis on the topic.
So is it really all about threshold concepts in that case? Sometimes it must be, because you can often get to the next stage of learning by introducing a concept, like say, lead and follow technique in lindy hop, Sudnow’s techniques in WOTH, or in Richard’s case, “the static paddle” in a canoe. But also, obviously people must learn these things without ever going through the stage of conceptualising anything. Like learning to drive a manual car without anyone needing to tell you just how to ease off the clutch, or all the pianists who have never really thought about technique but are still technically brilliant. Anyway (stay with me here) this talk of embodied knowledge got me thinking of the story of Mike the Headless Chicken. Yes, Mike the rooster stayed alive for 18 months after having his head lopped off with an axe. He even toured, raising quite a hefty amount of money for his owners before starving to death by accident. He reportedly only had a bit of brainstem left and one ear, yet his bodily functions and reflexes remained completely intact — so much so that he gained quite a bit of weight over his life time. So Mike’s body, in a sense, still “knew” how to survive, just as a spider knows how to spin its web. Yet at the same time we can say that a great dancer might not really know how they do what they do. Yet there will, I’d argue, still be thresholds in their ability to do the things they do — embodied thresholds, if you like. That’s surely one reason professional musicians, dancers and martial arts experts still practice for hours every day to get to the next level. I think this shows that it’s not necessarily about concepts, but it might still be about thresholds in learning.