Capacities are more than we can measure

26th March 2010 at 00:00

What does "inspirational teaching" involve? It's difficult, admittedly, to give a dictionary definition, but there have to be in place some defining characteristics of inspiration before we can use the epithet.

First, the very term places emphasis on the teacher, the foundation of any learning process. Pupils cannot learn (and be assessed) unless first of all they have been taught - despite the zeitgeist. Not "trained" or "coached", which suggests repeated instruction or tuition in successfully jumping specific exam hurdles.

Teaching, on the other hand, is a much more challenging and cerebral activity, and inspirational teaching involves engaging pupils in thinking, showing them alternative ways in which their studies can relate to the world, helping them understand connections between areas of learning and awakening their intellectual curiosity.

Inspirational teaching can achieve all that, and more. Success in exams becomes a by-product of what happens in the classroom, not an end in itself. And all because part of what concerns such teachers is the desire to create confidence in pupils, because confident pupils develop a continuing desire to be successful in life, including taking on responsibility for their own studies. Confidence? Responsibility? Two of the four capacities.

Maybe, then, the four capacities are not ends in themselves. Yet the fact that all Curriculum for Excellence documentation cites the aim of enabling young people to "become successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens, effective contributors" leads some to infer that the authors see them as destinations, as the end of the educational process.

If they are ends, then measurement is possible. We can ask: have we reached the destination? What do we use to ensure we are on the right track? A revamped National Assessment Bank? Let's see if 4a have managed to become responsible citizens?

How do you test for a confident individual, especially when one teacher's "confidence" is another's "cockiness"? The four capacities are subjective notions which must, by their nature, be hard to measure.

Perhaps you could break down, say, responsible citizens into five categories - superbly responsible, proficiently responsible, nominally responsible, basically responsible, and almost irresponsible. Johnny showed some signs of responsibility by completing homework in more than one subject this week: thus nominally responsible.

But whatever the documentation states, isn't the wrong starting point to see the four capacities as the end of the educational process? There is something vacuous about such an approach: they aren't destinations to aim for, but philosophical ideas that ought to underpin teaching and learning.

The trouble with "to enable all young people to become" is that it doesn't suggest what does the enabling. What enables the four capacities is ensuring that confidence, responsibility, effectiveness and success always inform everything that we do. They have as much to do with the teacher as the pupils. They are guiding principles.

I have great respect for the four capacities - they will help us see the curriculum in a new light, as long as we remember that we are striving not to create a system which produces a plumber at one end and a surgeon at the other, but produces intelligent, well-informed, inquisitive people who understand the ideas of leadership and teamwork, and the vital role of intellectual enquiry and endeavour.

As long as we recognise that the four capacities are not to do with behaviour to be measured but are philosophical concepts that underpin and inform all that we do in schools, then CfE will prove its worth.

David Cockburn is an education writer.

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