Using a Capacity-Based Lens to Teach Positively

Updated: Aug 8, 2019

Carl S. Moore

University of the District of Columbia

Higher education instructors frequently attempt to improve their teaching by working on isolated concepts. As such, solutions are founded on assumptions and conclusions drawn from a focus on fixing problems rather than a more systematic look at opportunities. Similarly, this same limitation also applies to progressive efforts regarding inclusive instruction. Don't get me wrong; focusing on a single issue in isolation can lead to productive outcomes and innovations. Indeed, there are structural and social barriers that should be tended to and addressed but as educators using a broader conceptualization of both the problem and opportunities before us can lead to more substantive and impactful resolutions for ourselves and our learners.

Rather than hinging change on defining the problem, I recommend starting the process by first embracing the opportunity to view ourselves (as instructors) from a holistic point of view, in the same way that we are encouraged to view our learners. Many times, we become committed to a solution without first evaluating our self-awareness and personal development – both are key components for teaching positively, improving our classrooms, and multiplying opportunities for our students' capacity to learn and succeed.

Intentionally investing in our personal and professional growth fosters positive teaching, which subsequently leads to enhanced learning environments, higher satisfaction, and student success.

Teaching Positively

Teaching positively means that we intentionally consider how we can enhance learning environments, while at the same time increase the ways learners can be successful. Teaching positively aims to not only motivate learners but rather emphasizes how to increase their personal ability to achieve the course learning outcomes. It is a method of viewing the learning environment through a capacity-based lens.

Inherent in this view educators believe:

  • students are presumably competent,

  • capable of learning, and

  • desire achievement.

  • Furthermore, each student is an individual who demonstrates unique talents, skills, which will allow every student to grow and learn in unique ways.

This approach shifts responsibility solely from the student to a shared accountability between the teacher as a facilitator, peer collaborators, and individual effort centered on empowering learners.

Teaching positively relies on two premises:

1) That all learners have boundless potential regardless of their make-up.

2) It is the responsibility of educators to allow multiple opportunities for those they instruct to be successful and demonstrate their genius.

Moreover, using this perspective the learning environment is not defined by the classroom setting. Rather the learning environment is the symbiotic relationship that develops between the instructor and the learner. The extent to which both the instructor and learner are accountable to each other and themselves informs their experiences. Usually, conversations about teaching are focused on what instructors can do to increase the accountability for learners, but fewer conversations are about the instructors themselves. The notion of teaching positively aims to fill some of this void. There are many elements to teaching positively, but the primary levers that more instructors may embrace: intentional learning design, positive learner engagement, and self-care.

Intentional Learning Design

As educators, one of the most positive actions we can take is to make the bar for achievement explicit while providing appropriate supports to meet the best outcomes. As it relates to teaching and learning, course design is what pouring concrete foundation is to any built structure.

Enhancing learning environments and multiplying opportunities for learner success has to be developed into the design of the course.

Literature informs us that a quality learning experience has outcomes that are both interesting and simply stated; multimodal learning activities that help learners build muscles towards those outcome sand provides students with diversified opportunities to demonstrate their progress towards the stated outcomes (Wilson, 2018; Fink, 2012; Ambrose et al., 2013).

When designing a course, the builder's approach is critical. Are you building something you think will work for some or all? Do you believe in those who you are teaching? How will you provide opportunities for learners to learn within their course context? Are you creating a supportive environment that affords students opportunities to take low-stake risks in the learning process? What narrative are you telling students in your course? In designing the course more intentionally, you may benefit from a capacity-based mindset so that any perceived barriers become opportunities for innovation and continuous improvement for the learners and course overall.

Positive Learner Engagement

Intentional learning design is strengthened through positive learner engagement. Beyond designing a course for learning success, the instruction that brings it to life is vital. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) model provides a useful roadmap to inclusive teaching while encouraging positive learner engagement. UDL's promotion of meeting the multiple means of engagement principle links the importance of positive learning engagement to brain research (CAST, 2019). The principle informs us that using humor, one-on-one meetings, — and other personal ways to connect with learners — stimulates the affective network of the brain and promotes learning gains. Therefore, teaching positively is not just a "nice" thing to do, it may very well have physiological value.

Having a positive impact on learners does not only hinge on quality instruction and engagement. Learning theory informs us that student motivation is impacted by strategies to help learners value the course material, believe in their capabilities, and the presence of a supportive learning environment (Ambrose et al., 2013). Even instructors with the most research-informed techniques can struggle with creating a supportive learning environment and inadvertently disrupt a learner's ability to be successful through the activation of stereotype threat and micro aggressive behavior (Solorzano, 2000; Yosso, Smith, et al., 2009). Teaching positively requires awareness of the blind spots we all have when interacting with groups to which we do not belong. We have blind spots interacting with groups we belong to as well because we are all exposed to socializing agents that promote stereotypes in our subconscious minds. Recognition and increased awareness require a commitment to exposure to opportunities for reflection.


The connection between reflection and self-awareness is enhanced by self-care. Research conducted on mindfulness helps us understand the link between self-awareness and our ability to process information and maintain a positive outlook (Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, 2014). Through neuroplasticity, we can make extraordinary changes to the way our minds work. Further proper sleep, exercise, nutrition, and other mindfulness activities have been scientifically proven to moderate heart rate and increase oxygen in the bloodstream (Salomon, & Globerson, 1987). We also know there's a direct correlation between oxygen to the brain, blood flow to the brain, and a person's ability to have increased thought (Medina, 2011). So, using a logic sequence, we can understand an instructor's wellness has a direct correlation to how they feel in their skin when interacting with learners.

I am thrilled to see that teaching, and learning scholars are making links between student physiological needs and learning (Doyle & Zakrajsek, 2018; Bowen, 2012). I want to extend the conversation by inviting educators to consider themselves holistically as we do learners. Taking care of oneself is excellent modeling for learners and could be better integrated into the curriculum. I realize this approach is novel and familiar all at the same time. There are instructors that can feel terrible physically and still design great courses, engage learners positively, and provide quality instruction. However, it is clear that looking at ourselves holistically actually enhances our ability to facilitate learning.

The term "growth mindset" is becoming popular in recent years just as the terms "Victim and Creator" was popularized by Skip Downing's On Course (a popular book in Freshman Orientation Courses in the early 2000s). The notion of "teaching positively" seeks to build from these progressive waves while encouraging instructors to be more intentional in designing learning experiences, interacting with learners, and taking care of themselves. I leave you with the following questions to consider as you continue on your instructional journey.

Reflection Questions:

In what ways can I use learning activities and formative assessments to help students build their interest and motivation in the course?

What ways do I consciously use positive framing, personability, humor, etc. to foster a positive learning environment?

How has my self-care impacted my ability to provide quality instruction?


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

Bowen, J. A. (2012). Teaching naked: How moving technology out of your college classroom will improve student learning. John Wiley & Sons.

Doyle, T., & Zakrajsek, T. (2018). The new science of learning: How to learn in harmony with your brain. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Medina, J. (2011). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school.

Salomon, G., & Globerson, T. (1987). Skill may not be enough: The role of mindfulness in learning and transfer. International Journal of Educational Research, 11(6), 623-637.

Solorzano, D., Ceja, M., & Yosso, T. (2000). Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate: The experiences of African American college students. Journal of Negro Education, 60-73.

Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Positive psychology: An introduction. In Flow and the foundations of positive psychology (pp. 279-298). Springer, Dordrecht.

Thatcher, J. B., Wright, R. T., Sun, H., Zagenczyk, T. J., & Klein, R. (2018). Mindfulness in information technology use: Definitions, distinctions, and a new measure. MIS Quarterly, 42(3), 831-847.

Wilson, M., & Mackie, K. (2018). Design. Learning by Doing: Postsecondary Experiential Education.

Yosso, T., Smith, W., Ceja, M., & Solórzano, D. (2009). Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate for Latina/o undergraduates. Harvard Educational Review, 79(4), 659-691

741 views1 comment