Let’s start at the very beginning… (1)

So far I’ve established why we ought to pay attention to children’s emerging knowledge and thinking. In short, this is because creative and critical thinking are key skills in today’s world to evaluate information and problem solve – including about some big questions in our world such as sustainability. In addition, children’s thinking is a specified and important outcome of both Te Whāriki and the New Zealand Curriculum.

So when did I become interested in children’s working theories? I trace this back in my own mind to some dissatisfaction I felt intuitively, but couldn’t articulate at the time, about my first publication in Early Childhood Folio. The article was about science subject knowledge.

Following the crowd, the excitement, and the huge interest in learning stories growing at that time, I wrote a learning story within the article, using a template popular at the time. It was (cringingly) titled “A learning story” – I had slight lack of imagination on titles back then…. In drawing attention to the subject knowledge a teacher might use to develop the child’s science knowledge related to his interest in what a magnet could “stick to”, I was effectively meaning the development of his working theories.


Hayden, (4 years 5 months), explores theories about the properties of magnets.

Belonging/mana whenua – taking an interest – the child’s interest was in the magnet. His inquiry was linked by the adult to another interest of his – cars. Prior knowledge of children is a key feature of sociocultural approaches to curriculum and pedagogy.


Well-being/ mana atua – being involved – the child paid attention to and concentrated on inquiry into and discovering the properties of magnets for a sustained period of time with an adult. He was playful with a variety of equipment to test his theories.

Exploration – mana aotūroa – persisting with difficulty – the child was confused about the (metal – aluminium) ladder but continued testing his theory on other materials he considered fitted his theory.

Communication – mana reo – expressing an idea or a feeling – the child communicated his interest, theories, investigation, puzzlement and understanding verbally and non-verbally.


Contribution – mana tangata – taking responsibility – the child responded to the experience and new learning by showing another child how magnets work and discussing his knowledge and theories.

Towards the end of group time, Hayden approaches me on the deck and shows me a small round magnet he has found. He tells me he found it on the ground and that it sticks to things. I ask him what sort of things and he replies, “dark things”. I suggest we go and see if there is anything it will stick to in the kitchen. He successfully tries the fridge and the dishwasher. I ask him whether they are dark and he replies, “no, white”.

I ask him what he thinks the doors of the fridge and the dishwasher are made of and he frowns, “I don’t know”.   He discovers the magnet attaches to the doorframe, then the stapler in the collage area. He stops to think and says to me, “Let’s go outside and find a hammer”. He runs to the carpentry area and tests out his theory. “Yes! Let’s try a saw!” He quickly finds several other things on the carpentry trolley and joints on the trolley itself that the magnet attaches to. I ask him again what these things are made of, and suggest it may be the same material as cars. His face brightens in realisation “Let’s see what else is metal at kindy!” and runs to the climbing frame. “Come, look!” as he finds several items the magnet attaches to.

Helen “How does a magnet work?”   Hayden “I don’t know, let’s look for some more metal.” He runs to the ladder, but the magnet falls off. He theorises, “it must be too wet” and tries again. It still falls off. He theorises, “maybe it’s not metal” (it is aluminium). He finds the chain around the tyres under the fort, the joints of the fort, nails on the wooden frame, runs to the guinea pig cage and tries the metal on that, then runs to the fence. He calls to me: “Come, look!” I catch up, writing notes furiously, and he says, “Let’s find some more metal” and runs to the water trough. I suggest he tries the chairs. He runs over and tests the legs of the chairs rather than the plastic seats. “Yes, it works.” He then runs back to the carpentry trolley and checks the legs of that.   “Ooh, look, that works!”

Helen “What do you think makes it stick?”

Hayden “I don’t know.”

Helen “Shall we find a book about magnets?”

Hayden runs inside to the container of books and we find a book about magnets. We read about “poles”, “force” and “pull”. There are pictures of objects for children to theorise whether or not magnets will stick to them. Hayden immediately points to the car and says magnets will stick to them because they are metal. We return to the kitchen to see if we can feel the “pull” of the magnet on the fridge.   I ask him if the magnet is hard to pull off and he responds “yes”. Jamie has joined us and asks if she can have a turn. He passes the magnet to her and she tries to put it on the fridge the wrong way round and it falls down. Hayden picks it up, tells and shows her how it works.   Jamie tries the magnets that are on the fridge and comments, “these are easier”. Helen “So which has the strongest pull?”   Jamie “Hayden’s.”   Helen “Why do you think that might be?” Hayden “We didn’t try this” – and tries the corner of the kitchen bench.   The magnet falls off. “Hey! I thought this was metal!” Another child joins us and asks Hayden to go and play with him. Hayden does so.

What next?

Future planning:

 A focus on content-related learning orientations and dispositions: “being a scientist” and “thinking scientifically”.

Incorporate Te Whāriki, “exploration” goals three and four and link to Science in the New Zealand Curriculum, levels one and two.

·        Offer different types and strengths of magnets to differentiate between, e.g., bar magnets, horseshoe magnets.

·        Experiment with magnetic attraction between an item on a table e.g., paper clips and the magnet underneath the table.

·        Walk to the beach or get some beach sand that contains iron sand to use with magnets. (Only sand from the west coast beaches contains iron.)

·        Use iron filings with the magnets.

·        Demonstrate the use of a compass. Plan an “orienteering” expedition.

·     Offer learning experiences with other kinds of forces e.g. static electricity.

What subject knowledge might a teacher need to guide children’s thinking about magnets?

A force is an invisible push or pull that makes a person or object move, stop, change shape, or alter speed or direction. Some forces are direct contact (e.g. a rolling pin on playdough, or pushing a wooden truck or swing) and others occur when two objects are not in direct contact (e.g. magnets).

Iron, nickel and cobalt are the metals that can be magnetised. Steel is predominantly iron and so steel objects can be magnetised too. Other metals (e.g. gold, silver, copper, aluminium, lead, chromium) and alloys (brass, bronze, pewter which are mixtures of different metals) will not attract magnets. Sometimes a thin plating of a non-magnetic metal such as chromium will cover iron (for example on taps) and the magnet will stick. In these cases the magnetic force extends through the surface layer in the same way that magnets can “work” from under a wooden table to move metal objects on top of the table.

·        Earth has a magnetic force field related to its poles (North and South). A compass demonstrates how the magnetic needle always points north. Magnets have two strong places at opposite ends of the magnet. These are also called poles. Poles of the same kind push each other away; poles of the different kind pull towards each other. When metals that can be magnetised come into a magnetic force field, their particles become temporarily affected by the force field and they behave as if they are magnets too. In most cases this effect disappears as soon as the magnet is moved away but some types of steel will remain magnetised if touched with a sufficiently strong magnet – at least for a while.

There are several other types of forces, e.g.,

·        The planet Earth has a “force” that tries to pull everything towards its centre. This is called “gravity”. This force means that when we throw something up in the air, it will land back on the ground. The moon’s gravitational forces are seen in daily tidal flows and patterns of the seas on Earth.

The story described Hayden’s excitement at testing out the properties of a magnet. I dutifully related this to learning dispositions, then made links to the Science in the New Zealand Curriculum document existing then. I recall feeling at the time I’d missed something. A couple of years later, when I was generating data for my PhD it dawned on me that what I’d missed the opportunity to draw attention to was his working theories. They are there within the story and text but not as explicit as dispositions. More about my PhD on children’s interests, inquiries and working theories in later posts, we need to keep to the very beginning for one more post yet.

And as for “23 things for research”?  Having joined Twitter a few months ago (@helenhedges6), I am now more successfully set up on it and sent my first tweet – the URL of my blog!

I also had a good conversation with Sandra Collins at ERO the other day as I had sent my blog to her as a courtesy. Sandra and I “go way back” to studying at Massey in the late 1990s and have a mutual respect for the work we each do in trying to improve the quality of early childhood education in NZ. Sandra told me there is another publication coming out of ERO soon that will have some content on working theories. This was good news. However, Sandra agrees that there is still a lack of teacher understanding of working theories and how to support their development. … So this won’t be the end of my blogging…


Hedges, H. (2003). Avoiding “magical” thinking in children: The case for teachers’ science subject knowledge. Early Childhood Folio, 7, 2-7.

Hedges, H., & Cullen, J. (2003). “The tooth fairy comes, or is it just your Mum and Dad?”: A child’s construction of knowledge. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 28(3), 19-24.

Hedges, H., & Cullen, J. (2005). Subject knowledge in early childhood curriculum and pedagogy: Beliefs and practices. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 6(1), 66-79. http://www.wwwords.co.uk.

Hedges, H. (2014). Children’s content learning in play provision: Competing tensions and future possibilities. In L. Brooker, M. Blaise, & S. Edwards (Eds.), The Sage handbook of play and learning in early childhood (pp. 192-203). London: Sage.


Teaching for tomorrow today?

This week I have participated in the International Study Association for Teachers and Teaching’s conference here in Auckland. Its theme was “Teaching for tomorrow today”. What a stimulating and inspiring time it has been! Research on teachers and teaching provides so many opportunities for curiosity and inquiry to flourish, and opportunities to theorise, problematise, debate and search for contextually appropriate responses to big educational questions internationally and within Aotearoa-New Zealand. Giant-sized working theories in action with some of the superheroes of this world: Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter, Linda Smith, John Loughran and Stuart McNaughton.

One theme of note has been how information saturated we are today. Information of all kinds on all topics is at our fingertips – literally – through search engines. Multiple tabs can be open at once from different sources. Several speakers have then drawn attention to the importance of ensuring that today’s learners can therefore think critically and evaluate information sources. These are important skills of critical literacy to accompany thinking, reasoning, problem solving, interpreting and applying to specific examples, fostering knowledge creation activities, collaborative projects, and ultimately improved learning and productive and satisfying lives.

I would argue these critical literacy skills develop in young children in their prior to school experiences in their families, communities and in early childhood settings as they participate in conversations, hear information, learn new words and ideas and attempt to apply and extrapolate these to new contexts and experiences. In doing so they are adapting, applying, thinking, engaging and theorising. Hence, I draw attention to children’s working theories again as an important dimension and outcome of early childhood education experiences.

The time spent at the conference, and “keeping up” with work, means there has been no time to develop a post this week about the concept of working theories and the ways research has begun to exemplify these and consider pedagogy and assessment. Instead I have found an interesting link to another blog and a post that describes and provides examples of word riddles/puzzles that foster children’s thinking. By its location in Serbia indicates that this is an international provocation. I hope you find this interesting too. See http://blog.novakdjokovicfoundation.org//?s=riddles Next week more about working theories – I promise.

And as for the 23 things programme, I’ve sussed out the blog comments (thanks Damon and Toni) and this week’s task was a blog post with a link to another blog – tick! Next week Damon says we tackle Twitter, something I’ve already tried with minimal success so I look forward to successfully tweeting the URL of my blog site LOL 🙂 A digital world indeed!

The continually and continuously neglected sibling?

So it seems I’ve worked out how to set up a blog – tick! I have a working theory now about comments I’ve received… I’ll get some dialogue possibilities going when I’ve ‘working theoried’ my way through that…

In 2008 Anne Meade identified that working theories were amongst topics in need of research attention in New Zealand. I suggested that ‘working theories’ were hiding behind their big sister ‘dispositions’ in terms of attention to Te Whāriki’s outcomes at a reference group meeting. This meeting related to the first substantive project on working theories: a Teaching and Learning Research Initiative on working theories led by Keryn Davis and Sally Peters. Margaret Carr was sitting beside me and commented ‘bossy big sister!’ Yes indeed – Margaret and her research teams have done terrific work on understandings and practices associated with assessment related to dispositions. And thanks to a wonderful professional development programme and Kei tua o te pae we have excellent resources for teacher education and professional learning about dispositions. Margaret has commented to me though that she never meant for dispositions to become so dominant.

In 2012 Sarah Jones and I published an article in Early Childhood Folio that called working theories the neglected sibling of Te Whāriki’s two learning outcomes. We began efforts to define the term beyond the description in Te Whāriki and provided some examples to help teachers think about what these are and ways they might be recognised and documented. In future blogs I will talk more about this article, the research programmes the Ministry of Education has funded through the TLRI programme and other projects that have occurred.

In this post I identify that despite this research programme, working theories continue to be neglected in 2015.

In the recent Education Review Office report on the continuity of early learning there is not one single mention of working theories apart from in the ERO evaluation indicators on p. 57.

And dispositions? Oh yes – 27 times… and several are links to the key competencies of the New Zealand Curriculum.

But there are also links between working theories and the key competency of thinking as I point out in a 2014 article (full text freely available – see below).

“Parallels between the outcome of working theories in Te Whāriki and the outcome of thinking in the New Zealand Curriculum are apparent in the emphases on personal inquiry and understandings in developing and creating knowledge and influencing action” ( p. 38).

Creative, critical thinkers are vital in the modern and global world. Why has ERO ignored attention to the other learning outcome of Te Whāriki yet again?

It seems there is a need to continue to advocate for attention to working theories before it becomes further neglected. This blog will be one way of pointing out what working theories are, how research is helping us understand these, and how teachers (and ERO and policy makers?) might be supported to pay more attention to children’s working theories/thinking.

References and URLs

Education Review Office. (2015). Continuity of early learning: Transitions from early childhood services to schools. Wellington: ERO. http://www.ero.govt.nz/National-Reports/Continuity-of-learning-transitions-from-early-childhood-services-to-schools-May-2015

Hedges, H. (2014). Young children’s “working theories”: Building and connecting understandings. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 12(1), 35-49. http://ecr.sagepub.com/content/12/1/35.short?rss=1&ssource=mfr (full text of this article is free on this site)

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. http://www.nzcer.org.nz/search/site/early%20childhood%20folio

Meade, A. (2008). Research needs in the early childhood sector. Paper prepared for the TLRI programme. Retrieved from http://www.tlri.org.nz/assets/background-paper-pdfs/early-childhood-sector.pdf

Helen’s working theories about working theories

Kia ora tatou

Welcome to sharing my thinking about children’s thinking, or as the New Zealand early childhood curriculum describes it, children’s “working theories”.

Guy Claxton and Carl Bereiter write that developing work-in-progress ideas about knowledge and inquiry are lifelong endeavours, so the idea of working theories applies throughout our lives as we confront new ideas and experiences. Much of my recent research has been about children’s working theories and I will share some of that and my thoughts in future posts.

Today though I am taking the plunge to tackle new ideas and experiences for me – digital tools that may support my research activities through the “23 things for research” programme at my university. Wish me well as I learn new things and use these to share my research and thinking about children’s working theories.