Research on working theories: Michelle Hill (2015)

The concept of working theories has gained traction internationally. Michelle Hill wrote an excellent thesis under the supervision of Professor Liz Wood at the University of Sheffield. At the time (at least), Michelle was a teacher of young primary school aged children in Switzerland.

Titled Dead forever: Young children building theories in a play-based classroom, Michelle undertook a focused and in-depth study using video recordings and participant observation of children’s play and classroom conversations to gatherSONY DSC evidence of children’s theories. Michelle’s thesis suggests that as young children participate in the life of their peer culture they build working theories related to human nature, to the social world and to the physical and natural world. These working theories are a way for children to explore and develop their ethical, social and gender identities, and may act as a bridge between cultural understandings of morals, ethics and gender roles and children’s own understandings of who they are and their place in the world. In pedagogical practice, through being sensitive and responsive to children’s working theories, practitioners may be able to engage more deeply with children about fundamental life issues that are of concern or interest to them.

I hope you are keen too to read Michelle’s work more closely, the reference to her full thesis is below.

If you have a good memory, or if you are a recent reader you can check back, you will see there may be a link to my June 2016 post that discussed the work Maria and I did interpreting children’s real questions and links to identity formation in our TLRI. Here’s a reminder:

We realised that the notion of identity was central to their range of inquiries and working theories, and came up with the following fundamental inquiry as underpinning children’s interests, inquiries and working theories:

How can I build personal, learner, and cultural identities as I participate in interesting, fulfilling, and meaningful activities with my family, community, and culture?

Children’s identities included personal (‘Who am I?’, ‘Who are my parents/family?’, ‘What does it mean to be a girl/boy?’), learner (‘Who am I as a learner?’, ‘What learning strategies can I build here?’, ‘How will teachers help me learn?’), and cultural (‘Where do I come from?’, ‘Who am I as a member of a family/culture/ community?’). The latter incorporated inquiry into a shared national identity (‘What features do “New Zealanders” share?’). These interests and the ways they were expressed served to create a sense of multiple personal and shared identities for the children as members of peer groups, families, and wider communities and cultures.

The questions of importance that followed from this were interpreted as:

  • What can I do, now that I am bigger, that the older children do?
  • What do intelligent and responsible adults do?
  • How can I make special connections with people I know?
  • How can I make and communicate meaning?
  • How can I understand the world I live in?
  • How can I develop my physical and emotional well-being?
  • How can I express my creativity?


Hedges, H., & Cooper, M. (2016). Inquiring minds: Theorizing children’s interests. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 48(3), 303–322. DOI: 10.1080/00220272.2015.1109711

Hill, M. (2015). Dead forever: Young children building theories in a play-based classroom. EdD thesis, University of Sheffield.


Photo credit: “Pudge being helpful” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Phyllis Buchanan


Research on working theories: Daniel Lovatt

boy feeding dollWe often hear of people who become educators by following a long-held passion for children and teaching.  However for others the journey to becoming an educator can be more recent,  achieved following unexpected realisations and changes in outlook, which inspire a move from their existing career to that of education. Such people are often those who study a graduate teaching qualification. Not many though turn that passion further into a research career subsequent to their successful teaching.

Daniel Lovatt’s pathway to education (see link below) is an example of a discovery of a passion for the care and education of young children.  Daniel was working as a successful electrical engineer when, following time spent with his young daughter at kindergarten, he came to recognise that working with children was a career he felt passionate about.

You have seen Daniel’s name often in my posts as he has been a teacher-researcher in Teaching and Learning Research Initiative projects, and as the link below shows, is now undertaking his PhD on working theories. Daniel is a real inspiration to others to do what Mark Twain suggested: Don’t dream your life but live your dream.

Daniel’s recent published research:

  • Hedges, H., Weisz-Koves, T., Cooper, M., & Lovatt, D. (2017). Beyond activities: Exploring real questions for deeper understandings of children’s interests. Early Childhood Folio, 21 (2), 8-14.
  • Lovatt, D., Cooper, M., & Hedges, H. (2017). Enhancing interactions: Understanding family pedagogy and funds of knowledge “on their turf”. In A. C. Gunn, C. A. Hruska (Eds.) Interactions in early childhood education: Recent research and emergent concepts (pp. 99-112). Singapore: Springer.


Photo credit: ‘Playing with doll’. Retrieved from Encyclopaedia Britannica ImageQuest

Working theories for making sense of the natural, social, physical, and material worlds

pitch a tentKia ora – sorry it’s been a while again between posts… this is a good news one.

A number of resources are being offered on-line to support curriculum understandings and implementation.

One is: Working theories for making sense of the natural, social, physical, and material worlds | Education in New Zealand

Here you will find some samples of learning stories with reference to children’s working theories. As with many assessments, the nature and components (knowledge, skills and strategies, attitudes and expectations) of each working theory could have been teased out more to show that the kaiako understood what made these examples of children’s ideas and thinking working theories. Let me know if you have some better examples you can share I could post on my blog (suitably anonymised).

A range of useful resources are being added to the Te Whāriki site on TKI. It can take a bit of searching around to know which tabs to look under so be adventurous and explore the site. Here is the link to the information about working theories, which in a circular way will lead you back to this blog eventually 🙂

Photo credit: “pitch a tent” (CC BY 2.0) by Virginia State Parks

What’s going on inside a toddler’s brain?

child thinkingWhat a big question! The complexity of thinking, the hard work of thinking …
Neuroscience is very popular as a rationale for why we should be paying more attention to children’s development and the social, cultural and environmental factors that support healthy and active development. It certainly helps us to understand the bigger picture. Enjoy this article designed for parents but also of interest to kaiako:

Photo credit: “Thinking” (CC BY 2.0) by Peter Lindberg

Reflective questions on working theories: Promoting curiosity and inquiry

Within the strand of exploration in Te Whāriki, the examples of practices for infants, toddlers and young children (pp. 48-49) and considerations for leadership (p. 50) prompt kaiako to think about the environments and engagements that encourage curiosity, exploration and working theories to flourish.

In this post I highlight some of the suggested reflective questions on p. 50 to focus attention on ways working theories can be identifiably present in curricular environment set-ups, planning, learning and responsive engagements:

»How might kaiako make thoughtful decisions about which of children’s spontaneous play, interests and working theories might be used to create curriculum experiences?

»In what ways can real toolgardening class with siena's preschools (such as gardening tools, saws, microscopes) be used confidently for exploration that leads to meaningful learning and sense making?

»How might kaiako encourage children to see a range of strategies they might adopt for exploration, thinking, reasoning and problem solving?

»What domain knowledge would help kaiako to recognise, respond to and extend children’s generation and refinement of working theories?

»How might kaiako create and model a culture of inquiry amongst children?

»What opportunities exist for children to participate in longer-term projects that support the development of their working theories? children observe nature in ECE with teacher

I hope these questions are provoking critical thought by individual kaiako and reflective discussions in teaching teams as they get to know and use the revised Te Whāriki. I welcome any responses to these questions as comments on this blog post and look forward to hearing from you.

Photo credits: “gardening class with siena’s preschool” (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by  davidsilver 

Children Observe Nature in Day Care Center. Retrieved from Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest.



Working theories in the revised Te Whāriki

Rather like a blog post, or indeed any piece of writing – including learning stories – you may or may not have any idea how many hours and drafts went into creating pieces in Te Whāriki that I feel are significant – and am proud of – in relation to my research and the purpose of this blog. If you are a keen and close reader you will recognise some of the key words and phrases 🙂

Firstly, working theories remain alongside learning dispositions as key overarching outcomes for children. Page 23 describes and defines each of these concepts and – most importantly – highlights ways they work in parallel.

“Working theories are the evolving ideas and understandings that children develop as they use their existing knowledge to try to make sense of new experiences. Children are most likely to generate and refine working theories in learning environments where uncertainty is valued, inquiry is modelled, and making meaning is the goal.

Learning dispositions and working theories are closely interwoven. For example, the disposition to be curious involves having the inclination and skills to inquire into and puzzle over ideas and events. These inquiries will often lead to the development of working theories.

Learning dispositions support children to develop, refine and extend working theories as they revisit interests and engage in new experiences. As they gain experience and knowledge, children’s working theories become more connected, applicable and useful and, at times, more creative and imaginative. (p. 23)”

Secondly, working theories are included as one of the 20 learning outcomes designed for more kaiako attention than the previous document’s outcomes. Within the strand of Exploration this is noted as:

“Over time and with guidance and encouragement, children become increasingly capable of … [m]aking sense of their worlds by generating and refining working theories | te rangahau me te mātauranga (p. 47)”

“Making sense”, “generating” and “refining”: such simple words that mean so much in terms of children’s cognitive and affective engagement with their worlds. And this could lead us to so much more we could research about children’s working theories and ways teachers stimulate and respond to sense making efforts. More about that research in future posts.




Photo credits:  1) “nichole pulls up” (CC BY 2.0) by popofatticus; 2) “first one down” (CC BY 2.0) by popofatticus; 3) “stepping on big blocks_2726c” (CC BY 2.0) by James Emery

Implementation support for Te Whāriki

As we all know, ongoing professional learning is vital. The MOE were able to announce that $4 million has been budgeted for professional learning and development programme to support teachers, educators and kaiako across the early learning sector to engage with the updated curriculum. See

Photo credit: Pixabay

Technology enables access in ways unheard of 21 years ago with reference to live-streamed sessions and use of websites. It was therefore unsurprising perhaps that the PLD contracts are led by the fabulous CORE-Education team who have led the way in this domain.



The revision team began work alongside revising the curriculum document on resources that are included now on:  I will be excited to see what is selected for development of resources on this site and how these relate to the learning outcomes. Keep up-to-date by checking for new material on:

If you participate in any PLD sessions of any kind, let me know what you engage with around working theories 😉


Ministry of Education. (2017). Te Whāriki. He whāriki matauranga mō ngā mokopuna o Aotearoa: Early childhood curriculum. Wellington: Ministry of Education.



Photo credit: IMG_5747 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by AIBakker

Te Whāriki (2017) is launched

What a privilege it was to be on the team that revised Te Whāriki (see We were so fortunate to have the leadership of Nancy Bell and the wisdom and experience of our kuia and kaumatua who led the original curriculum development 21 years ago. We were also pleased with the engagement of the ECE community who provided us with considered and thoughtful feedback that made the final version both richer and contemporary (see

The new document was launched just before Easter this year and is exciting both in its content and its visual presentation.






Kathy Wolfe, the chief executive of Te Rito Maiaha offers the following report of the launch of the document:

Kathy notes that “the updated document is visionary, fresh and engaging and has not lost its core purpose.”  She identifies seven key shifts:

  • deciding what matters
  • using the learning outcomes
  • assessment practice
  • broad and deep curriculum
  • affirming children’s unique cultural identities
  • involving parents and whanau
  • personalised pathways from early learning to school and kura

A few thoughts from me:

Significantly, the document has had a symbolic whāriki (p. 11) gifted to us by a weaver, rather than the kete-like symbol of 1996.

 The vision for children remains, but recognises children in the present as well as future as being competent, confident and capable.

“Underpinning Te Whāriki is the vision that children are

competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society. (p. 5)”


Te Tiriti o Waitangi commitments begin the document to highlight the bicultural commitments of the curriculum. The principles, strands and goals remain and stand the test of time in their foresight of being about children’s holistic learning and the skilful and thoughtful role kaiako (our new word for all those who educate children) play in creating and engaging with teaching environments that foster this learning. Whakatauki are used throughout the document to highlight key ideas about children, their families and histories, and important messages and metaphors about learning and teaching. For example:

Ehara taku toa i te toa takitahi engari he toa takitini.
I come not with my own strengths but bring with me the gifts,
talents and strengths of my family, tribe and ancestors. (p. 12)

The most significant change is reducing the learning outcomes from 118 to 20. This is more manageable for teachers to engage with and pay attention to in children’s learning over time. More on these in a future post … to highlight where working theories sit and belong in the new document.


Ministry of Education. (2017). Te Whāriki. He whāriki matauranga mō ngā mokopuna o Aotearoa: Early childhood curriculum. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Of blog posts, olives and anchovies

I greatly appreciate, that despite my neglect, many people continue to access this blog and read a range of posts. I hope that this is because the word is slowly spreading in the early childhood community—and beyond—that there are some useful ideas and provocations here for teachers (and perhaps researchers too).

To reorientate you, this blog is about the concept of “working theories”, an innovative learning outcome in the New Zealand early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki,  that captures the ways children might make sense of their experiences and grow their knowledge and understandings. Throughout, I have referred to the definition that Sarah Jones and I developed:

“Working theories are present from childhood to adulthood. They represent the tentative, evolving ideas and understandings formulated by children (and adults) as they participate in the life of their families, communities, and cultures and engage with others to think, ponder, wonder, and make sense of the world in order to participate more effectively within it. Working theories are the result of cognitive inquiry, developed as children theorise about the world and their experiences. They are also the ongoing means of further cognitive development, because children are able to use their existing (albeit limited) understandings to create a framework for making sense of new experiences and ideas. (p. 36)”

Here’s an opportunity to consider that notion and definition. What kinds of prior ideas, experiences and knowledge might children have brought to the food tasting experiences shared in the following video? The slow motion recording helps us to see their embodied reactions. Observation is such an important skill for teachers to practise when young children cannot express their thinking. In this case it helps is to analyse the kinds of working theories they might be testing out and revising as they explore these tastes and textures…

Do you remember the first time you tasted an olive? Or an anchovy? A new video captures those moments.


Hedges, H., & Jones, S. (2012). Children’s working theories: The neglected sibling of Te Whāriki’s learning outcomes. Early Childhood Folio, 16(1), 34-39.

Celebrating and revising Te Whariki

Kia ora tatou

Time has flown by! My plans for a monthly blog post have clearly been derailed…

It is twenty years since our internationally-acclaimed early childhood curriculum was released by the Ministry of Education. Its development was remarkable, and included some “flying under the radar” of policy officials (see Sarah Te One’s chapter in Joce Nuttall’s edited book “Weaving Te Whariki” if you are unfamiliar with this story). Since then the sector has largely continued to fly under the radar until the Taskforce report of 2011 and Advisory Group on Early Learning (AGEL) report in 2015 which both recommended a careful look at the ways Te Whariki was being interpreted and used in the sector. The AGEL report also recommended an update and revision of the curriculum.

Earlier this year Nancy Bell was appointed Director of Early Learning at the Ministry (what happened to ECE?) and in July asked for expressions of interest in participating in this update. To cut a long story short I was honoured to be selected to be part of the writing team to update and revise the document – in a relatively short time frame compared to the three years allotted to the original document. As Nancy said, ECE has always had a spirit that tackled tasks head-on. We have met regularly and written and rewritten furiously in between as kaitiaki for this precious taonga. We are fortunate that the original writers and significant others in the sector, along with a range of teachers/kaiako across the country, have provided us with helpful and constructive feedback. The MOE changed a lot from the 1993 draft that lost a lot of the spirit, complexity, context and detail of the 1996 document and we are hopeful we can put this to rights in this revision. Part of my responsibilities in this mission has been to revise early sections of the document. I am of course trying to highlight working theories more explicitly and only time will tell if I have been successful … .

Meantime it’s been wonderful to hear of celebrations around the country for our curriculum document. This post highlights a video made by NZEI, an excellent video apart from one thing – you guessed it! Nothing about working theories and all about learning dispositions. This has prompted me to take a few minutes just before another trip to Wellington for a writers’ hui to post the link and remind us all that:

Attention to children’s working theories – their ideas, critical thinking, and emerging and ongoing meaning making – is the partner to learning dispositions in creating children with strong identities as learners, equipped with the knowledge, skills, strategies, attitudes, expectations and values to take them further in lifelong learning.

Enjoy the video.



Ministry of Education. (2015). Report of the Advisory Group on Early Learning. Wellington: Author.  

Early Childhood Education Taskforce. (2011). An agenda for amazing children: Final report of the Early Childhood Education (ECE) Taskforce.