Capabilities are the new currency for success in life

Bill Lucas writes that we have to get more serious about making sure all Australian young men and women leave school with set of essential capabilities as well as deep knowledge and considerable skill in a range of academic and vocational areas.

This morning I am addressing school principals from across the state. My message is clear. We have to get more serious about making sure all Australian young men and women leave school with a set of essential capabilities as well as deep knowledge and considerable skill in a range of academic and vocational areas.

While of course Australian parents want their children to do well in NAPLAN tests, this is only a fraction of what will be needed in the future.

Unless students are creative, curious, resilient and resourceful they will neither be prepared for a lifetime of learning new things nor be able to thrive in a fast-changing world.

Too often we focus too narrowly on literacy and numeracy when these are only the beginning. We become obsessed with school subjects rather than thinking more broadly about the capabilities which will be valuable in the real world.

Australia is well-placed in this discussion. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has required schools to develop a number of capabilities in young people in addition to literacy and numeracy. These include information and communication technology (ICT) capability, intercultural understanding, ethical understanding, personal and social capability and critical and creative thinking.

In 2008 the Melbourne Declaration paved the way for a greater emphasis on social interaction, cross-disciplinary thinking and digital media. It stressed the importance of values and attributes such as honesty, resilience and respect for others. But the truth is that schools are not yet engaging in this debate because the overwhelming noise in the system is about improving NAPLAN and ATAR scores, focusing on subjects. We talk about the need for more students to study STEM subjects or of skill shortages in certain sectors.

Such language perpetuates two myths.

The first is that if kids study maths or science they will go on to become engineers (when research in England with the Royal Academy of Engineering has shown that, while subject knowledge is important, employers really want people who can find and solve problems, think in three dimensions, understand systems and constantly adapt and improve processes.)

The second is that certain skills acquired at school or college are all that is required for them to be work-ready (in a world where school-leavers will change jobs and occupations many times and work in ways we are not yet able to predict).

The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) is quietly leading the world in thinking about the development and assessment of capabilities. The VCAA work is bold and ground-breaking. It will help to inform a major international OECD study into creative and critical thinking in schools.

Other OECD-led work is also important. The new PISA problem-solving test is injecting a sense of urgency in the minds of educational policy-makers. In 2012, when the test was first administered and called ‘creative problem-solving’ Australia ranked a creditable ninth, just below Canada and above the PISA good-news story - Finland. The top three performers were Singapore, South Korea and Japan. In 2016 the PISA test will become ‘collaborative problem-solving’ and, as this name change suggests, will have a social dimension.

The OECD has clearly realised that its PISA tests need to evolve to reflect the capability needs of young people in the real world. They are not alone. The USA is on the cusp of introducing a new test of resilience or ‘grit’ at the end of upper secondary schooling. We are also looking at resilience and character in England.

Employers want more than knowledge and skills too. In the UK the largest employer organisation the Confederation of British Industry has been campaigning for schools to focus on capabilities more explicitly, including grit, resilience and self-control, curiosity, ambition, creativity and sensitivity to global concerns.

Parents are demanding more from schools. They want their children to be fulfilled and find their passions as well as progressing further in education. In Educating Ruby we suggest that the kinds of capabilities parents want – for ease of memory beginning with the letter C – are confidence, curiosity, collaboration, communication, creativity, commitment and craftsmanship.

Educational researchers across the world are beginning to discover something very compelling. Schools which actively cultivate certain capabilities – self-belief, perseverance, curiosity, empathy and teamwork, for example - as well as emphasising subject knowledge do significantly better on standardised tests. Schools which don’t teach to the test in a narrow subject-based way as The Age pointed out this week (9 March) actually fare rather well in NAPLAN.

At the Mitchell Institute we think it is time to ask a fundamental question: what’s the point of school? Is it to teach a certain set of knowledge and skills? Or is it more about developing capabilities? Our answer which I’ll share with Victorian principals today is that it has to be about both. But, because we have decades of experience in developing traditional curriculum approaches we must now undertake some accelerated learning in how best to cultivate capabilities in all young Australians.

This article was also published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 15 March 2016: Schools need to teach capabilities as well as knowledge and skills

Professor Bill Lucas is an international adviser to the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University and the author, with Guy Claxton, of Educating Ruby: what our children need to learn.


  • Bill Lucas

    Bill Lucas