How the four capacities shape us all

13th November 2009 at 00:00

It is interesting that Richard Woolfson, Renfrewshire's principal educational psychologist, said "all human behaviour is measurable" (TESS, October 30). He expects his local authority to create a mechanism which will allow teachers to benchmark where pupils are, in terms of confident individuals, successful learners, effective contributors and responsible citizens.

I understand why he wishes to achieve this in the face of virtually no guidance from any official body, with even the education faculties at Strathclyde, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh universities running scared on how to assess the four capacities.

Do teachers lie quaking in their beds at night, demented that the four capacities seem little more than smooth-sounding words on glossy pages? Terrible, they might growl, that something potentially exciting falls away because the policymakers forgot to factor in some concrete reality when they formulated the ideas. Do we long for a chapter-and-verse account of how to test and grade the four capacities?

Well, yes and no. Part of us wants whoever coined the wording of the four capacities to come clean about how to get 100 per cent for being a confident individual and what kind of person would score just 20 per cent for being a responsible citizen. If A Curriculum for Excellence is a palpable reality in our classrooms, presumably we'd welcome accompanying assessment procedures just to screw the whole business to the floor and make sure it's firmly ensconced in Scottish schools.

Yet, Dr Woolfson is mistaken to claim that all human behaviour is measurable. As a psychologist, it is disingenuous to suggest so. Consider the adult colleagues you work with. Do they tick all the boxes of the four capacities? How do successful learners behave, for instance? Consider the gap between the successful and the unsuccessful learner. The successful learner is innovative, energetic about facing challenges and, above all, exhibits a "can do "approach. The unsuccessful learner is reluctant to try out new ideas, yields to problems and postulates a "can't do" attitude.

We need to be much more rigorous when we select students for teacher training, and later when we promote teachers. Only individuals who possess the four capacities in full should be promoted. If teachers are weak on the four capacities themselves, how can we expect to turn out children who have avoided somehow modelling themselves on the very people who teach them?

An added problem is that progress in the four capacities will be identified through self-report; in other words, the pupils will describe their status. Self-report is notoriously flawed, as researchers into human behaviour will testify. People underestimate the units of alcohol they consume in a week, lie about their number of sexual partners, deny they have eating disorders and exaggerate the hours they have studied for an exam Is there therefore any reason to believe that school pupils will be honest when evaluating the stage they've reached in the four capacities?

To enable pupils to develop the four capacities, we need better teachers and leaders to deliver a learning experience which is pedagogically varied, focuses on the quality of the relationship between teacher and pupil, links social skills with academic demands and aims to inspire.

Come to think of it, it's the policymakers and the teachers who need to be tested on the four capacities. If they cut the mustard, then maybe the pupils will follow suit.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today