Early Explorations of Threshold Concepts and the Doctoral Process

I am two months into my Education Ph.D., Instructional Technology track at University of Central Florida. For one of my first-semester courses, IDS 7501: Issues and Research in Education, I’ve selected Meyer and Land’s threshold concept model as a research interest, as applied to doctoral students in Ph.D., Ed.D., or other research-oriented degree programs. Below is my early draft of the purpose of this investigation, a concept map, and an annotated bibliography of the existing literature. There are thousands of articles on threshold concepts (a term introduced by Meyer and Land in 2003), but I only found 23 so far that apply to doctoral student researchers. Most existing research is qualitative; I may seek to add a quantitative contribution to the field.


Threshold Concepts and the Doctoral Process: A Concept Map and
Annotated Bibliography Based on an Initial Literature Review
Richard Thripp
University of Central Florida
October 20, 2016


Abstract

This concept map and annotated bibliography helps guide exploration of how threshold concepts apply to doctoral students and candidates, with a primary focus on research doctorates such as the Ph.D. and Ed.D. Threshold concepts are skills that may be difficult to acquire, but their acquisition is transformative—much like learning to ride a bicycle. Potential threshold concepts for the doctoral student include tasks at the create level of Krathwohl’s (2002) revised Bloom’s taxonomy, such as designing a research study, writing a research report, and conducting a literature review. Frequently, these skills are not explicitly taught to doctoral students—in fact, academics may not even consciously consider them, or may be dismissive toward students who have not yet acquired them. The purpose of this paper is to gather and draw insights from the literature to guide the design of a research study that measures threshold concepts in doctoral students. Ultimately, this will contribute to our understanding of the doctoral process, and perhaps suggest practices and policies that scaffold threshold concepts for doctoral students and candidates, thus minimizing periods of uncertainty (liminality) in the doctoral process and reducing attrition, including the “all but dissertation” (ABD) phenomenon.

Keywords: threshold concepts, conceptual threshold, doctoral studies, scholarly research, Bloom’s taxonomy, higher education, higher-order thinking skills, cognitive strategies, doctoral attrition


Threshold Concepts and the Doctoral Process: A Concept Map and
Annotated Bibliography Based on an Initial Literature Review

Gaining a threshold concept is a transformative and somewhat dichotomous experience. Learning to ride a bicycle is a prime example, because one cannot generally go back to not knowing, nor acquire only part of this skill. In the doctoral student’s journey, he or she is expected to cross or have already crossed many thresholds—for example, the ability to effectively organize strands of evidence and weave them into a special type of written prose distinctive to academia (Kiley, 2009). While many professors and academic departments view this skill and others as prerequisites for the doctoral journey, closer examination reveals that many doctoral students lack—and struggle to acquire—these skills (Kiley, 2015; Johnson, 2015). Threshold concepts (Meyer & Land, 2005), augmented by Bloom’s taxonomy, may be a viable way to explain the struggles and triumphs of the doctoral journey, and to inform the practices of professors and other academic staff, particularly regarding their attitudes and approaches to instruction, supervision, and advisement of doctoral students and candidates who may spend long periods in limbo (dubbed doctoral liminality by Keefer, 2015). Bloom’s taxonomy—specifically, including Krathwohl’s (2002) revisions—is especially relevant to the doctoral process because its pinnacle, create, is specifically related to the ultimate purpose of the research doctorate: making a significant contribution to the research base. Although threshold concepts are supported by a large corpus of research, as of 2016, only a handful of researchers have examined them in a doctoral-studies context. Therefore, while threshold concepts may ultimately have explanatory power for why some doctoral students excel while others never complete their dissertations, this literature review and the resulting research prospectus will seek only to examine and extend the modest amount of research that has been done.

Concept Map

Concept Map for Threshold Concepts for Doctoral Students

Concept Map Hierarchy

Guided by: Krathwohl’s (2002) Overview of a Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy

I. Skills and Strategies

A. Information Literacy (Hofer, Townsend, & Brunetti, 2012; Townsend, Brunetti, & Hofer; 2011)
1. Writing Ability (Humphrey & Simpson, 2012; Johnson, 2015
2. Literature Reviews (Wisker, 2015; Wisker & Robinson; 2009

B. Research Skills (e.g., Rowe & Martin, 2014)
1. Understanding a Scientific Theory (Kiley, 2015)
2. Research Design (Exner, 2014)
a. Doctorateness (Trafford & Leshem, 2009)

II. Self-Beliefs and Epistemology (Meyer & Land, 2005)

A. Growth Mindset (Boyd, 2014)

B. Personal Conceptual Frameworks (Berman & Smith, 2015)

C. Meta-Awareness (Harlow & Peter, 2014)
1. Threshold Awareness by Students (Harlow & Peter, 2014; Kiley, 2009)

III. External Influencers

A. Doctoral Supervisory Practices (Johnson, 2014)
1. Liminality and the Doctoral Transition (Keefer, 2015; Kelly, Russell, & Wallace, 2012; Adorno, Cronley, & Smith, 2015)
2. Threshold Awareness by Supervisors (Kiley & Wisker, 2009)

B. Supervisory Attrition (Wisker & Robinson, 2013)
1. Conflicts and Lack of Involvement (Ismail, Majid, & Ismail, 2013)


Annotated Bibliography

Adorno, G., Cronley, C., & Smith, K. S. (2015). A different kind of animal: Liminal experiences of social work doctoral students. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 52, 632–641. http://doi.org/10.1080/14703297.2013.833130

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Avoiding Unexpected Change Cost with Strategic Procrastination

Unexpected change cost is a term coined by author Rory Vaden in his 2015 book, Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time. This is the idea that performing tasks long before their deadlines is not always ideal—unexpected changes may arise that reduce or eliminate the value of working ahead. I prefer referring to “procrastinating on purpose” as strategic procrastination.

When you work ahead on your to-do list, you run the risk that expectations and other variables may change or be clarified. You also run the risk that you work may become completely nullified. For example, say you are buying uniforms for a new job that starts next Monday. If you buy them today, Tuesday, and then get a call on Thursday saying your employer no longer wants to hire you, you’ve just encountered unexpected change cost. Not only did you go through the hassle of buying the uniforms—you also must now waste more time returning them. If you would have instead procrastinated until Friday to buy the uniforms, you wouldn’t have needed to buy them at all. Of course, there is a balance—putting the task off until Sunday may be dangerous because of unforeseen issues—you may not be able to find the correct uniforms quickly, for example. Vaden dubs this the continuum between worry warts and gun slingers. Worry warts often pay unexpected change cost, while gun slingers often miss deadlines or opportunities due to waiting too long. Finding a happy medium is important, and is often not intuitive.

People are often surprised by my unerring punctuality: if I have a meeting at 1:00 p.m., I tend to show up at 12:59 p.m.—not 12:50 p.m. or 1:05 p.m. Of course, unexpected traffic delays or other variables can make me late, but these risks must be counterbalanced against the risk of wasting my time by arriving too early. The importance of the meeting in question, cultural expectations, and personal expectations of the person(s) I am meeting with must also be considered. If I am meeting with someone who typically shows up 10 minutes late, even arriving at 12:59 p.m. may be suboptimal. However, if this person is usually early, I may waste less of her time if I show up at 12:50 rather than 12:59 p.m. On the other hand, if this is an important job interview, planning to arrive at 12:59 p.m. is foolhardy.

An example of unexpected change cost is completing a bid or proposal early, and then being blind-sided by clarifications released by the requestor. For example, professors who complete a grant proposal a month early might have to re-do work, or find they have done unnecessary work, after the funding agency releases addendums or responses to questions weeks or even days before the deadline. Strategic procrastination might mean the proposal is turned in hours before the deadline, but heaps of unnecessary work may be avoided since the work was completed after all the clarifications came in.

Similarly, I recall several times when I have worked ahead in a college course, only to find that other students complained or found an assignment too difficult, resulting in the professor scaling back the difficulty level for the assignment. Though doing extra work can be a learning experience, my time is very limited and I would have preferred to spend it elsewhere. Working ahead can easily make one a victim of unexpected change cost.

Strategic procrastination is a powerful tool to minimize unexpected change cost. As the 2015–16 President of Port Orange Toastmasters, club officers, members, and visitors from other clubs often emailed me requests and questions that I had already answered elsewhere, or could easily be found by Google search. Replying quickly to these emails would often beget more requests and waste even more of my time. However, sitting on these emails for 12–24 hours often allowed the problem to resolve itself—Toastmasters would look elsewhere for the information, find it, and send a second email saying they no longer needed help.

The change from “needing” help to no longer needing it is a state change that exemplifies unexpected change cost. While this state change can be brought about by answering the question or request, this not only wastes your time—it also discourages self-reliance. Who do you think the person-in-need is going to go to next time—Richard Thripp or Google search? Richard Thripp, of course! If I answer questions for the person-in-need several times before directing them to Let Me Google that For You, they will then be surprised, annoyed, and perhaps even angry when I refuse to continue being their gopher. The best solution is prevention. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Refuse to be a gopher on the first request, not the nth request. Because I have a car, people without cars sometimes ask me for favors involving my car. “But you’re going to Orlando already!” Yes, but do I really want to have to leave a half-hour early to carpool, to arrive at your house and find you are not ready, to delay or suppress other plans or avenues, and to have these favors become an entitlement that is expected on an ongoing basis? Oh, what a low opinion you have of me!

Many college professors, particularly in the Psychology department at University of Central Florida, have a “3-before-me” policy, meaning they expect students to try three approaches to answering a question before contacting the professor. These professors won’t help the student unless he or she lists the three things he or she did in the email—for example, searching Google, searching the course modules on Webcourses (UCF’s LMS—learning management system), and consulting the index of the course textbook. While such policies may seem cruel, they accomplish two functions: encouraging self-reliance and preventing the professor’s time from being wasted on frivolities.

Approaching email with anything but strategic procrastination is a recipe for wasting tremendous amounts of time. If you don’t reply to emails, they often take care of themselves. Please look for a Dilbert comic about this. They are hilarious.

Working ahead of the pack often yields high unexpected change costs. Completing work after 50% of your peers complete it might be ideal. Then, the bugs are worked out. Questions are answered. Procedures are clarified. Is “the early bird gets the worm” true? Perhaps “the early bird gets screwed over” is more accurate? For example, many people who upgraded to Windows 10 in summer 2015, shortly after its release, got screwed over by an endless cycle of rebooting that made their PC completely unusable. This caused them to waste many hours and perhaps miss deadlines. Early adoption can lead to unexpected change cost. Strategic procrastination is the antidote.

Working ahead has its place. Delaying starting an exercise regimen or other beneficial habit until January 1 is folly—why not start now? However, when external factors are prominent, such as the whims and vicissitudes of individuals, teams, institutions, and chance, the risk of unexpected changes may be high. Working ahead might be the worst thing you could do. Put it off! Procrastinate strategically. Have patience. The problem might just take care if itself.

Presenting on Mindsets at Association of Teacher Educators Conference, Louisville, KY, 7/31/2016

I’ll be presenting the following poster at the Summer 2016 conference of the Association of Teacher Educators in Louisville, KY on Sunday, July 31, 2016, based on my April 2016 literature review.

Mindsets poster

I am looking forward to presenting at my first conference! I will post photos and thoughts about the conference next week. I will only be attending on Saturday and Sunday. My presentation is at 10:50–11:50 AM on Sunday, July 31, 2016 at the Hyatt Regency Louisville in the Kentucky Suite. I’ve included the poster’s content below. I’ve also set up a Mindsets Page with all the information (literature review abstract, poster, and handout) in one place.

Mindsets Page: Thripp.com/mindsets

Click here to download the poster and handout, including references.

Text and Images of the Poster

What are mindsets?
• Mindsets are a rebranding, popularized by Dr. Carol Dweck, of implicit theories of intelligence.
Growth mindset = malleable theory of intelligence
Fixed mindset = entity theory of intelligence
• Mindsets can be global or domain-specific.
Growth mindset is better.

MindsetKit.org screenshot

Professional Development
MindsetKit.org (pictured above; free) can help you understand and apply mindsets in your practice. Mindsets are important for educators, too. What are your mindsets for your teaching abilities? Technological abilities? Career trajectory? Fixed mindset is a limiting belief. Becoming explicitly aware of your mindsets may be the first step toward replacing fixed mindsets with growth mindsets.

What happens with fixed mindset?
• Learners believe they are stuck where they are
• Learners give up too easily
• Since abilities are fixed, learners become preoccupied with concealing their weaknesses
• Fixed mindset becomes part of their identity, e.g., “I’m not a math person.”

What happens with growth mindset?
• Learners believe they can get better
• Learners are less afraid to fail publicly
• Instead of saying to successful peers: “you’re so lucky, they ask: “how did you get there?”
• Growth mindset may promote health, well-being, good emotions, low stress, and achievement (King, 2012; Romero et al., 2014; Yeager et al., 2014).

Closed vs. open task example: area of a triangle

Giving open tasks, when feasible and with appropriate scaffolding, can help encourage growth mindset. It’s important to give students enough time to struggle. Giving answers too quickly can have dire consequences.

As an educator, how can I impart growth mindset?
Praise effort, not ability. Don’t say things like “you’re so smart” (person-oriented praise). Instead, say things like “great job—you applied yourself well” (process-oriented praise). Think about how you interact with students. Encourage students to use effective strategies.

Teachers who believe their students’ abilities are fixed:
• May have a performance-avoidance goal orientation for teaching (Shim et al., 2013)
• May be quick to make negative judgments about students’ abilities (Rattan et al., 2012)
• May give “comforting” feedback that belittles and demotivates students (Rattan et al., 2012)

Teachers who believe their students’ abilities can grow:
• Tend to give strategy-oriented feedback that motivates students (Rattan et al., 2012)
• Tend to praise hard work, promoting task persistence and enjoyment (Mueller & Dweck, 1998)
• May have and impart a mastery goal orientation for teaching and learning (Shim et al., 2013)

“The teacher should portray challenges as fun and exciting, while portraying easy tasks as boring and less useful for the brain” (Dweck, 2010; emphasis added).

“Implicit theories are indeed consequential for self-regulatory processes and goal achievement” (meta-analysis by Burnette et al., 2013; emphasis added).

Growth Mindset for Teachers When Using Technology figure by Mark Anderson:

Growth Mindset for Teachers When Using Technology figure

Mindsets are distinct from both achievement goals (De Castella & Byrne, 2015; Dinger et al., 2013) and self-efficacy (Komarraju & Nadler, 2013).

The research below attests to the veracity of mindsets and the power of mindset interventions:

Mind-Set Interventions Are a Scalable Treatment for Academic Underachievement

It's ok — Not everyone can be good at math

Parent Praise Predicts Children's Motivational Frameworks

Poster by Richard Thripp, who holds a B.S. in Psychology and M.A. in Applied Learning & Instruction from University of Central Florida and is starting in the Education Ph.D., Instruction Technology program in fall 2016 at the same university.

Thanks to Drs. Bobby Hoffman and Richard Hartshorne for guidance.

References available separately. You may photograph and share this poster for not-profit use. Inclusion of journal article abstracts and MindsetKit.org screenshot constitutes fair use. Thanks to Mark Anderson for releasing the “Growth Mindset for Teachers When Using Technology” figure with Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license. Closed vs. open task figure by Richard Thripp.

Financial Thoughts, July 2016

Here is a comment exchange between the author (“J. Money”) of the Budgets are Sexy blog and I, July 8–11, 2016, concerning vehicle purchase decisions and investing. I have been following J. Money’s blog for a few months now—I would definitely recommend reading it and similar blogs if you are interested in changing your financial perspective. My comments also elucidate some of my viewpoints on Toastmasters, financial concerns for college students, market timing, risk, and insurance.

Comment by Richard Thripp, 2016-07-08:

The brief Brexit crash was actually a good buying opportunity, though it is easy to say in hindsight. I think when adding money from a bank account via Vanguard, the transaction doesn’t post until the next business day, meaning the price you see now is not the price VTSAX will be at when your “buy” order actually posts.

I would agree given the much lower value your Lexus minivan shows for private sales that you paid too much. However, many others make far worse decisions—I have young friends who literally have 15%+ car loans due to not understanding how credit works (meaning, they didn’t have their first credit card or student loan until AFTER the car loan and got their loan at a used car dealership).

With such high liquid net worth, why do you choose to pay 3.45% interest plus credit inquiries when you could just buy the car outright? Why do you have an $1859 warranty, which is clearly a money-maker for the warranty guarantor, when you could easily use your savings as your warranty? I suppose you are benefiting in the 10% “mix of credit types” portion of your credit score by having a car loan, but this seems no more worthwhile to me than keeping a credit card you don’t use that has an annual fee, just to avoid the hit to your average age of accounts from closing it (which doesn’t even occur until 10 years later, as far as I know).

Even most rewards checking accounts do not offer a 3.45% return. Most outlooks for the stock market are tepid compared to returns in recent years. A 3.45% return with no risk to the principal is pretty good.

I’ve been reading your blog for a while. You are definitely still a half-millionaire since your net worth estimates are very conservative. You aren’t including the value of most of your possessions, and you have barely any debts. Very smart.


Response from blog author, J. Money, 2016-07-09:

Thanks man 🙂 Yeah, actually just got an offer for the blog and my other project which raises the worth substantially more, but I never count on any of that until it’s actually a reality so that’s why I don’t include that stuff (I turned down the offer, btw).

As for liquidating some assets to pay for the car, it’s too slippery of a slope for me – I never like touching investments cuz it would tempt me too much to make it OK to do for other stuff down the road. And I honestly don’t mind taking on some debt and paying for the convenience of it since I know I can pay it off at any time and manage it responsibly. Plus, my investments will make much more than 3.45% anyways over the years 🙂 And actually gonna spend some time and try and get it refinanced lower too as soon as the chaos winds down….

thx for stopping by btw – just checked out your site, your background is pretty impressive! especially in the speaking stuff – always admire that about people as I hate it. Keep hustling 🙂


Response by Richard Thripp, 2016-07-11:

Thanks for replying and checking out my site, J. Money! Toastmasters has been great… when I started 2 years ago I was super nervous but after being a club president and giving two dozen speeches I have improved greatly. It’s not really “public” speaking per se since you only have an audience of 10–20 people you already know, typically, so it’s a good segueway into more anxiety-provoking environments.

As for my education, financially I find it a very interesting topic. I still live with parents and have all my degrees (AA, BS, MA, starting PhD next month) from public community colleges / universities. This is so much cheaper than going to private institutions or moving away (though not as exciting). It must be awful to come out of undergrad with $100K+ debt which is quite common with pricey private institutions. Alarmingly, what is becoming more common is that people incur debt without ever finishing their degree! Might be a good blog post topic.

I can definitely understand the “slippery slope” dilemma, and I too think the VTSAX index fund will continue to yield more than 3.45% annually. Heck, it yielded much more than this over the past 10 years, even considering the 2008 crash.

I am glad you turned down the offer for your blog—I am sure it wouldn’t be as good. So many blogs turn bad when revenue generation becomes the #1 priority.

Best Regards,
Richard T.

Thoughts on Mindsets for Education

“Change your mindset, change your life” is the motto I put forth in a speech I gave in February 2016 about mindsets. In this essay written on July 1, 2016, I will put forth thoughts about what distinguishes growth theorists from fixed theorists. I will also elucidate several points of confusion.

Chicken or the Egg?

What comes first? Success or a growth mindset? Research demonstrates that encouraging a growth mindset leads to success. However, many highly successful people clearly have a fixed mindset. How did they get where they are without growth mindset?

One possibility is that fixed mindset just isn’t that much of an inhibitor of success. Nevertheless, research shows that even if fixed mindset doesn’t do much to inhibit success, growth mindset does plenty to aid it.

Somewhat paradoxically, it may be possible that successful people with fixed mindset either have high innate abilities or are predisposed to persevere. They may be succeeding despite their fixed mindset, but adopting a growth mindset might enable them to enjoy even greater success.

Mindset is not a panacea. While fixed mindset is a limiting belief and growth mindset an empowering one, one can certainly fail despite holding a growth mindset. A common example is trying to do too many things at once. Growth mindset is no substitute for sustained practice. For example, all the growth mindset in the world won’t help you master piano if you only practice 20 minutes a week.

People who have a growth mindset are probably not going to have a performance-avoidance goal orientation. They are not afraid of looking “stupid” due to asking “stupid” questions. They are not afraid of making mistakes in front of their classmates. Being called a “noob” does not shame them, because they recognize that mastery is a journey and that their skills will grow over time.

That is not to say growth theorists cannot be perfectionists, but when they are, it is often in a healthy way, unlike the debilitating perfectionism that prevents one from getting anything done that may be more common among fixed theorists. Growth theorists may be very detail-oriented, but their fear of being “not good enough” is diminished. They are not afraid to brainstorm. They are not afraid to make many false starts. When others chide them for dabbling, it doesn’t faze them.

“Compared to Others”

Comparing ourselves to others, particularly with respect to “talent,” is a common yet often counter-productive pastime. The main reason it is counter-productive is that there is nothing we can do about our fixed level of “talent.” While intelligence and talent may be growable, conventional wisdom says otherwise. Therefore, we typically conceptualize these constructs as having a fixed upper ceiling at conception, birth, or maturation. While our talent, intelligence, and opportunities can be reduced and foreclosed, be it by exposure to teratogens in-utero or early in life, poor education or nutrition in childhood, or heavy drinking in adulthood, conventional wisdom says there is no way to increase them. Just as one can kill but not resurrect, one can lose intelligence but not gain it. This is quintessential to the concept of fixed mindset.

If we believe intelligence has a fixed ceiling, are we likely to maximize? Will we reach our personal “glass ceiling”? Probably not! In fact, believing one is “just not good” at something is a powerful impetus to cease and desist entirely! The students who believe they are “just not good” at math often don’t even try. They never even ascend to the level of mediocrity that is purportedly their glass ceiling.

Clearly, prioritizing doing the best we can with what we have is a more productive alternative to giving up entirely. Unfortunately, reaching our “personal best” is often derided in a cultural climate that promotes beating the competition. However, the silver lining of growth mindset is that even though your glass ceiling (which may be as imaginary as the construct of infinity) may be lower than people who were born with greater gifts, this does not mean others are going to use their gifts. In fact, they may be looking further up the pyramid at people even better endowed than them, leading them to thinking: “What’s the point?,” and squandering their gifts. This is not unlike winning a race because someone’s car broke down, or because the other team didn’t show up. Nevertheless, a win is a win. In this way, a growth theorist can have the best of both worlds. (Not caring about being “the best” and yet being “the best” anyway because other, more “capable” contenders self-sabotage due to fixed mindset.)

How Should Teachers Apply Growth Mindset?

It’s very hard to impart growth mindset on your students if you hold a fixed mindset for yourself. At the same time, having a growth mindset does not mean you believe it is necessary, nor even worthwhile, to aspire to be a polymath.

Focusing on sharpening our strengths is often a better approach than reinforcing weaknesses. For example, I am completely inept when it comes to Apple products, including iPhones, iPads, iMacs, and Macbooks. I have never owned one, and in times when I’ve had to use one, it took me a long time to figure out how to perform basic tasks, and I didn’t see the appeal at all. While I could dedicate immense time and effort to mastering Apple iOS and OSX, I would much rather dedicate this time to learning a specialized skill on Windows, Android, or the LAMP stack. While I don’t have a fixed mindset for Apple, I can be a growth theorist without desiring to pursue growth in this area.

How can a child have attention-deficit disorder yet be able to focus on a complicated video game for hours? Just because a child is failing in school does not mean he or she is lazy or unable. It may just mean that the curriculum or instruction environment fails to motivate. Let’s face it: Even postsecondary education often manages to completely demolish the fun or intrigue in otherwise seductive topics. Blaming the student is the easy way out.

While the student may be partially “at fault,” plenty of “blame” may also lie with administrative and institutional constraints, lack of support, the curriculum, the teacher, and the public at large. Working around this entails not condemning students as irreparably damaged, but catering to what they find interesting in a program of study. Strengthening these interests can lead to broader overall interest in school. Video game developers have been using these tactics for decades, while educators remain behind the curve.

Changing our internal dialog helps. Stop deriding yourself in your head. Be more supportive of yourself. When talking to students, don’t say one student is “smarter” than the rest. Don’t offer to “go easy” on someone because they are having a hard time. Encourage them to keep learning, practicing, and growing. Just because they are doing poorly now does not mean they cannot grow. In fact, other students may have enormous head starts due to better education relating to socio-economic status, or simply greater effort or more rigorous teachers in prior classes. Everyone does not enter a class at the same skill level. However, those entering with a lower skill level can catch up with diligent effort.

Encouraging growth mindset may be one of the best examples of differentiated instruction in action, simply by virtue of withholding summary judgment.

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