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

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 http://www.educate.ece.govt.nz/learning/curriculumAndLearning/TeWhariki.aspx

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.


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

  1. AK@AU August 4, 2015 / 11:37 pm

    What do you think of Vygotsky’s theory of concept formation? I was lucky to see a lot of it at work in my son. We taught him sign language so we could communicate before he was ready to speak, and I saw Vygotsky’s metaphor-building process play out over and over. Now that he speaks, he still does it. It is not much of an adult, I believe, who takes the children’s work away from them. But that is very much the kind of positivist, authority-obsessed ‘adult’ that our assessment culture produces, and feeds into teacher training. Those of us who survive the coercion are unfortunately quite rare. But I have almost never had a student whose innate spark could not be found and re-ignited!


  2. Helen Hedges August 5, 2015 / 12:21 am

    Indeed, one of my early working theories was that children’s working theories might form the mediational space between everyday and scientific concepts. When I went to test this with data for children under 5, it seemed that they largely fell within the three phases of everyday concept development. That’s in my 2012 publication:
    HEDGES, H. ‘Vygotsky’s phases of everyday concept development and children’s “working theories”’. Journal of Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 1(2), 143-152, 2012. doi: 10.1016/j.lcsi.2012.06.001
    I will eventually get to this kind of work in my posts – I’m enjoying the challenge of writing about my research in more accessible ways and this aspect will certainly be a challenge. So I still have that working theory but may need to test it out with children aged 5-8 in the future. So much research, so little time to coin a phrase 🙂


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