Traditional criminal law courses have tended to separate out the elements of criminal law into foundational concepts, substantive offences and defences, teaching each area separately. In addition the foundational concepts of actus reus and mens rea have become prioritised as threshold concepts, to be mastered by students at the beginning of the course. The logic of this approach is that only after this “troublesome knowledge” has been grasped can the other components of the subject be addressed and understood.
However, in practice the emphasis on threshold concepts can detract from a more coherent approach to teaching criminal law. Our experience of teaching actus reus and mens rea as threshold concepts has tended to produce a situation where problems of understanding and “troublesome knowledge” are not solved by an emphasis on the foundational concepts. Rather the separation reinforces the artificial nature of the syllabus and the students fail to grasp the wider complexity of how criminal law actually works. Thus at the end of their course many students fail to see the subject as a whole, and continue to focus on the separate elements.
In this paper we will explore how the separation of concepts, offences and defences can hinder understanding, and how the idea of threshold concepts may in fact act as a barrier to understanding. We will also offer some thoughts on whether a better approach to teaching criminal law can be developed through considering the components holistically rather than separately.