Why might teachers (and ERO) not be paying attention to working theories? Starting the research on working theories: Hedges (2011)

After my PhD I began early exploration of interests, inquiries and working theories more specifically in more diverse settings. Here enters an important person – Daniel Lovatt. Daniel studied for his Grad Dip Tchg (ECE) qualification in 2009 and his last words to me were “If you ever want to do some research on children’s working theories be in touch.” Those words have opened many new doors for us both! It’s very challenging to think about children’s thinking, but a worthwhile challenge thus far, and I have come to greatly appreciate the many minds that are working with me on this challenge.

At the end of 2010 I undertook a small-scale project in two different centres than my PhD studies to begin to test out some of my ideas with more culturally diverse children and teachers, and to have a more concentrated focus on working theories. One of the centres was where Daniel was teaching.

Fifteen teachers participated, all graduates of teacher education programmes in NZ and representing considerable teaching experience in the sector. It soon became clear that without the kind of well-funded professional learning programme that had helped them learn about assessment of dispositions, teachers were uncertain about working theories apart from it being about children’s thinking in a broad sense. All teachers recalled little or no mention of working theories during their teacher education (apart from Daniel!); in contrast all had professional knowledge of learning dispositions.

Nevertheless, some teachers had some intuitive understandings of the concept developed through experience. Teachers recalled examples of children’s exploration and engagement in learning, particularly related to mathematical or scientific concepts, and/or by recalling examples of children’s thinking that had appeared intriguing. In these ways, teachers revealed what they thought children’s working theories might entail, but perhaps lacked the process elements of ways knowledge, skills and attitudes combined and developed.

Two teachers in the project, Nadine and Daniel, reflected Guy Claxton’s idea of mini theories in describing children as developing “snippets” of knowledge or thinking, hence the resulting article title, and that children did spend time trying to connect those snippets.

A interesting problem arose in teacher thinking related to their views of effective pedagogy and parents’ perceptions. Nadine said that sometimes children’s theories were “outrageous” and Daniel that they were “totally ridiculous but great to hear”. These ideas reflect the points earlier in blog posts that adults often find children’s thinking either amusing, naïve, lacking or inaccurate. Daniel’s comment added that teachers have a professional responsibility to listen and accept these ideas as part of children’s thinking and early concept development.

Daniel connected this problem of the ideas being “ridiculous” to his reluctance to document children’s working theories for fear of parental criticism of teachers accepting flawed knowledge:

“[Name] was trying to work out about her ears and why they were stiff and she ended up saying they had bones in them and I left it at that actually and I didn’t start talking about cartilage. . .. I wouldn’t want to write that because I would see that as a slight on me that the parents would think ‘You’re not doing your job. You haven’t taught them the right way.’”

However, as Daniel also noted: “I think as a teaching profession we need to know that you can identify a working theory, write a learning story about it and the working theory can be completely wrong [conceptually] but you can feel comfortable.”

Kirsten raised an interesting point in suggesting that calling something a “‘theory” required research-based understandings, complicating practice-based understandings and engendering teacher self-doubt.

These matters were an impetus to develop the article co-authored with Sarah Jones that I have already referred to: our efforts to define better and exemplify this construct.

References and URLs

Hedges, H. (2011). Connecting “snippets of knowledge”: Teachers understandings of the concept of working theories. Early Years: An International Journal of Research and Practice, 31(3), 271-284. doi: 10.1080/09575146.2011.606206

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


Working theories are in the news

I’m delighted to report an interesting few days – working theories are becoming more front and central amongst considerations of learning in early childhood education.

I’ve recently returned from the Aotearoa-New Zealand Early Childhood Convention held in Rotorua October 1-4. This conference is the largest gathering of early childhood practitioners—teachers, professional learning providers, teacher educators, researchers and independent contractors—from Aotearoa and beyond. It has been held four-yearly, although sadly the last one was due to be held in Christchurch in 2011 and was cancelled due to the earthquakes. In a poignant nod to that cancellation, the conference satchels were those we would have received at that conference.

It was exciting to see and hear much interest in working theories. Our own presentation fronted by Maria Cooper, Daniel Lovatt, Niky Veele and me was held in a packed room. We enjoyed the engagement and questions from those who attended. We were pleased to attend other presentations focused on children’s thinking and questioning, especially that of Carol Marks from the Educational Leadership Project http://www.elp.co.nz/. I’ve commented to the wonderful Wendy Lee at an earlier conference that the contributions of ELP to the professionalising of teacher knowledge is one of the great yet-to-occur research projects in NZ!

It was good to talk with many people: connections and reconnections are such an important part of conferences. In particular in relation to the motivation for beginning this blog, it was good to talk with Sandra Collins from ERO in person about ways to draw more attention to working theories as a lens for learning in centres through the attentions of ERO reviewers. It was certainly clear in their recent report that attention to working theories is lacking with our youngest learners: http://www.ero.govt.nz/National-Reports/Infants-and-toddlers-competent-and-confident-communicators-and-explorers-June-2015 We have offered our support to help them if needed 😉

We were also delighted to hear from Raewyn Penman that working theories continue to be a focus of KidsFirst Kindergartens ongoing attention and work and that she would like us to return next year to facilitate some more professional learning for their teachers.

While at the conference two keenly awaited reports were released. The first is the long-awaited report (and related literature review) on the Continuity of early learning which was held up at the Ministry of Education for a long time. The report is located at: http://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/publications/ECE/continuity-of-early-learning-case-studies

The related literature review (scan), also prepared some time ago, is located at:


As often happens, a literature review can be quickly out-of-date and no publications on working theories post-2011 are listed. So keep referring to and reading this blog for the more recent literature! However, I was pleased to see that the Hedges and Cullen paper about participatory learning theories and associated pedagogies was cited prominently too on p. 7.

The second report was the review of early learning led by Joce Nuttall. http://beehive.govt.nz/sites/all/files/Report-of-the-Advisory-Group-on-Early-Learning.pdf

First, I note that it is exciting to see “learning” at the forefront in this title, the emphasis of the report and its recommendations. Second, it is good to see reference to several recent publications on working theories: Maria’s and mine in IJEYE, Daniel’s in EC Folio and Vicki Hargraves in CIEC. See particularly pp. 52-53 re attention to working theories. This section brings in how related the parallel outcomes of Te Whāriki are as it draws attention to reference to working theories amongst publications focusing on dispositions.

So all of this is good news – and provides more motivation to continue posts about the research on working theories that has occurred and is occurring. Stay tuned!


Hargraves, V. (2014). Complex possibilities: ‘Working theories’ as an outcome for the early childhood curriculum. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 15(4), 319-328. doi:10.2304/ciec.2014.15.4.319

Hedges, H., & Cooper, M. (2014). Engaging with holistic curriculum outcomes: Deconstructing ‘working theories’. International Journal of Early Years Education, 22(4), 395-408. doi:10.1080/09669760.2014.968531

Hedges, H., & Cullen, J. (2012). Participatory learning theories: A framework for early childhood pedagogy. Early Child Development and Care, 82(7), 921-940. doi:10.1080/03004430.2011.597504

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

Lovatt. D. (2014). How might teachers enrich children’s working theories? Getting to the heart of the matter. Early Childhood Folio, 18(1), 28-34.