Building Capacity

No, this post is not about how many people are legally allowed in a given space as determined by floor space, number of doors, and room configuration.

This post is about human capacity–the human potential–of each person within an organization. The notion of building capacity and its partner, sustainability, were introduced to me at the Tointon School and Teacher Leadership Academy, which I recently attended in Vail, Colorado.

There was not a particular presentation or session about building capacity; rather, the idea of building human potential, along with sustaining it and, hopefully, its accompanying positive results, was alluded to throughout the three days by every speaker. No single presenter stood up and told us what building capacity meant; I just had to keep inferring and refining my understanding of it as we progressed through the hours and days of learning to cultivate this in our school.

And so here I am trying to write about it, to help me solidify my understanding of this concept of building capacity.

To me, capacity is that which a human being has the potential to become, in the area of knowledge, skills, behaviors, and techniques. Building capacity is about changing, about becoming more, about distinguishing a fixed mindset and nurturing a growth mindset. Capacity can happen accidentally; but, when it is done by design–by intentionally putting into place a culture and supporting structures– it can flourish more readily and within and across a greater number of individuals. I think you’ll agree that capacity is limitless, that it is interminable.

Less concrete, but equally critical human capacities, include self-awareness, attitudes, purpose, ethics, and world views. There is also the larger collective capacity of any organization.

Perhaps the most fascinating strategy that stuck with me is asking questions rather than providing answers. If a teacher inquires about something, a school leader might ask several questions of her in return, to get her ideas and opinions, to build upon what she thinks. Then, if necessary, the leader may contribute her own perspective (note that it is not her opinion or her answer), intentionally implying that she does not have all the answers.

Likewise, the same technique can be used with students. If a student asks a question, the teacher responds by encouraging the student to talk more and formulate a response. This approach builds capacity in all members of an organization by making them feel respected and equally important and valuable.

Having permission to be innovative and autonomous – to work with purpose – also builds capacity by unleashing human potential. Teachers need opportunities for instructional inquiry (what effect will it have on achievement if I change this or implement that?) so they can improve their instructional practice.

Educators need plenty of opportunity for self-reflection as well as the time and expectation to reflect upon their teaching. Collaboration and peer coaching are highly effective means of building capacity. Teachers should know their own strengths and potential areas for growth. The latter–potential areas for growth–should not be seen as a weakness but instead as an opportunity to not only develop capacity but to experience the process and thrill of building capacity. Again, this is true with students as well.

It will probably come as no surprise that when I Googled building capacity, I came upon capacity building in nonprofit organizations and non-government organizations, capacity building in communities, how it’s defined and used in substance abuse prevention programs, and a whole host of other applications. Because trust and collaboration are two of its biggest pillars, capacity building has me thinking not only of my professional relationships and the relationships I have with students, but of my various personal relationships, too, and what I can do differently to give the gift of capacity to the people in my life.

I think you’ll agree that being mindful of capacity, and how it is developed, and how we, as individuals, can be instrumental in building it in others, is quite powerful. What have you heard of building capacity or, now that you know what it is, what does it have you thinking about?


Building Capacity

I must give credit to the 2014 Tointon: Institute for Educational Change for providing the opportunity for me and the rest of the leadership team at the school at which I teach, as well as the leadership teams of 11 other Colorado schools, to participate in the 2014 School and Teacher Leadership Academy. Bob and Betty Tointon donated an initial $3,000,000 to start the institute and an additional 25 other individuals and organizations complemented that with gifts of at least $250,000. It warms my heart to know that someone out there, a whole lot of someones, really do care about education.

From the Tointon webpage: “The Tointon Institute seeks to create effective schools through effective leadership at all levels.  Our program gives school leaders additional leadership skills to function successfully in a rapidly changing school environment while also giving them the opportunity to work with other colleagues and to gain from their experiences and expertise.  All Tointon academies provide participants with an academic and stimulating learning environment where they can reflect on their current contexts, move leadership decisions to a more conscious level and focus actions and strategies on critical issues related to school effectiveness and ultimately, to increased student achievement.  Finally, the Tointon Institute for Educational Change develops a formal and informal state networking apparatus for school leaders that has and continues to foster a sustained exchange of ideas as well as a forum in which to explore the dilemmas facing today’s school leaders.

11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Billybuc
    Jun 16, 2014 @ 14:27:28

    A wonderful message, Randee!


  2. Deborah
    Jun 16, 2014 @ 17:52:18

    This is interesting to have a name and a few tips for something that many of us have a natural inclination for. It’s nice to know how to more actively cultivate it. Thanks for sharing this experience. Sounds like a great conference!


    • randee
      Jun 16, 2014 @ 18:09:55

      I know, it’s just another one of those NO DUH, NO BRAINERs, but putting a label on it and bringing it to a more conscious level is really helpful. I’ll bet you’re a natural at it.


    • randee
      Jun 16, 2014 @ 18:11:12

      And what I should have done was ask you some questions, instead of giving you the answers. 🙂 It sounds like you know a lot about this, at least in a natural sense. How do you do this in your work, Deb?


      • Deborah
        Jun 17, 2014 @ 18:37:03

        I guess you paid attention at the conference. Damn you! haha
        Unfortunately, the educational system here focuses on memorizing tons of information for passing tests, so students don’t generally do a lot of thinking on their own. This makes the teaching of writing very difficult. So, I learned early on that it wasn’t enough to simply encourage them to write (or even think) creatively. I had to be more proactive.

        For me, when I actually think about it, it seems to be something that is done in two stages. I needed to learn how to “plant” ideas. Level 1: Using PPT’s and other visual aids, I show them how to create outlines from a brainstorm that I do on the board right in front of them. I ask them to give me a crazy topic to illustrate that it doesn’t have to be something that I know about or have some planned idea for. This Level 1 stuff goes further, and it might seem like “giving them answers,” but most of them have never seen the creative process modeled before. In fact, when I first mention the writing process, they look at me as if I’m from another planet, not just another country. Because of their memorization-based past, they need to be primed for Level 2.

        Level 2 is to ask questions, but in such a way that I at least give them a possibility of an answer. For example, I might ask, “What do you think would happen if a restaurant didn’t have Wi-fi? Most of the time, I’m met with blank looks, like why on earth would anyone do that? Then I push a little, “Do you think people might actually take time to talk to each other instead of focusing on their smart-phones”? Many of them will still be stuck on the answer I “plant.” BUT, a few brave souls will find their way to an original thought or idea. On rare occasion, I might see a student’s eyes light up as they take an idea and run with it. But it is rare. A student like that is someone I can actually begin to have Level 3 conversations with, where we can really explore ideas. But luckily, the one or two a year that get to that point can almost sustain me through the rest of the endless process of trying to encourage some thinking.

        I guess I might have to consider a blog post. haha

      • randee
        Jun 20, 2014 @ 07:25:37

        I do believe I need to take your writing course! Did you come up with these levels and “label” them based on what you were seeing with your students?

  3. kellyingrandjunction
    Jun 19, 2014 @ 22:31:17



  4. writeejit
    Jun 23, 2014 @ 17:53:30

    Really interesting. Definitely something to explore on all levels of personal and professional relationships. Thanks!


    • randee
      Jun 24, 2014 @ 23:46:57

      You’re welcome. And thanks for your interest. I think it’s something we know about subconsciously but can work on more readily once we know the term for it.


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