How four capacities relate to each other

20th November 2009 at 00:00

The report of the research carried out by a team of educational psychologists from Renfrewshire (TESS, October 30) into the extent to which resources are available to assess the four capacities of A Curriculum for Excellence, raises a number of interesting questions. It appears that little progress has been made in developing means of assessing pupils' progress as confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens. Presumably, traditional examinations give some insight into their progress as successful learners, though they may not capture the broad conception of learning intended by the original ACfE recommendations.

A key issue, which I think has received insufficient attention, is how the four capacities relate to each other. Are they mutually reinforcing, or is there likely to be some tension between them? Do they carry equal weight, or are some more important than others? For example, a case could be made for saying that the capacity to be a successful learner underpins the other three. Confidence comes (partly at least) from having the skills and knowledge relevant to the task in hand. Likewise, in order to be an effective contributor, you need to have the kind of understanding that will ensure what you say or do is positive in its effects. And to be a responsible citizen, you need to have social awareness, to appreciate the function of important institutions, and have some knowledge of how they work.

However, if you push this argument too far, you are driven back to a position which gives a privileged place to traditional, academic conceptions of learning and fails to fulfil the broader aims of ACfE. Part of the difficulty is that assessing qualities such as confidence, effectiveness and responsibility seems to involve a degree of subjectivity that makes the exercise questionable.

Richard Woolfson, the leader of the Renfrewshire research, is reported as saying: "All human behaviour is measurable." In one sense, that is true. It is certainly possible to devise instruments that can assign a numerical score (or a profile) to various forms of human action.

What really matters, however, is whether such quantification or profiling is reliable and meaningful. Assessing someone on confidence, for example, is subject to some of the same defects as traditional testing: confidence levels vary considerably, depending on the context and the psychological mood of the moment.

Strong value judgments may also come into play. For example, I would be quite happy to be judged as lacking in confidence if the criteria employed were those of the television programme The Apprentice. I find the programme distasteful, as it encourages a view of "enterprise" which I would not wish to emulate. For me, the "confidence" exhibited by contestants is often no better than boasting. In other words, the indicators of confidence may well be disputed.

Similarly, the cultural climate and disciplinary regime of schools will affect judgments of pupils as effective contributors or responsible citizens. In a traditional school, the expectation is likely to be that pupils will, in the main, operate within existing systems and structures rather than challenge them. In a more progressive school, challenge may be welcomed or even encouraged as a sign of growing independence and maturity.

There is no easy answer to these questions but, by opening up the territory for discussion, the Renfrewshire researchers have performed a useful service.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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