In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section GeoCapabilities in Geography Education

  • Introduction
  • The Capabilities Approach
  • GeoCapabilities
  • Knowledge Questions
  • Future 3 Curriculum Thinking
  • Curriculum Making and Teacher Agency
  • International Impact of GeoCapabilities
  • GeoCapabilities in Action
  • GeoCapabilities and Young People’s Perspectives
  • Further Developments

Geography GeoCapabilities in Geography Education
Tine Béneker, David Lambert
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0282


GeoCapabilities is an international approach to understanding the spirit, purposes, and potentials of geography as a curriculum subject mainly in primary and secondary education. The GeoCapabilities approach is concerned with identifying and promoting the development of geography’s distinctive contribution to the school curriculum as it is enacted by thousands of teachers in various contexts and settings. GeoCapabilities stresses geography’s principal object of study—broadly stated as the Earth as the home of humankind—as highly significant, not in any sense to prescribe one version of the good life but in a way that allows for plurality in helping young people comprehend the “ways of the world”: the economic, environmental, political, and sociocultural processes that result in the worlds we experience. Thus, with whose knowledge do teachers and students need to be engaged? What agency do teachers play in making content and pedagogic selections (what to teach and how)? How do we help vision future curriculum scenarios that take seriously issues of empowerment, equity, and justice? The GeoCapabilities project evolved over a period of ten years from its pilot stage (GeoCap1, funded by the US National Science Foundation) through its main EU-funded conceptual phase (2013–2017 GeoCap 2: 539079-LLP-2013-1-UK-COMENIUS-CMP) to its final applications phase (2018–2022 GeoCap 3: 2018-1-UK01-KA201-048104). This article begins with a discussion of the capabilities approach, drawing out some of the significant theoretical aspects that have resonated with subject specialists with an interest in school teaching as an educational practice (theme 1). Theme 2 then describes in some more depth the concept of GeoCapabilities as it was developed through the official project and through the writings of associates and others internationally. One of the key concerns, the knowledge questions that guide curriculum decisions, is covered in theme 3 and this is followed by a focus on what we call the “three futures heuristic” that the GeoCapabilities project advocates as a productive means to vision future curriculum enactment (theme 4). A key question in GeoCapabilities concerns the agency of teachers and the possibility of “curriculum making,” opened up in theme 5. This is followed by a consideration of the project’s international impact (theme 6) and an overview of some practical outcomes that have been reported in the academic and professional literature (theme 7). Theme 8 overviews ways in which the principles and tools emerging from GeoCapabilities have been applied in the sub-field of young people’s geographies, and in theme 9 “spin-off” developments are identified.

The Capabilities Approach

The capabilities approach is entwined with the concept of education as a pillar of human development (see Boni and Walker 2013). This is different from the widespread reductionist view of education as fundamentally an economic investment. According to Hinchliffe 2007, human development thinking concerns not only the provision of useful skills including those that may be applicable to the workplace, but also the advancement of well-being, which includes empowerment, equity, opportunity, and choice. Capabilities refer to combinations of functions that can be said to underpin well-being—and crucially, the freedom of “doing and being” in ways that makes a person’s life valuable, as explained in Nussbaum 2006. Individual agency is of central importance, but to be of value in democratic society, the freedom “to be and to do” is not unfettered, being constrained by responsibilities to listen to divergent perspectives and subject choices of thought and action to “reasoned scrutiny” (see Nussbaum and Sen 1993). Thus, the capabilities approach encourages a larger vision of educational purpose than that implied by the human capital model, including enhancing the well-being and freedom of individuals and groups based on nurturing inclusive democratic practices (Deng 2022). According to Amartya Sen cited in Boni and Walker 2013, the latter “depends on discussion and collective reasoning that injects more information and knowledge, diverse perspectives and plural voices into debates” (p. 7). The capabilities approach appeals to educationists because of its central concern with freedom and democratic practices on both curriculum and pedagogic thinking of teachers, as explained by Bustin 2019. This immediately takes us to another key concept of capabilities, the idea of human agency which, in educational encounters, applies to both teachers and students: Are teachers free to act according to what they value in their work? Are students taught in ways that will enable them to achieve, to think, and to act according to the goals and values they regard as important? The capabilities approach focuses mainly on the freedoms of individuals to know and value—and to act accordingly. It should be acknowledged, however, that the capabilities approach does not deal fully with the contextual and structural aspects of society and institutions that may govern the processes through which agency is achieved.

  • Boni, A., and M. Walker, eds. Human Development and Capabilities: Re-imagining the University of the Twenty-First Century. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2013.

    This edited collection has its focus on higher education, but how the capabilities approach is applied to this context is of great interest to educationists in the primary and secondary phases of education. Being published at around the time the GeoCapabilities project was beginning its conceptual phase, the discussions in this book have been influential.

  • Bustin, R. Geography Education’s Potential and the Capability Approach. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-25642-5

    The author of this full-length book was a school-teacher partner of GeoCap2 and was undertaking a doctoral degree at the time. The book provides a review of capabilities and insights gathered through both the GeoCapabilities project and Bustin’s own empirical research. The book is optimistic about the capabilities approach being able to help teachers release the potential of their subject teaching. It also contains a discussion of some telling critique arising from the author’s work with teacher colleagues.

  • Deng, Z. “Powerful Knowledge, Educational Potential and Knowledge-Rich Curriculum: Pushing the Boundaries.” Journal of Curriculum Studies 54.5 (2022): 599–617.

    DOI: 10.1080/00220272.2022.2089538

    This article is included here because, in its attempt to look anew across the sprawling field of curriculum studies by a prominent international scholar in the field, the role of the capabilities approach, particularly in the way in which it has been iterated in GeoCapabilities, finds a place. Interestingly, Deng uses a similar formulation to Bustin in his title (see Bustin 2019), stressing the educational potential of curriculum and pedagogic endeavor, a term that is inherent in the capabilities approach.

  • Hinchliffe, G. “Beyond Key Skills: The Capability Approach to Personal Development.” In Special Issue: The Concept of Capability and Its Application to Questions of Equity, Access and the Aims of Education. By G. Hinchliffe. Prospero 13.3 (2007): 5–12.

    Although there is an enormous literature on capabilities and the applicability of the approach to various fields such as welfare economics, humanities, gender, and health, this special issue of the slightly obscure philosophy journal is cited because of the impact it had at the time in shaping the emergent concept of GeoCapabilities (see GeoCapabilities). The article draws on capabilities to provide an alternative and altogether more ambitious way of conceptualizing personal development mainly in the context of adult education.

  • Nussbaum, M. “Education and Democratic Citizenship: Capabilities and Quality Education.” Journal of Human Development 7.3 (2006): 385–396.

    DOI: 10.1080/14649880600815974

    As a contribution to her long-standing argument about education as a public good, Nussbaum’s article critiques the neglect of the arts and humanities and the tendency in school to stress the internalization of information, rather than the formation of the student’s critical and imaginative capacities. The paper argues for the development of young people’s capabilities through education, focusing on critical thinking, world citizenship, and imaginative understanding.

  • Nussbaum, M. C., and A. Sen, eds. The Quality of Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

    The book is concerned with how to conceptualize the quality of life and how it may be measured, with a sharp focus on the shortcomings of a utilitarian approach. Capabilities is offered by Sen as an alternative (in his chapter “Capability and Well-Being”). It is a relatively early collection deliberating in what a thriving life consists of and the freedoms that this implies.

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