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


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