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.


2 thoughts on “Let’s start at the very beginning… (1)

  1. Daniel July 25, 2015 / 4:10 am

    Congratulations on starting this discussion/dialogue Helen. Very timely…or perhaps it might be nearly 20 years overdue? So, why is it that working theories have been so neglected over the lifespan of Te Whaariki so far? Is it as simple as a lack of professional development on working theories, and a focus on learning dispositions? Is it because the notion of working theories (and even children’s thinking) might be difficult to pin down – although an argument could be made that the notion of learning dispositions could be considered a difficult and fluid notion too.

    It would be interesting to hear other teachers, parents & whanau and academics thoughts on this. What are the barriers? Perhaps when we know, we can respond more meaningfully.



  2. helenhedges July 25, 2015 / 4:31 am

    Thank you Daniel. The story of your “famous last words” and “starring role” in all of this will be revealed in a few posts’ time…. I am hopeful too that having something in the blogosphere accessible to others may stimulate debate. I probably need more than five readers and three Twitter followers first 🙂


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