Looking globally: the future of education
Looking globally: the future of education

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Looking globally: the future of education

2.5 The capabilities model

The most recent approach of the three considered here is the capabilities model, developed initially by Amartya Sen (2010) whose writings concern social justice, quality of life and the removal of inequality. This model is based on the concepts of ‘capabilities’ and ‘functionings’. Capabilities are what each person is able to be and do – what Sen calls ‘substantial freedoms’ (p. 253). These are freedoms or opportunities for choice and action that an individual possesses, created by a combination of their personal abilities and the political, social and economic environment. This approach has its origins in the ideas of self-realisation from nineteenth and twentieth century philosophers such as John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) and Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941).

Functionings are the realisation of capabilities. Capabilities are important because they lead to functionings, but also because they are ‘spheres’ of choice and freedom (Sen, 2010) – in this model the freedom to choose has an intrinsic value. To distinguish between capability and functioning, Sen uses the example of the starving person and the fasting person. Both have the same kind of functioning with regard to nutrition but they do not have the same capability; the fasting person is able to choose to stop fasting but the starving person has no choice.

Activity 4 Exploring the capabilities model

Allow approximately 30 minutes

Watch this two-minute animation in which we outline the capabilities model for you. It is worth watching the animation two or three times to ensure you have a good understanding of the model so that you can consider its implications for education. You should make notes as you watch, as you will return to reflect on this model later in the course.

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The capabilities approach proposes a fundamental shift away from seeing income and wealth as markers of success. Instead, the focus is on widening the actual opportunities that a person has to develop capabilities which will expand their choice of functioning. So it’s not what objects of convenience does a person have, but rather, can a person attain the ends that they value?
Capabilities are the opportunities that individuals have to realise different functionings that they value. Capabilities then lie in the idea of agency. This is the freedom and opportunity with which an individual can act to bring about changes they value.
An education system may also need to provide basic resources, such as suitably prepared and motivated teachers, appropriate learning materials, a curriculum relevant to the cultural context, an accessible built environment, and possibly nutrition. Economic, cultural, and political barriers can hold back disadvantaged groups, such as minority ethnic, disabled, or girl learners. In addition, one person’s freedom can be another’s problem. For example, the freedom of industry to pollute the environment.
The capability approach is currently still in its infancy and has limited expression outside of academia. Identifying universal, core, basic capabilities against which inequalities can be evaluated and governments held to account may be useful but, as yet, there is no consensus.
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Think about:

  • What are the important aspects of the capabilities model for education?

More about the capabilities model

The capabilities model argues that by expanding individual capabilities, people are given the opportunity to realise functionings that they value, and develop personal well-being. Thus more help should be given to those who need it more, e.g. pupils with disabilities, to enable them to have the freedom to choose between functionings. Some theorists such as Robeyns (2006) and Nussbaum (2003) consider there is a list of core capabilities – for example, the capability of critical thinking. However, others such as Sen (2010) suggest that key capabilities should be defined by those engaged in the problem in the context. In a capabilities approach, the pedagogic focus is on the development of autonomy and the capacity to make choices through one’s life. Hence the outcomes are more than just literacy and numeracy achievements, but the range of freedoms which support the condition of being educated.

A number of scholars (e.g. Pogge, 2002 and Gore, 1997) suggest that the capabilities model is too individualistic with its focus on how each individual can flourish, and that it pays insufficient attention to structural issues (e.g. how schools are funded, built and staffed) and the concerns of communities. Several authors (e.g. Robeyns, 2006 and Tickly and Barrett, 2011) argue that there must be a connectedness, in thinking and practices, between giving attention to individual capability agendas within education and to the promotion of wider social and political liberties. Such connectedness is important as otherwise, for example, a society may educate people to have the capability for political free speech but deny them the opportunity to exercise this in practice. Conversely, a state may make it open for everyone to participate in democratic activity but not deliver the basic education that would enable them to participate.


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