Paying more attention to working theories.

An extensive programme of research has occurred over the past five years focused on working theories. My next few posts will draw attention to these projects.

The Teaching and Learning Research Initiative programme has funded two projects and is currently funding a third. The first was led by Keryn Davis and Sally Peters and involved practitioner-researchers in Canterbury Playcentres (an early childhood organisation where parents act as educators I asked Keryn and Sally if they would like to write a guest post for my blog but both have been too busy to do so, so you will need to put up with my interpretation of their important work in raising the profile of working theories nationally in NZ.

The focus of the project was on pedagogical aspects of, and implications for, recognising and extending working theories, rather than defining and conceptualising the concept itself beyond Claxton’s ideas. Consequently, the research team found that identifying children’s interests first was valuable in order to then try to access children’s thinking about topics of importance to them.

In this way, the metaphor of “islands” became an important element of the research. “Islands of interest” and “islands of expertise” were terms drawn from Crowley and Jacobs’ work and used to identify interests that were sustained and revisited by children over time. The practitioner researchers worked to make these more complex, connected and compelling to children, and in doing so, to explore the related working theories.

Another metaphor, that of “working theory glasses”, helped to maintain a focus on children’s working theories. Various strategies were identified to promote the development of working theories (see Davis and Peters, 2011). However, these also raised some dilemmas: defining and recognising working theories, and decisions about what and how to respond to children’s working theories. These dilemmas are outlined in their range of publications.

Perhaps the most significant finding was that in attempts to create intersubjectivity, a term meaning that the parties involved in an interaction have achieved mutually-shared understandings of each other’s ideas and thoughts, paying close attention to the deeper meanings beneath children’s words and actions was vital. Children are often inquiring into more significant meaning making than their surface thoughts indicate. As Davis and Peters point out in their final report:

“Only once adults slowed down, could they strive to understand the child’s intentions and goals and avoid hijacking the direction of learning. This requires a culture of trust that an individual’s theories will be taken seriously and an environment where critical thought, wondering and creativity, is encouraged and accepted as a desirable outcome for all children and adults alike” (p. 5).

What an important finding! We always say we know how important it is to listen to children, but adults often think they know (best) what a child is inquiring into, appears to be talking or asking about, and make assumptions, interrupt, and offer unrelated (and unwanted) thoughts. Considerations of the use of “wait time” came up in my PhD as teachers more patiently attempted to interpret the focus of children’s interests. Further considerations of strategies in Daniel Lovatt’s later work indicated that sometimes children didn’t want a response at all, they just wanted someone who was interested enough to pay undivided attention to them and truly listen while they sorted out their own thinking.

That working theories are a lifetime endeavour was pointed out by Claxton and Bereiter (see earlier posts). Associating these with the importance of critical and creative thinking draws attention again to how important working theories are as process, content and action outcomes.


Crowley, K., & Jacobs, M. (2002). Building islands of expertise in everyday family activity. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley, & K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning conversations in museums (pp. 333-356. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Davis, K., & Peters, S. (2010). Moments of wonder, everyday events: How are young children theorising and making sense of their world? Playcentre Journal, 137, 26-29.

Davis, K., & Peters, S. (2010). From fact to fiction, from animal expert to storyteller: A journey in striving to understand a child’s working theories and putting the understanding to good use. Playcentre Journal, 138, 20-23.

Davis. K., & Peters, S. (2011). Moments of wonder, everyday events: Children’s working theories in action. Final TLRI report.

Davis, K., & Peters, S. (2012). Exploring learning in the early years: Working theories, learning dispositions and key competencies. In B. Kaur (Ed.), Understanding learning and teaching: Classroom research revisited (pp. 171-182). Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Peters, S., & Davis, K. (2011). Fostering children’s working theories: Pedagogic issues and dilemmas in New Zealand. Early Years, 31(1), 5-17. doi:10.1080/09575146.2010.549107

White, E., Davis, K., & Peters, S. (2011). Tim and the water: Growing an ‘island of interest’. Playcentre Journal, 140, 20-23.

White, E. (2012). Yo ho ho and a bottle of theories: Making exploring working theories an everyday practice. Playcentre Journal, 144, 22-24.


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