Capabilities Approach by Amartya Sen

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The main module I’m taking now is called “Curriculum Development: Issues and Principles”, where we delve into curriculum theories, philosophies as well as broad issues pertaining to curriculum, pedagogy and assessment though curriculum remains the key focus.

Three weeks ago, we had a session facilitated by a PhD student, where she introduced to us the capabilities approach, which she was hoping to use as a way to evaluate the effectiveness of a curriculum to bring about empowerment. I found this framework rather fascinating and a new way to think about curriculum ‘effectiveness’.

The approach was pioneered by Amartya Sen and then further developed most significantly by philosopher Martha Nussbaum. At the heart of the approach is the belief that (subsequent info drawn from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

  1. The freedom to achieve well-being is of primary moral importance
  2. The freedom to achieve well-being is to be understood in terms of people’s capabilities, that is, their real opportunities to do and be what they have reason to value

The approach makes a distinction between what are functionings and capabilities.

Functionings: ‘Beings and doings’, that is, various states of human beings and activities that a person can undertake. Examples of ‘beings’ include being educated, being depressed etc. Examples of ‘doings’ include travelling, voting, killing etc.

Capabilities: A person’s real freedom or opportunities to achieve those functionings.

To illustrate the relationship between the two, ‘travelling’ is a functioning, but the real opportunity to travel is a capability.

Building on Sen’s capabilities, Nussbaum then identifies core capabilities that should be accepted by all democracies (more details available on Wikipedia)

  1. Life.
  2. Bodily Health.
  3. Bodily Integrity.
  4. Senses, Imagination, and Thought.
  5. Emotions.
  6. Practical Reason.
  7. Affiliation.
  8. Other Species.
  9. Play.
  10. Control over one’s Environment

It’s interesting to note that Sen himself was against identifying a list; nonetheless, Nussbaum’s list is interesting because it includes some important capabilities, like ‘play’ which wouldn’t immediately come to mind.

While the capability approach sounds rather fuzzy, it should be noted that it’s not meant to be used as a stand-alone theory, but rather used as a means to complement the Human Development Index as an alternative way of looking at human development in nations. It should also be noted that the approach has not been utilised in relation to education yet, hence the application of it to education still requires further theoretical exploration.

The PhD student who shared with us found this approach useful, because she saw it as a means of understanding education not just in terms of inputs and outcomes, but also analyses an individual’s capability to convert inputs into valued outcomes.

This poses some interesting questions for me, which I am still seeking the answers to:

  • To what extent do the capabilities match with competencies stated in Singapore’s 21CC framework? The competencies stated in our framework are technically outcomes, whereas the capabilities are supposed to convert inputs into outcomes. However, I see a great amount of overlap and would really need more conceptual clarity on this.
  • Should education aim to inculcate the equality of capabilities or equality of outcomes? We do know that equality of outcomes is too idealistic, given that each child has their own interests and strengths. However, to what extent are capabilities within the realm of education? This is where I believe there needs to be some work done in translating the approach from human development to education to define what they would mean exactly for education. In Nussbaum’s model, for example, life refers to “being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely” – this fits in well to evaluate the provision of health in a country, but how about education? How would education contribute to this?
  • Can we use the capability approach as an assessment framework for our national curriculum? Or is it better used for our education system? Would we see the national curriculum namely as the “inputs” into our students?

If anyone has thoughts on this or has done work on this particular in relation to Singapore’s system, would be glad to have a conversation with you!

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One thought on “Capabilities Approach by Amartya Sen

  1. Ben Por says:

    Life & not dying prematurely – ties closely with joy, happiness, fulfillment. Perhaps overlaps with 3,4 &5 too. Our lives now for example – having a family, a roof over ones head, the ability to provide, to contribute to society with ones gifts and skills, to be able to earn a living, these are elements important to giving life meaning (maybe classify em as physical, intellectual, emotional & spiritual). Look at the Suicide rates in Greece and you’ll see that the economic situation of individuals and countries tie in closely with life too. That’s why I think sg is going w 21cc – ensure we stay viable economically so that we can secure a future for sg. Whether 21cc is enough, when the future does arrive, is another debate. (:

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