The General Capabilities: Where Next?

From their inception in 2008’s Melbourne Declaration to the first inclusion in the 2010 ACARA F-10 Curriculum the General Capabilities have sat alongside traditional subject areas such as English, Mathematics, Humanities and Science. The 2019 Mparntwe Declaration  has now superseded the Melbourne Declaration and underpins the recent review of the Australian Curriculum.

There are seven General Capabilities:

  • Literacy
  • Numeracy
  • Information and communication technology (ICT) capability
  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Personal and social capability
  • Ethical understanding
  • Intercultural understanding

Under the current consultation there are minimal proposed changes to the GCs, with the exception of the renamed ‘Digital Literacy’ that updates the ICT capability. Like much of the Curriculum, the elements and sub-elements have been refined somewhat, and there has been more effort to align the GCs to specific curricula, such as identifying Personal and Social in the HPE strands, Critical and Creative in The Arts, and so on.

This last change is possibly one of the most important and looks like an effort on ACARA’s part to address the greatest flaw in the GCs since their creation. Whilst the Capabilities have been in the curriculum since 2010 many schools have been at a loss for what to actually do with them. Variations between states and sectors have also clouded the message, such as the Victorian Curriculum’s exclusion of Literacy, Numeracy, and ICT from its GCs because, “it is unnecessary to define Literacy and Numeracy as a distinct curriculum.”

There has never been a unified approach to how to deliver the General Capabilities, or suitable professional learning, resources, or consultation on whether to integrate the skills, teach them discretely, or both. In 2019, for example, I took part in a forum in which VCAA engaged members of the various state teaching associations – VATE, MAV, STAV, DATTA etc. – for an exploration of how the GCs aligned to various strands of each curriculum. That single session was never followed up on, and though we had great discussions on the day we were left underwhelmed by the process, and still had no clarity on how, where, and why to include the Capabilities.

It’s disappointing, because the GCs represent one of the most interesting and exciting aspects of contemporary education. The inclusion of 21st Century Skills – whether taught alongside other content or delivered explicitly – offers students an opportunity to grow beyond the bounds of the traditional curriculum.

Consider the extra depth that the Ethical Understanding and Digital Literacy Capabilities could add to a discussion in the English classroom around the curation of a digital identity. Taking a classic example of a Year 7 introductory activity – getting students to present to a group or class about their own lives and contexts – the GCs could be leveraged to bring this activity into an online context that is highly relevant to students’ lives.

Combining components from English, Ethics, and Digital Literacy could produce the backbone for an interesting Y7 unit on the ethical curation and creation of a digital persona:

  • analyse the ways in which text structures and language features of print and visual/digital texts, and their use in combination, shape meaning and vary according to audience and purpose
  • explain how different character traits such as honesty, trust, courage, and selfishness interact with obligations or duties to determine ethically appropriate responses in diverse contexts
  • manage online safety by engaging in positive, safe and ethical behaviour when using tools and digital environments, including social interactions or on networked devices, and know the process for reporting online abuse

But who’s writing these units? Who’s creating the resources? Who’s offering the guidance and examples to schools and teachers?

Whether the updated curriculum adequately defines and clarifies the General Capabilities remains to be seen. If the new curriculum is too soft on the “soft skills”, and teachers are forced to second-guess how the GCs are to be implemented, then many will treat them as they have been treated in the past: yet another tick-a-box objective in a crowded curriculum.

Used wisely, the General Capabilities offer students the opportunity to experience a rich, diverse, and engaging education experience. I hope for the students’ sake the new curriculum gets it right.

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