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

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3 Thinking critically about the capabilities model for education

How you design an education system depends on how you see the purpose of education. The human capital model and the rights-based model take different perspectives: that education is about achieving economic growth, and that education is a fundamental right, regardless of the perceived usefulness. As you have seen, both models have limitations as a way of thinking about education in the modern world. The capabilities model takes a more holistic approach, recognising that economic and intellectual well-being are important, but is relatively new and untested as a framework on which to build an education system.

If children have the right to education, what should that education look like? The capabilities approach begins to answer that question, in that it focusses on the individual and the extent to which the education system can facilitate each individual developing the capabilities that they require to achieve culturally and contextually valued outcomes.

Activity 3 The capabilities model in action

Timing: Allow approximately 60 minutes

In order to think about what the capabilities model for education might look like in practice, read this resource about the Alternative Basic Education for Karamoja-ABEK Program [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . There is also an optional audio on the site which you may like to listen to, but this is not required.

The education system in the Karamoja region in Uganda changed in consultation with those who were going to use it. The school day was restructured so that the children could complete their family chores, which was seen as important in the social context. This structural change meant that those children could access education, and it seems to have been successful in the eyes of the community which it serves.

Think about:

  • What is your reaction to the way education is offered to these children in Uganda? Be critical – ask yourself how these children are advantaged by offering schooling in this way, and how they are disadvantaged.

Educational reform – a case study

One example [of a capabilities-based approach to education] is that of the Toronto (Canada) Board of Education which recently undertook a reform of its curriculum through a massive community consultation. Thousands of parents, students, staff and members of the public contributed to full-day community consultations aimed at exploring how education should respond to the demands of a changing world. The focus of the inquiry was the question ‘What should students know, do and value by the time they graduate from school?’ Although the notion of ‘sustainability’ was not imposed, it emerged as an essential requirement in the course of the consultation.

The education that parents and the community wanted for their children was in many respects hardly revolutionary or even surprising.

The six graduation outcomes specified were: literacy; aesthetic appreciation and creativity; communication and collaboration; information management; responsible citizenship; and personal life skills, values and actions. These differ from most traditional curricular objectives in that they are broader and more closely related to the needs and organisation of life than to the requirements and structures of schooling.

The essence of the Toronto reform is that the curriculum is no longer focused exclusively on the traditional core subjects of language, mathematics, history, etc. Informed by the new vision of what the community felt tomorrow’s students would need to know and be able to do, these disciplines underwent major revision. Mathematics, for example, now includes the skill of comprehending extremely large and extremely small numbers – which are essential to being environmentally literate and capable of understanding relative risk factors, both in personal life and at work. Health now includes environmental issues including cancer, allergies and food additives as well as ‘consumerism’.

In the Toronto reforms, the curriculum that the community wanted for its children can be interpreted as ‘capabilities’ based. This case study presents a compelling argument for thinking about education in this way. Much of the success of the Toronto reform is due to the fact that it was not – and was not seen to be – an effort to change education to meet goals set by an elite, or unduly influenced by outside pressures. The impetus to change came from within. The new curriculum had equal or greater academic rigour but far greater relevance to life outside school walls. Education designed around sustainable development makes children aware of the growing interdependence of life on Earth – interdependence among peoples and among natural systems – in order to prepare them for the future

(UNESCO, 1997)

Think about:

  • What challenges might there be in organising education in this way in your context?
  • Most countries continue to offer what Ken Robinson describes – in the Changing Education Paradigms video you watched in Week 1 – as a school system using an industrial approach to learning, moving children along systematically in managed groups based on age and focusing on knowledge not capabilities. What arguments might convince people that some changes may be needed in your context?