How primary teachers are implementing the 7 General Capabilities

There are 7 General Capabilities (GCs) in the Australian Curriculum – so, how are teachers implementing them in the classroom? A new research study focusing on New South Wales government primary schools offers some insights.

Chief Investigator Dr Don Carter and Associate Professor John Buchanan, of the University of Technology Sydney, found most participants didn’t formally integrate them into their teaching and learning programs, instead addressing them informally and incidentally.

The 7 GCs are: literacy, numeracy, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) capability, critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, ethical understanding, and intercultural understanding.

The study was carried out before the COVID-19 pandemic and involved 185 teachers taking an online survey. Twelve schools volunteered to participate further, resulting in 36 face-to-face interviews with teachers. Leaders and teachers from a mix of year levels (from K-6), and with varying levels of experience in the profession, were involved.

‘I guess we expected to find that teachers valued the General Capabilities, in so far as the principles underlying each of them. Because teaching, by its very nature, is a humanitarian act and teachers in general are humanitarians and very humane,’ Dr Carter tells Teacher.

‘So, things like intercultural understanding would be at the heart of all teachers’ actions and certainly critical and creative thinking would be as well. So, we were assuming that teachers valued the GCs and that’s what we found, in the main.’

Research findings and implications

There were 4 main findings:

  • Participants ascribe value to the GCs and value and work towards developing and strengthening their students’ capacities for rational and reasoned thinking, providing opportunities for creativity in classroom activities.
  • Most participants, through their day-to-day teaching, work towards integrating the principles of the GCs into their classroom structures and processes.
  • Participants affirmed the benefits of textual study. The knowledge and skills developed through textual study and associated activities were seen as important for a ‘long-term’ view of education.
  • Participants were dedicated to ensuring that their students were equipped with not only literacy and numeracy skills but also the self-awareness and interpersonal skills that will shape them into positive, supportive community members and help them to establish and maintain positive and fulfilling relationships.

It’s important to note that educators are not specifically required to program the GCs into teaching and learning, or report on student achievement.

Study participants were asked about their understanding of the GCs. ‘I guess some of the capabilities are rather abstract; they’re about attitudes and they’re not easily defined in the first instance and perhaps easily identified in pedagogical practice,’ Dr Carter says. ‘I think ACARA has done a pretty good job in developing support materials for the GCs and explicating what they mean.’

Just over half of the participants (53.4%) agreed with the statement ‘I understand the general capabilities’ and approximately one-quarter (26.7%) were unsure. ‘To me it signals that there’s more work to be done with schools and teachers to enhance their understanding,’ the researcher notes. But he is keen to stress teachers are already under pressure and stretched for time. ‘We don’t want to make the curriculum like more of a layered cake where there’s more requirements and more tick boxes that teachers have to do.’

In the survey, 33.9% of respondents agreed ‘my school prioritises the teaching of the general capabilities’ while 39.3% were unsure. Of the schools made it a priority, this was mostly done informally. ‘One of the things we found was that for a lot of the teachers in the interviews, they hit on the GCs – particularly things like social and personal capability – incidentally in their teaching, they hit on intercultural understanding incidentally in their teaching. For example, if they’re teaching a particular text, a picture book etcetera, they’ll pick up on that type of principle in their teaching.’

In the interviews, 11 educators described a more formal approach where the GCs are integrated into teaching and learning programs. ‘I found it interesting with one of the schools, where the school decided to make the GCs as their starting point for programming, so they’re integrated as a matter of course, and they report on their GCs as well to parents,’ Dr Carter recalls. At this school, students also did a self-assessment of their skills in the 7 capabilities. ‘I think that’s a really great idea because it’s handing over some ownership to students themselves, it’s revealing their GCs and it’s a springboard to talk about them and deepen student understanding of the GCs.’

Dr Carter says one way forward would be for schools who are putting GCs at the heart of their programming to become leaders in this area. ‘They could be sharing what they’re doing with other schools to show how this can be done without necessarily adding more work to the teachers’ workload. I think ACARA needs to take the lead as well and have some school models on how this might be done.

‘But I think too that teachers generally would be sort of happy that they’re covering these GCs as a matter of course and it would just be a case of highlighting where they’re [already] doing these in their programming.’

Dr Carter and Associate Professor Buchanan share full details of their study and discuss its findings in a paper published this month in the journal Curriculum Perspectives.

References and related reading

Carter, D., & Buchanan, J. (2022). Implementing the general capabilities in New South Wales government primary schools. Curriculum Perspectives, 1-12.

Carter, D. (2019). Restoring purpose: applying Biesta’s three functions to the Melbourne Declaration. Curriculum Perspectives, 39(2), 125-134.

As a leader, does your school prioritise the General Capabilities? How do you cover them in your own teaching and learning programs?

As a classroom practitioner, what are the enablers or barriers to teaching the GCs? For example, would you like more professional learning? Are your priorities dictated by time pressures?

Dr Don Carter says most teachers in the study were covering the GCs incidentally, as a matter of course. With a colleague, or group of colleagues, look at previous lesson or curriculum plans and highlight where you’re already covering the different GCs.