The Mitchell Institute and Bill Lucas have released a rather thin report on ‘capabilities’. The case seems to rest on the idea that lots of different organisations have developed similar ideas and so there must be something in it. The report then lists various models of capabilities, many of which are amusingly alliterative. You may choose from six C’s, seven C’s or even 8 C’s. It is an amazing coincidence that so many important capabilities all start with the same letter. It is almost as if someone just made them up to fit the pattern. And I was amused by the reference Lucas cites for Guy Claxton’s dreadful Building Learning Power programme – “resilience, resourcefulness, reflectiveness and reciprocity” – which is, rather fittingly, a Wikipedia page.
In Australia, the term, ‘capabilities’ refers to the general capabilities of the Australian Curriculum which consist of literacy, numeracy, information and communication technology capability, critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding.
According to Lucas, after the recent “Gonski 2.0” report sought to boost the role of capabilities:
“There has been some resistance to the idea… with capabilities considered as ‘novel’ or even a fad. This isn’t the case – capabilities have been recognised by a variety of names in many places for hundreds of years.”
I am not aware of anyone who suggested that the idea of general capabilities is novel. They have been around as educational goals in one form or another since at least the start of the twentieth century, as Lucas points out. However, in contrast to subject-specific curriculum goals, there is scant evidence that, even after all this time, we have actually become any better at delivering them.
I have argued that it is a mistake to think of even literacy as a ‘general’ capability. Once children progress beyond the initial stage of decoding words, their comprehension of text is largely related to their possession of relevant knowledge. They will be able to read and understand texts set in contexts where they have sufficient knowledge, but they will not be able to if they lack this knowledge.
Given that it is hard to pin down even literacy as a general capability, we should approach the others with extreme caution. The ability to think critically, which usually includes the ability to problem-solve, is also highly subject specific. I may be able to solve a physics problem but it will not help me solve a chemistry problem, let alone the problem of explaining the causes of the first world war or the problem of a leaking tap. To solve these problems we need solution methods specific to each type of problem.
Lucas is wrong to suggest that critics simply dismiss general capabilities as a fad. There is far more substance to the criticism; substance based upon current understandings of cognitive science.
Here is my challenge to Lucas and the Mitchell Institute: Instead of trying to build a case by referring to the fact that lots of different organisations have attempted to do something similar, support your argument with evidence that these things actually exist as general capabilities and that they can be honed through educational experiences.
Given the hundred-or-so years of their existence, we should now be able to point to evidence that shows that students who receive educational programmes focused on, say, building problem solving capabilites, are then better at solving problems in a general sense i.e. that this improved problem solving ability transfers to a range of different types of problem. This would be pretty easy to test with a properly designed randomised controlled trial.
I am not aware of any such evidence but I am happy to be proved wrong if Lucas and the Mitchell Institute are able to provide it.
If they cannot provide such evidence then why continue to push the idea?