How did I get interested in the topic of working theories? (1)

As I noted in my first post, Guy Claxton and Carl Bereiter have written that developing work-in-progress ideas about knowledge and inquiry are lifelong endeavours. I suspect that developing ideas about working theories and the use of various social media for academic purposes are going to be amongst my lifelong endeavours!

I’ve also referred to my own hunches and intuition that I was missing something about children’s thinking. I make a link here to Jerome Bruner’s (1960) ideas that intuition is:

“the intellectual technique of arriving at plausible but tentative formulations without going through the analytic steps by which such formulations would be found to be valid or invalid conclusions. Intuitive thinking, the training of hunches, is a much-neglected and essential feature of productive thinking not only in formal academic disciplines but also in everyday life. A shrewd guess, the fertile hypothesis, the courageous leap to a tentative conclusion – these are the most valuable coin of the thinker at work, whatever his line of work” (pp. 3-4).

Perhaps children are much better at drawing on their intuition and life experience to explore meaning making and knowledge building? However, intuition can also play a useful part in research—digging deeply into data, querying interpretations, critiquing literature…

My PhD project explored my long-held fascination in the topic of children’s interests. Intuitively, I felt there was more to it than the surface level interpretations I had observed—and been complicit with—as a practitioner and visiting lecturer of students on practicum. Defining the notion of interests led me to theories of curiosity and inquiry and, subsequently, working theories. The vagaries of academic publishing mean that the working theories material was published in two articles in 2008 and 2014 (a reminder never to use chronology as a proxy for assessing the development of a person’s ideas…).

With regard to working theories, particularly considering children’s common/shared interest in looking after small animals and insects, I got caught up then in the “naïve” interpretation I raised in an earlier post through the personification of this interest (see Inagaki & Hatano, 2002; Hedges, 2008). This is still an interesting and relevant theoretical explanation for children’s lack of life experience but, as I’ve explained in several previous posts, it’s not a fair or full picture of how earnestly children are making meaning from their experience of their worlds. However, I am still inspired by their bigger idea that children are constantly engaged in inquiry and efforts to become “life theorizers” (Inagaki & Hatano, 2002, p. 126).

The exploration goal of Te Whāriki includes two goals as follows:

Children “learn strategies for active exploration, thinking, and reasoning”; and children “develop working theories for making sense of the natural, social, physical, and material worlds. The following example from the 2008 article illustrated working theories in relation to a common interest: friendships—developing and maintaining these through life.

Caitlin had a close friendship with Gina and Harry. This had begun through their older brothers attending the same school and playing soccer together, and the families becoming friends. This provided opportunities to develop working theories about the nature, importance, and purposes of friendships as a source of special connection with people, and to develop ideas about expectations for lifelong friendships in human social functioning. In short, they shared a working theory that they would have an enduring friendship because their families were already close.

Harry, Caitlin and Gina … tell me they are all going to the same school as well and will be friends there too. Gina: “Even when we’re big we’ll still be friends.” Caitlin: “Even when we’re adults.” Gina: “Even when we’re dead.” Caitlin: “Well, maybe not then.” (TK/77)

As an indication that thinking about children’s thinking is an international issue – see Helen Lewis’ interesting video about her work in Wales:

As for my 23things for research, well I’ve almost given up on Twitter apart from the useful knowledge of special deals on flights from Air NZ. We were also encouraged to explore and LinkedIn as networking tools. I chose to sign up for as I found I could locate some of my research “heroes” and collaborators that way rather than through Twitter, and find out about some of their recent work and publications. This was also partly borne from the frustration of not being able to load Word documents or pdfs on our university profile pages and that I haven’t taken note of the more complicated way to upload final draft papers through the university library repository. I am also now behind on the programme following a period of annual leave but will catch up soon as I learn how to put pictures, links and videos on my blog posts to “zhoozh” them up a bit for you. Wish me luck!


Hedges, H. (2007). Funds of knowledge in early childhood communities of inquiry. Unpublished PhD thesis, Massey University, Palmerston North.

Hedges, H. (2008). “Even when we’re big we’ll still be friends”: Working theories in children’s learning. Early Childhood Folio, 12, 2-6.

Hedges, H. (2014). Young children’s “working theories”: Building and connecting understandings. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 12(1), 35-49. DOI: 10.1177/1476718X13515417 The online version of this article, with free full text, can be found at:

Inagaki, K., & Hatano, G. (2002). Young children’s naive thinking about the biological world. New York & Brighton: Psychology Press.


Let’s start at the very beginning… (2)

So let’s start now at the very beginning – young children’s thinking and the notion of working theories in Te Whāriki.

When children are very young and learning to express their ideas and thoughts, many people such as parents and grandparents find children’s ideas “amusing” – or indeed call them what I regard as a four letter word: “cute”. Sometimes they even laugh at children. You can locate your own You Tube clips for examples; I cringe at how demeaning and patronising this can be for children and what effect it may have on their willingness to continue to share their ideas and seek feedback, confirmation or new input.

In the research world some scholars have referred to these early attempts of children to use knowledge creatively and connect their understandings as “naïve” or “misconceptions” or “alternative conceptions”. Disappointingly, I see this in the teaching of my own primary teacher education colleagues in the faculty.

Yes, by their very age, children have less life experience to draw on to develop their meaning making, but we don’t need to see them as “lesser” for being young, especially when we now have evidence that more learning and development occur in the first three years of life than at any other time.

Instead, in keeping with Te Whāriki’s view of children as competent, capable learners, children might be considered as careful, creative and critical thinkers striving to make meaning of and about their worlds as they participate in all kinds of experiences with adults, peers and community members. Inaccuracies are part and parcel of us all—adults included—developing our knowledge; it is how these inaccuracies are responded to that will be an interesting matter to debate in a later post. Back to the very beginning of the construct of working theories for now.

Guy Claxton (1990) was acknowledged in the draft of Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 1993) as the inspiration for working theories through his construct of “minitheories”. He described how these are collections of ideas that gradually become connected and meaningful. (See Hedges & Jones for more detail).

In Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 1996) working theories are described as follows:

“In early childhood, children are developing more elaborate and useful working theories about themselves and the people, places, and things in their lives. These working theories contain a combination of knowledge about the world, skills and strategies, attitudes, and expectations. Children develop working theories through observing, listening, doing, participating, discussing, and representing within the topics and activities provided in the programme. As children gain greater experience, knowledge, and skills, the theories they develop will become more widely applicable and have more connecting links between them. Working theories become increasingly useful for making sense of the world, for giving the child control over what happens, for problem solving, and for further learning. Many of these theories retain a magical and creative quality, and for many communities, theories about the world are infused with a spiritual dimension” (MoE 1996, p. 44).

The term working theories is also included in one of the goals for the strand of Exploration: “[children] develop working theories for making sense of the natural, social, physical, and material worlds” (p. 82), including “theories about social relationships and social concepts, such as friendship, authority, and social rules and understandings”, and “working theories about the living world and how to care for it” (p. 90).

This is then a complex outcome for teachers to consider and to provide opportunities for working theories to flourish.

In a 1998 publication called “Quality in Action”, a first definition of working theory (not the plural “working theories”) was offered: “a unique system of ideas that is based on a person’s experience and provides them with a hypothesis for understanding their world, interpreting their experience, and deciding what to think and how to behave. This system is in a constant state of development and change” (MoE, 1998, p. 90).

This definition can be seen to relate to “scientific hypotheses” and a somewhat individual, constructivist view of the world, a short step perhaps to viewing children’s ideas as naïve, simplistic or “mis”conceptions.

In keeping with recent interpretations of Te Whāriki from sociocultural theoretical perspectives, Sarah Jones and I developed a different definition:

“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).

Phew – this has turned into a bit of a heavy post; I hope you are still reading. But you can see more now why I was frustrated that ERO ignored this important outcome in the Continuity of Early Learning report. Working theories are really important in relation to children’s thinking, reasoning and problem solving; in other words their cognitive/intellectual development. 

If you have access, I invite you to locate the Hedges and Jones article to read the way we exemplified this definition alongside breaking down Te Whāriki’s description. To whet your appetite here are some examples:

  1. Eve (4) said “you can grow a baby in your tummy… my mummy had a baby and it’s me” and Amber (3) said: “Look, I have a baby in my tummy, it’s not popped yet.”
  1. Three young children experienced difficulty while attempting to move a heavy trolley across a courtyard. One wheel of the trolley became stuck in a drain, and the children were unable to push it free. They began discussing possible solutions to the problem among themselves and with their teachers.
  1. Daniel (a teacher) asked two children discussing watching Spiderman movies about how old they thought a child had to be to watch these. The children initially decided that you had to be four or five-years-old. Daniel asked “What about babies? … What about Finbar? He is three and has watched it.” One of the children decided that “only if you wear nappies, you can’t watch it.” Daniel again gently challenged their thinking by asking: “What about if you are five and wear a nappy at night?” They replied: “Yeah if you wear a nappy at night you can watch it.”

If you don’t have access, then perhaps you can help my efforts to working theorise my way through Twitter still. I’m @helenhedges6 and if you have a Twitter account do send me a follow request. I have spent time trying to locate my research heroes to follow and inevitably there are more than one with the same name (so I don’t know which to select) or they are embedded within TedX sites or … (general frustration)…. So Barbara Rogoff and all those mentioned in this post – maybe you could find and follow me LOL!


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.

Ministry of Education. (1993). Te Whāriki. Draft guidelines for developmentally appropriate programs in early childhood services. Wellington: Learning Media.

Ministry of Education. (1996). Te Whāriki. He whāriki matauranga mō ngā mokopuna o Aotearoa: Early childhood curriculum. Wellington: Learning Media. Retrieved from

Ministry of Education. (1998). Quality in action. Te mahi whai hua: Implementing the revised statement of desirable objectives and practices in early childhood services. Wellington: Learning Media.