International College Hong Kong
Oct 02, 2019

Ability, capacity and capability

Ability, capacity and capability - the difference between them and why, in respect of all three, (most) schools ask and answer the wrong questions.

Gathered in the school yard at the heart of the school campus are a class of students readying themselves to participate in a PE session. There are twenty students and, therefore, twenty unique ability profiles.

Each of the students is naturally endowed with a range of strengths and suitabilities that lend themselves more or less well to the activity planned for their participation in the session: an 800m run. None of the students made - or had - any choice in the parcelling out of these abilities, nor for the temperament which provides the context for their realisation. Physically and motivationally, each of the students is differently able. Such is life. This scene of random inequality happens to be a PE session but the same scenario would apply in any class, only with different abilities at stake in the successful completion of the challenges ahead.

The students’ different ability profiles are, no doubt, of passing interest, along the same lines that the vagaries and vicissitudes of human diversity are always inherently interesting. Assuming, that is, one cares at all about people’s needs and desires. The different profiles are, too, one would hope, ennobling - insofar as they remind us of the uniqueness of every human life, and its worth and value on those terms. But this is not where the interest lies for the well-attuned teacher. She has different foci.

The issue for this teacher concerns not the students’ ability profile, or at least not once it has passed the minimum threshold for their participation (i.e. they can run), but rather two other features about them. Firstly, how much capacity do these students have on this day of all days, at this moment of all moments? No less narrow a specification will do. Secondly, what capabilities do these students possess? How well trained are they, what techniques have they already mastered, how practiced are they, to what effect? This knowledge of prior conditions is vital.

These questions, concerned with capacity and capability, should interest the teacher far more deeply than the only passingly interesting question, how able are they? This teacher knows, ability is actually neither here nor there, if there is no capacity or if capability is lacking.

How so? Well, consider this: I may have the ability to do something - say, run 800 meters in three minutes - but having slept poorly the night before, having eaten no breakfast, and having sat at a desk for the previous hour causing cramps in my calves, my capacity is insufficient to make the attempt. Or I may have both the ability and the capacity to run the distance, but having never been trained, having no idea how to shape and hold my body, or how to pace my approach, I may lack the capability to achieve a time in line with my potential. My ability is strictly subordinate to more urgent concerns regarding my current capacity and my developing capabilities. That so many schools are obsessed with the narrow question of ability alone begins to explain why they are so generally poor at the goal they are set: educating the young.

Sincerely to address that goal, schools should, at all times, have just one question uppermost in their planning and staging of opportunities for students: how do we best manage students’ overall school experience to enable, as closely as possible, their optimal development as a well-rounded people, now and for their future? 

After all, to return to the example, we want them to participate not just in this one 800m run, but in countless further such runs that the future might bring, provided they remain interested in the possibility of participating. To demotivate or to destroy them in the pursuit of this single instance makes no sense. And this one run, and all the other runs to follow, are, in any case, nothing more than a part of the total project of self-realisation in which they are engaged. We must not lose sight of that.

So it is that that apparent dual focus - the present and future effects on children of the education they encounter - is only superficially two-fold in nature. The reality is that the twin focus is, in fact, unitary: the future wellbeing and welfare of the child develops entirely out of the nature of the education that she experiences now, and not just in school. As John Holt insists, children are “learning all the time.” Through this learning, attitudes and habits of mind are inculcated, which come to govern a person’s approach to life consistently unless subsequently amended. Ideally the school experience will graduate students who have no pressing need to rebalance their habitual approaches to life.


Given the weight of the ramifications, the question of how best to manage the student’s school experience can be framed usefully using Professor Guy Claxton’s phrase “epistemic apprenticeship”: that is, an apprenticeship in ways of learning, knowing, feeling and being. For a responsibly minded school, the question becomes, “What does an epistemic apprenticeship look like for each individual student?”

And answering the question takes us back directly to the three terms that applied to the students preparing for their 800m run in the schoolyard: ability, capacity and capability; three terms that we tend to use interchangeably but which are actually vitally different.

Human beings have many abilities. These abilities are inborn and latent, and who knows at any point in their development how extensive they might prove, if tapped to their fullest expression? It is a necessary truth of the human condition that most of us never get to explore even some of our abilities, let alone all of them, to anything like their full range. This is not necessarily a bad thing. If maximising one’s ability can be experienced as a passion or a metier, it can equally well be experienced as an obsession, and obsessive people are rarely altogether well. Certainly such is the nature of the human organism that one cannot explore all one’s abilities simultaneously or even consecutively. The development of one ability may come at the direct exclusion of another. Choices must be made and reconciliation effected according to the upshot of those choices. Eschewing regret for opportunities passed up, in favour of celebrating the successes of talents pursued, is another task that attends any settled maturity in the well adjusted grown up. Such is the world’s accommodation of us as people, in both its natural and its social dimensions, that some of our abilities will remain dormant or under-explored, while others will enjoy greater realisation.

Some of our abilities will come to matter greatly to us, others less so. Some not at all. Our commitment to our abilities waxes and wanes, as the shape of our wider life takes new and shifting forms. Society and culture, rightly or wrongly, temporarily or more enduringly, value some abilities over others, reward some abilities over others, celebrate some abilities over others. There are historical reasons for this that often bear little contemporary scrutiny. Certainly, there is frequently no evident correlation between the value that society places on different abilities and the contentment and peace of mind that these abilities bring those who possess them. To decide which abilities to cultivate is, in part, a matter of personal conscience.

Abilities, in short, are potentialities. Potential should be nurtured but, equally, husbanded. Potential should be drawn upon wisely and sustainably. Perhaps these last two terms are tautologous, and perhaps it is because in the modern ‘developed’ world we have lost that insight, which was common to our pre-industrial ancestors, that we seek now to maximise abilities and potentialities in ways that are damaging and self-defeating.

How, then, to recover this insight? The simple insight that potential can only usefully be tapped to the point where its exploitation is sustainable? The critical understanding is that the extent to which one can sustainably, and therefore wisely, realise one’s abilities is limited by one’s actual capacity to act, to think, to feel, to know, at any given time. This capacity - dynamic and shifting but in a finite, limited state at any particular moment - is comprised of one’s mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional resources. It is what the Chinese might term Chi, which ebbs and flows with one’s life condition.

To point this out is not, I think, a controversial or esoteric statement, it is a part of our everyday experience. Mental and physical acts that are within our grasp one day may defeat us the next. Our lack of sleep, our lack of nutrition, our anxiety over a health scare, our grief at a loss, our confusion at the state of the world, all these contingencies of life, along with countless others, have an effect on what we can and cannot do from moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day. These are Shakespeare’s “thousand natural shocks, that flesh is heir to.” They paralysed Hamlet, a protagonist whose capacity to act waxed and waned constantly as he sought the capability to avenge his father.

The thousand shocks are sometimes within the locus of our control, but just as often not. There is no final agreement that the world should play fair. Capacity is contextually derived, responsive to changes in circumstances, infinitely in flux, and the individual herself has only limited sway over the conditions that furnish it.

Optimising one’s capacity at any given moment depends on a number of factors. First, there is no doubt that some people are better equipped temperamentally to push themselves through barriers and hardships, and, in so doing, eke out every last drop of their capacity, in ways that they find satisfying and rewarding. Secondly, there is equally no doubt that some social and cultural environments are more conducive to encouraging those who live and work within them to function at the limits of their capacity in ways that remain healthy and fulfilling. And, thirdly, there are skills, habits of mind, and orientations to challenge, which one can learn and be trained in, and that help leverage existing capacity to its best possible effect.

This last is what brings us on to capabilities. Capabilities are the tools, devices, techniques, tricks of the trade, methods, scripts, routines, and so on, by which one accesses and makes the most of one’s abilities within the scope of one’s capacity. At ICHK, we think of capabilities as applied technologies, deployed across all areas of human engagement: somatic, cognitive, material, social, and spiritual.

Depending on the appropriateness and effectiveness of one’s capabilities and the skill with which one deploys them, they are liable to make greater or fewer demands on the resources that define one’s capacity when addressing a task. Given one’s capacity at any given moment, the capabilities on which one can comfortably and reliably draw provide for the realisation of one’s abilities to a greater or lesser extent.

For educators, then, the key questions are not, what is this learner’s ability? Or, how do I maximise this learner’s ability? Rather, the question is, what is the optimal expression of this learner’s abilities, taken as a complex, given her temperament and her current capacity - and what capabilities can I support her in using, to realise best the resources and energies available to her in pursuing this expression, and still leave her intact to make countless more forays into living in the future?

Our interest as educators should focus on maximising capacity, on the understanding that capacity is the specific context within which ability (potential) can be leveraged, expressed, realised, or actualised.

Pursuit of this interest comprises two parts. First, we must aim to create the lived conditions in which, as far as possible, each individual feels optimally supported mentally, physically, spiritually, socially, and emotionally, on a day to day basis. At ICHK, this is the aim encompassed and enabled by our 5+1 model of pastoral care.

Second, as teachers we must offer, model and rehearse the best capabilities on the basis of which learners can bring their energies to bear on tasks that matter to them, in the knowledge that these capabilities will be identified differently in different students and that flexibility and versatility are likely to be key components of any successful “capability profile.” Authentic and practiced confidence in this connection can be termed mastery. At ICHK, this applies across the tools and methods that students are introduced to as part of their learning in all subjects and domains, but is especially the province of Human Technologies, which takes capability as its central focus.

What we as teachers and as a school should not support, and this is in contrast to many schools and much educational presupposition, is the idea that maximising ability is in and of itself necessarily a good thing. It is not if it comes at the expense of exceeding one’s safe operating capacity to the point where one is seriously depleted and, ultimately, damaged as a person in one’s fullest dimensions. The education system has a dispiriting record of pushing students to maximise their abilities at the cost of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and worse.

In searching for an apt and memorable analogy to end this piece, I imagine a subterranean aquifer, a cavernous space kept perpetually full of water by the steady influx of myriad streams and rivulets, formed over geological time. Imagine if, once discovered and identified as a prized resource, in tapping this reservoir one were to discover that it is at risk of collapsing inwardly if too much water is removed too quickly, so that it cannot be replenished by the inflow in time to enable the internal equilibrium that maintains the outwards facing pressure on its walls.

What would be a wise and sustainable course to follow in such circumstances? To usher in some fantasised deadline and, under duress from this figment of the collective imagination, to withdraw the water in as short a period as possible, and to risk the collapse of the aquifer and thereby its whole or partial destruction? Or to draw the water carefully and manageably - in a word, sympathetically - with attention to its natural capacity and its capability to refill and replenish, for now and throughout its organic lifecycle?

It seems that in the world of both natural and human ‘resources’, we are making the wrong choice habitually.


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