Research on working theories: Hedges (2012)

The other article published from the project described in the earlier post about my first focused project on working theories was a test of a working theory of my own: that working theories form a mediational construct (a connecting link) between everyday and scientific concepts, a theoretical notion of Lev Vygotsky’s.

In short, everyday concepts are the knowledge we “pick up” from observation and participation in everyday life, we may not always be aware we do so, and we can call on them intuitively in our actions—such as the actually relatively complex knowledge and skills involved in making a tasty and nutritious vegetable soup. Scientific concepts are when these everyday ideas are drawn on to develop, understand, describe and demonstrate more academic concepts, such as the chemistry involved in heating, cooking and baking.

Daniel described an example from his own experience in the study:

“I just remember thinking there’s some things that you learn especially at high school and they just click and I’ve found that especially with physics. There’s some things that I could just get straight away and I didn’t really have to think about it and I wonder if that’s from my working theories developed as a child? … I think of hitting that tennis ball. You start to work out theories about trajectory and power and also about levers … then at high school you actually learn exactly why that happens. You’re shown a formula and for me stuff like that just really clicked.…But as a child you can’t explain it, you do it without actually knowing.”

The findings from this small study couldn’t locate anything of significance in relation to my related working theory. Instead these very young children were working their way through the three phases of everyday concepts that Vygotsky proposed. Here is a summary of those phases and findings taken from the paper.

Phase one: “syncretic heaps”

This phase is where children indicate some understandings about ideas through objects that are linked from their perspective. Anna [teacher] described an example she had observed:

“[T]he other day in the sandpit someone said oh the volcano that we made is milk and we’re giving the milk to our cow and….” A connection between lava and milk flowing, or cows both producing milk and needing sustenance to do so, may seem far-fetched to an adult but may make sense to a child who is earnestly trying to connect experiences.

Phase two: “thinking in complexes”

In this phase, Vygotsky suggested that children are trying to make connections between objects, and to extrapolate understandings about ideas, that may result in unsophisticated generalisations. As noted in previous blogs, simply through age, maturity and experience, these connections are often inconsistent or naïve.

Jia Mei described children that have observed adults planting gardens and children’s linked working theory that the act of planting something in soil will lead to growth. “[The adults] put the seeds in the soil, the plant will come up and the child will maybe one day … pick up a stick … put it in the soil, in the ground, he thought the thing will come up but actually the thing is dead so that time like a teacher or anybody can support him or explain him why the stick not growing….”

Phase three: “abstraction to potential concepts”

The findings could only support that some appropriate abstractions to potential concepts were being made by a number of children in one important area, that of knowing about significant developmental characteristics of infants and of caring for younger citizens. Throughout my research programme thus far, children aged less than 5 years seem quite likely to have relatively sophisticated knowledge about matters such as caring for other human beings.

In this project, four-year-old Isabella had a strong interest in taking care of younger children at the centre, particularly her younger brother. She was very involved in helping the younger children with everyday tasks and with getting help for them from teachers when they were upset. Isabella commented:

“I look after all the little kids… tell the teachers when they’re crying… I help the little kids with a lot of things, do puzzles and wash their hands, get the towels and get their lunchbox and bottles.” The field researcher (Lisa) asked Isabella about the conversation she had with a teacher about why infants put things in their mouths.

Lisa: “Do you remember what you said?”

Isabella: “So they can grow up. And so they can learn.”

Lisa: “How do they learn by putting things in their mouth?”

Isabella: “Because they can feel it, so they learn. So when they grow up they don’t put things in their mouth. Sometimes big kids still put things in their mouth like [name] because he still puts things in his mouth. But when you are big you are not supposed to. Babies can put sand in their mouth so they just put sand in their mouth and learn that they can’t put sand in their mouth and they are just learn[ing] all the time.”

Barbara Rogoff (2003) suggests that this kind of interest and knowledge about caring for younger humans is universal.

Two pedagogical issues arose in considering these phases and the teacher’s role. First, this created a dilemma for teachers in relation to valuing the theorising that children engage with and deciding when the introduction of conceptual language and knowledge might be useful.

Daniel (teacher) noted that: “Facts are cheap so it’s not necessarily about correcting somebody; it’s about helping them to develop working theories, whether they’re right or wrong. We tell children don’t pick [a tomato] until it’s turned red. Well I’ve got green tomatoes growing at home now that don’t turn red so a fact, I always thought you never pick a tomato until they’re red, that’s from childhood. Actually that’s turned over on its head now and you can get yellow ones with stripes… [T]he world is changing and facts aren’t facts anymore.

Certainly Vygotsky commented: “… [D]irect teaching of concepts is impossible and fruitless” (p. 150), and Chaiklin and Hedegaard (2009) noted that children need to make sense of facts in their own way. Hannust and Kikkas (2007) suggest that introducing concepts too early and without relevance to children’s context and experiences may cause confusion so that children reject the new information and continue to use their own experiences to make meaning anyway.

However, I have argued that it may also be important for teachers to introduce language to support children’s theorising, use accurate terminology themselves (also advocated by Gelman and Brenneman, 2004) and attempt to gently challenge and extend children’s thinking in order for learning to (eventually) lead development in the way Vygotsky envisaged. As Inagaki and Hatano (2002) note, repeated experiences where children are exposed to incongruous information make conceptual change more likely to occur subsequently.

The second main pedagogical issue related to ways to share and document working theories with and for parents, and consider these in parallel with learning dispositions. With increased confidence and understanding, teachers may begin sharing children’s working theories more often with parents, which in turn might encourage parents to also foster the development of children’s understandings with new information and experiences. This challenge was taken up in a later project and suggested approaches to documentation that complement learning stories focusing on dispositions will be offered in a later post.

So this was an interesting project. Although it didn’t provide the evidence for the working theory I went into it with—that working theories might be the connecting link between everyday and scientific knowledge—it may be that researching this with slightly older children might provide closer insights. In addition, it brought back to the fore debates about the role of teachers’ subject content knowledge.

As ever, so much research, so little time…


Hedges, H. (2012). Vygotsky’s phases of everyday concept development and children’s “working theories”. Journal of Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 1(2), 143-152. doi: 10.1016/j.lcsi.2012.06.001


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