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New Zealand Science Teacher

Science Curriculum/Scientific Literacy

Unlocking the idea of ‘capabilities’ in science

According to our curriculum, all students should become responsible, thoughtful citizens in society. The ‘science capabilities’ play a vital role in teaching and learning, writes ROSE HIPKINS.

Why read this paper?

Five Science capabilities were recently published on TKI. When teachers first encounter them, it is common for them to ask why they were called ‘capabilities’. Some teachers don’t like the thought of being asked to consider yet another idea on top of The New Zealand Curriculum’s key competencies.

If this is how you feel, this paper might help. It explains why the capabilities were developed (i.e. what they are supposed to ‘do’ in terms of teaching and learning), why they were called that, and how they fit in with our curriculum’s key competencies.

Why were the capabilities developed? (How do they relate to the Curriculum?)

The capabilities were developed to show some explicit ways to “join the dots” between all of the following:

  • the content strands of the science learning area
  • the ‘overarching’ Nature of Science (NOS) strand
  • the statement in the front of NZC that outlines why all students should learn science
  • the key competencies
  • some existing resources designed to support learning in science.

The New Zealand Curriculum says all students should become “responsible citizens in a society in which science plays a significant role”. Each capability encapsulates something that is needed for that ambitious goal to be met. Here are the definitions  from the webpage:

Gather & interpret data: Science knowledge is based on data derived from direct or indirect observations of the natural physical world and often includes measuring something. An inference is a conclusion you draw from observations – the meaning you make from observations. Understanding the difference is an important step towards being scientifically literate.

Use evidence: Science is a way of explaining the world. Science is empirical and measurable. This means that in science, explanations need to be supported by evidence that is based on, or derived from, observations of the natural world.

Critique evidence: In order to evaluate the trustworthiness of data, students need to know quite a lot about the qualities of scientific tests. 

Interpret representations Learners think about how data is presented and ask questions such as: What does this representation tell us? What is left out? How does this representation get the message across? Why is it presented in this particular way?

Engage with science: This capability requires students to use the other capabilities to engage with science in “real life” contexts.

Each capability sounds really simple. For science teachers these ideas will certainly be familiar. Interpret Representations and Engage with Science both map directly onto the Curriculum’s NOS sub-strands of Communicating in Science and Participating and Contributing. The first three capabilities map to Understanding about Science if the focus is on scientists’ work and to Investigating in Science if the focus is on students’ own work.

So what exactly do the capabilities add, and why did we think something new was needed? I’ll use an example to illustrate and explain the “something extra” that the idea of capabilities brings.

At least ten resources sit behind each capability. Each resource models an idea for explicitly integrating an aspect of the nature of science into teaching and learning by making a simple adaptation to an existing resource. The general idea is to provide rich experiences that will demonstrably contribute to building the capabilities over time, helping students to become more discerning when they engage with science as responsible citizens.

Getting beyond the rhetoric of “responsible citizenship”

Can science teaching and learning in school really contribute to The New Zealand Curriculum’s vision of students becoming “responsible citizens in a society in which science pays a significant role”? As I’ve just noted, the aim of the capabilities resources is to show how to add that something extra to explicitly and deliberately support this goal. I’ll now turn to a real dilemma to illustrate what the capabilities approach could add.

With three colleagues, I’ve just written a short book called Key Competencies for the Future (Hipkins, Bolstad, Boyd & McDowall, 2014). We devised a futures-thinking process, based around some wicked problems, and used this to explore the sorts of things that students will need to be capable of doing if they are going to build proactive futures rather than wait for whatever is coming down the line. Climate change is one the wicked problems we chose. We used it as the basis for a discussion of the challenge of sorting out conflicting knowledge claims and deciding who to trust. That’s a pretty fundamental citizenship responsibility. The slightly abridged table in Fig 1 comes from this chapter.

Have a look at this table. Pick just one of the strategies that might be used to deliberately mislead people and then go back to the descriptions of the five capabilities. Could they potentially help with spotting deliberate misinformation? For example:

  • If you have had lots of varied experiences of seeing how important it is to critique evidence and to deliberately seek out and address counter-arguments (Capability 3), would you be more likely to spot the fallacy behind “impossible expectations”?
  • If you had explored different ways to present information and had seen for yourself that different modes have their strengths and drawbacks (Capability 4), would you be more likely to understand the “Climategate” conversations as discussions about how best to communicate complex ideas?
  • If you had been challenged to think about the sufficiency of evidence (Capability 2) would you recognise “cherry picking”?

Fig 1: Strategies used to deny or explain away climate change

This set of strategies comes via the New Zealand-based Hot Topic website and has been drawn from the book titled Climate change denial: heads in the sand.

Conspiracy theories: for example, “Climategate”. This media scandal centred on a series of email communications between several groups of scientists. The scientists said they were discussing how best to represent their data so it could be understood by the public. The climate change sceptics claimed the messages between the scientists were evidence that they were conspiring to create misleading data sets.

Quoting fake experts: The British peer Lord Monkton, who toured New Zealand at the start of 2013, is a climate-change sceptic. He is not a climate change scientist but used his social status in the UK to lend authority to his personal views about climate change. Climate-change scientists said he had no authority to make knowledge claims in their expert area and should not be using his status to do this. As the headline at the start of this chapter shows, Lord Monkton deflected critique of his arguments as personal attacks on him – and of course, there was a personal element because of the way he was using his personal status.

Impossible expectations: This strategy involves sceptics saying that scientists should be certain before we need to listen to their knowledge claims, and that they should be in total agreement with each other. Scientists say they cannot and will not give such assurances of certainty. The central endeavour of science is to doubt and test knowledge claims to ensure their robustness. Doubting and debating comes with the territory. The uncertainties of complex systems change provide a further complication. Because outcomes of complex systems are emergent and unpredictable, certainty about climate changes is impossible, no matter how well scientists do their work.

Misrepresentations and logical fallacies: Some sceptics claim that the climate changes happening now must be natural because the climate has changed in the past. Scientists would certainly agree that the climate has changed in the past but argue that the logic of this argument is flawed. For example it assumes that all instances of climate change will have the same underlying causes. In cases like this, sceptics call on common-sense ideas and experiences to support knowledge claims. This poses real challenges for scientists because their rebuttals are often counter-intuitive and harder to understand.

Cherry picking evidence: Sceptics might say, for example, that a colder winter than usual is evidence that warming can’t be happening. Again they draw on common-sense experiences to look for seeming exceptions and counter-examples. Scientists would say that all the relevant evidence must be considered, not just selective parts. For them, counter-examples need to be carefully explored for what they might teach us that we don’t yet know. They should be taken as opportunities for knowledge-building, not confirmation of existing views.

The questions I’ve just asked relate to what we’d like adults to do. But when do we think this sort of capability-building should and can begin? The resources that sit behind each capability directly address this question by showing how to begin with really simple experiences at curriculum levels 1-2 and gradually build up from there.

The questions also assume a willingness to engage with contexts and controversies that could crop up in any number of ways and places. How much experience is needed before you can recognise the relevance of school learning experiences to the challenge at hand? Obviously, the more the better, but probably only if the connection between now and possible future relevance is an explicit focus for discussion. Students need to experience what these conversations feel like and sound like. The capabilities resources add this layer by identifying the link between the activity and the citizenship goal. They do this under the heading “What’s important here?” in each resource.

The biggest challenge of all relates to dispositions. You can’t make people critically engage with science. If we want today’s students to do so as tomorrow’s citizens we have to show them how, give them lots of practice, and support them to see these as things they can do, and want to do, for themselves. A few unrelated experiences in school science experiments won’t be enough because demonstrations of capability are multifaceted and context-specific, and you have to want to deploy them. For these reasons capability-building requires lots of related experiences that make a powerful impression on students and that build over time.

Why not just call them competencies?

The New Zealand Curriculum defines the key competencies as “capabilities for living and lifelong learning” (p.12). But what does this actually mean? We could read this sentence as if key competencies and capabilities are synonyms. I don’t think they are, and the difference isn’t just splitting straws. Let me explain why.

Several decades ago, the economist Amartya Sen and the American political philosopher Martha Nussbaum devised a ‘capabilities approach’ to address social justice issues that arise from economic inequalities. Typically, when economists want to tell how well a nation is doing, they measure things like GDP and the average wage. But broad-brush measures such as these smooth over huge differences between individuals and groups. Some people are simply better placed to take advantage of opportunities to maximise their employment/earning opportunities. The capabilities approach addresses inequalities by saying that we should focus on whether people are capable of making good use of opportunities that are potentially available to them. If not, we should ask why not and do something about it.

A lot of researchers in special education, or those who research the impact on learning of things like poverty, poor health, or racial violence (and sometimes all of these in combination), have picked up on this connection and brought these ideas from economics into education. The following quote illustrates what the approach adds to traditional thinking about educational opportunities:

“It is important to highlight the difference that the capabilities literature makes between one’s capability and one’s ability: If I were to discover that a world-renowned scientist was giving a lecture at my university, I would think it would be a wonderful opportunity to hear her speak. However if I discover that the talk will be given in French, the value of the opportunity is diminished (for me) because I do not speak French and I am not capable of making use of the opportunity. This fact has absolutely nothing to do with my ability to go out and learn French.” (Scherrer, 2014, p.206)

Jimmy Scherrer contrasts what he calls a capabilities perspective with a resources perspective. The latter looks to things such as school funding, or teachers’ levels of expertise when addressing inequality of achievement and/or opportunity. The capabilities model doesn’t neglect these things, but says they are not enough as measures of how well we are doing in meeting the challenge of educating all our students in ways that allow them to become the people they are capable of being.

The concept of capabilities starts from the premise that there are fundamental things that people need to be able to access to make the most of new opportunities. Martha Nussbaum developed this aspect of the capabilities model to describe a basic set of 10 capabilities that every person needs in order to become the person they are capable of being. But capabilities cannot be treated as if they are just individual possessions. Amartya Sen refused to name specific sets of capabilities because he said this could lead people to neglect the role of contexts in determining whether or not capabilities can be demonstrated. He noted that public reasoning strongly influences opportunities to demonstrate capabilities. By this Sen meant things such as the ethical and political frameworks that enable or constrain certain ways of being and doing. He also noted the influence of what he calls epistemic reasoning, which is the thinking (often tacit) that determines whose knowledge ‘counts’. These two interrelated aspects – the personal and the contextual/public are neatly summed up in the following quote:

“What are capabilities?” Martha Nussbaum (2011) asks. She replies, “They are answers to the question, ‘What is this person able to do and be? … They are not just abilities residing inside a person but also the freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social, and economic environment” (Scherrer, 2014, p,20).

We’ve tried to keep both personal and public aspects of capability embedded in the new resources. We’ve named a basic set of five science capabilities. These are based on the Nature of Science research literature but we are very aware that students will need many other related capabilities if they are to engage with science as responsible citizens. We couldn’t possibly name all the combinations that might be needed so we’ve gone for a strong manageable core set that is likely to underpin lots of others. We’ve assumed that students will need appropriate and ongoing learning opportunities if their potential capabilities are to grow stronger over time. The resources model the scaffolding of conversations about important aspects of the ‘public reasoning’ envisaged by Sen. Conversations about which knowledge to trust (and why), ethical considerations, and so on, arealready part of NOS approaches.

Getting back to The New Zealand Curriculum

Going back to the NZC definition of what key competencies are (or perhaps we would be better to say “are for”) we can also see that the idea of capability has a future-focused feel. It is about how today’s learning is preparing students for their lives outside of school, and for going on learning in their futures. In the Key Competencies and Effective Pedagogy project, we found that all the teachers whose stories we gathered had dual learning purposes in mind. There was a sharp focus on the knowledge and skills that are the traditional fare of learning, but this was combined with a thoughtful rationale for how and why the learning was contributing to students’ futures – to the people they could be and become.

Fig 2 is a slightly abbreviated summary of one story from the Key Competencies and Effective Pedagogy project, which we also included in the climate change chapter of Key Competencies for the Future. As you read it, consider how this teacher’s students were potentially building future citizenship capabilities at the same time as they were learning how to conduct more robust investigations as part of their current school learning.

Fig 2: Is there such a thing as healthy chocolate?

Right at the start of the school year, the students in this year 11 science class looked at an advertisement for 'healthy chocolate'. Their teacher asked them to discuss whether or not they trusted the claims made in this advertisement. They were encouraged to justify their decisions and record their thoughts on whiteboards, post-its, or electronic forums. The teacher then gave the students some ‘evidence’ behind the claim. They had to sort and interpret this for themselves, and then revisit the advertisement to consider their original decision. Had it changed or stayed the same? Why or why not?


In small groups, students then used a framework provided by the teacher to build a checklist of things to look for in trustworthy science. They then applied the checklist to a range of case studies to evaluate the science behind claims. Once they had some confidence with the checklist, the teacher gave them an article outlining the science behind the claim 'healthy heart chocolate' and asked them to evaluate this article using their checklist. Once they had done this, students revisited their decision about whether or not to trust the advertisement.


The checklist that students developed during this activity was subsequently used as they developed their own investigations. The teacher continued to challenge them to explain why she should trust their conclusions, using the language developed for the checklist. In subsequent NCEA assessments of students’ own investigations, the majority of Year 11 students were able to develop valid methods and evaluate their methods with specific reference to ideas within the checklist. In the following year the teacher observed these same students vigorously debating the methods they had devised for investigations. They were confident in their understanding of the nature of science investigations and able to express and justify their opinions and reflect on their methodology.

The discussion comes full circle when we take the idea that capability-building is for now and the future back to our curriculum’s statement about why all students should learn science. If we want them to fulfil their potential as responsible citizens, it’s up to us to ensure they build the capabilities they will need. Science capabilities are only one part of the overall mix of capabilities but as science teachers they are our responsibility. Some fortunate students will develop their science capabilities anyway. But many others depend on us to help them be and become the responsible citizens they are capable of being.

-          Rose Hipkins is a chief researcher at NZCER in Wellington, New Zealand. She leads NZCER’s work related to how the key competencies in the New Zealand Curriculum are understood and enacted.


Hipkins, R., Bolstad, R., Boyd, S., & McDowall, S. (2014). Key competencies for the future. . Wellington: NZCER Press.

Nussbaum, M. (2011) Creating capabilities: The human development approach. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

Scherrer, J. (2014). The role of the intellectual in eliminating the effects of poverty: A response to Tierney Educational Researcher, 43(4), 201-207.

More discussions you could read:

Hipkins, R. (2013). Competencies or capabilities: What's in a name? Set: Research Information for Teachers, 3(3), 55-57.

Hipkins, R., & McDowall, S. (2013). Teaching for present and future competency: Lessons from the New Zealand experience. Teachers and Curriculum, 13, 2-10. Retreived from http://tandc.ac.nz/index.php/tandc/article/view/5

Smits, H. (2013-2014). Competencies or capabilities? Alberta Teachers' Association Magazine, 94(3). Retrieved from http://www.teachers.ab.ca/Publications/ATA%20Magazine/Volume-94/Number-3/Pages/Competencies-or-capabilities.aspx

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  • Nice summary of the capabilities. I especially like the distinction between competency and capability. So good to shift the focus from content to what really matters...

    Posted by Terry Burrell, 29/08/2014 7:44pm (10 years ago)

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