Education Young Children's Working Theories
Helen Hedges
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0259

Introduction: Working Theories in Te Whāriki

Ways children make sense of their lives in their families, communities, and cultures are of immense interest to parents, teachers, and researchers internationally. “Working theories” originated as an holistic outcome of Te Whāriki, the Aotearoa New Zealand (NZ) early childhood curriculum (Ministry of Education 1996, Ministry of Education 2017). The term describes the provisional and exploratory ideas and understandings children—and adults—develop as they participate in learning. Working theories help children and adults with meaning making, explanation, prediction, and problem solving. The term therefore has wide educational relevance beyond NZ. Working theories have connections with, but are not the same as, knowledge development or a focus on learning academic concepts. Developing accurate knowledge is not necessarily a goal for young children. In contrast, theories frequently persist in the face of contrary evidence and involve both progression and retrogression in understandings as children attempt to meld new ideas and experiences with their prior, albeit limited, knowledge and experience—rather curiosity and inquiry into personally interesting and meaningful understandings motivates children. More than a focus on cognitive and knowledge development, working theories include all of children’s embodied, linguistic, communicative, and social efforts to learn. The goal of such efforts is to participate and contribute more effectively and competently in their families, communities, and cultures. Consequently, there is an expectation that adults will engage with and support children’s working theory development in respectful, reciprocal, and responsive interactions. Most related literature is at present from NZ; international interest is more recent and growing. Scope for future research includes specific topics of children’s theorizing, especially topics adults might struggle to understand or respond to; ways to document working theories and working theory development over time; exploration and application of Māori concepts and examples given the bicultural aim of Te Whāriki; and ways curriculum might be designed around working theories. The following bibliography has four sections. The first section is literature that has worked on Understanding the Concept of Working Theories. The second section offers examples of working theories from research undertaken with children, adults in teaching roles, and families. The third section describes teacher understandings of the concept of working theories and ways these might drive curriculum, and the fourth section has examples of pedagogical strategies and responses. Naturally there are overlaps between sections 2 through 4 and section assignment does not mean the selected literature does not address material in other sections.

Understanding the Concept of Working Theories

The idea of children as theorizers arose in international research that adopted cognitive constructivist theories and approaches from the late 1980s. Karmiloff-Smith 1988 argued that a child is a spontaneous theoretician, but can rarely articulate theories, an important idea connecting to the multimodal ways children express their theories. Claxton 1990 introduced the notion of minitheories, the precursor to the notion of working theories. He suggested that much knowledge is tacit, and therefore humans find it difficult to articulate the basis of their knowledge and understandings. Theory development is lifelong and not confined to childhood. Claxton proposed that implicit theories come largely from three sources: firsthand experience of the physical world; experiences in the social world; and thirdly, both the explicit and hidden curriculum. Therefore, children’s experiences in early childhood settings are likely to inform their developing theories as they try to understand the world and reveal themselves in the experiences in which they choose to participate. Like many curricular documents internationally, the NZ curriculum document (original, Ministry of Education 1996; revision, Ministry of Education 2017) views children as competent, confident, and capable learners and communicators. Play-based experiences, exploration, and agency are central to curricular provision. The 1996 document identified working theories as one of two indicative learning outcomes (alongside dispositions). The purposes of working theories were for meaning making, explanation, prediction, and problem solving. Further interpretations were open to development through research and practice. The revised curriculum Ministry of Education 2017 benefited from the research and scholarly work undertaken between the two versions. Working theories were defined more clearly and connected more closely with learning dispositions. Claxton’s constructivist ideas were viewed as insufficient in themselves to explain working theories as his ideas focused on individual children rather than learning and meaning making in social and cultural contexts. This section therefore goes on to outline scholarship that has developed definitions, exemplification, and selected theorizing of working theories. A definition adopted by others nationally and internationally from Hedges and Jones 2012 is that working theories “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 in it” (p. 36).

  • Claxton, G. 1990. Teaching to learn: A direction for education. London: Cassell Educational.

    Suggests that much knowledge is tacit, therefore difficult to articulate. Implicit theories are not one large coherent body of knowledge, but an assortment of different, piecemeal, fit-for-purpose minitheories used to interpret new information. Sometimes learners just grasp pieces of knowledge regarded as relevant and interesting, without any overall coherence in knowledge or understanding. Over time minitheories become more effective, comprehensive, and appropriate, and eventually connected.

  • 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

    Introduces complexity theory and Deleuzian imagery into informing understandings. Provides examples of children’s theory building about earthquakes that was “non-linear, contingent, associative, and imaginative” (p. 319). Complexity theory enables knowledge to become more expansive. The Deleuzian rhizome invokes an image of thinking as in constant movement in unpredictable directions. Helps explain children’s imaginative expansion of ideas and concepts, many of which are connected with children’s purposes and intentions.

  • Hedges, H. 2012. Vygotsky’s phases of everyday concept development and the notion of children’s “working theories.” Journal of Learning, Culture and Social Interaction 1.2:143–152.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.lcsi.2012.06.001

    Takes a Vygotskian perspective to theorizing using everyday and scientific concepts, the zone of proximal development and mediation. Argues working theories act as a mechanism for developing Vygotsky’s three phases of everyday knowledge and a likely mediating link later between everyday and scientific knowledge. Early childhood education (ECE) settings provide many opportunities for everyday concept development to occur. Describes a breakthrough moment as one when theories become connected and more useful to children.

  • Hedges, H. 2019. Working theories: Children’s curiosity, cognitive development and critical thinking. In Encyclopedia of Teacher Education. Edited by M. A. Peters. Singapore: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_89-1

    Identifies importance and distinctiveness of the concept in children’s learning and dynamic, ongoing knowledge development. Gives an overview of research and scholarship to date along with examples, and offers pedagogical considerations aligned with sociocultural theory. The most current definition, theorization, exemplification, and overview of pedagogical responses as of 2020; useful for undergraduate and postgraduate students.

  • Hedges, H., and S. Jones. 2012. Children’s working theories: The neglected sibling of Te Whāriki’s learning outcomes. Early Childhood Folio 16.1: 34–39.

    States that constructivist ideas are insufficient to explain working theories as they focus on individual children rather than meaning making in social and cultural contexts. Draws on sociocultural ideas to develop a definition of working theories, and elaborates on this definition with examples connected with the description in Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education 1996) and the idea of intellectual curiosity. Argues teachers’ deeper understanding will help them to recognize and engage with everyday moments of children’s thinking.

  • Karmiloff-Smith, A. 1988. The child is a theoretician, not an inductivist. Mind & Language 3.3: 183–196.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0017.1988.tb00142.x

    Argues that a child is a spontaneous theoretician, but can rarely articulate theories. Theories are built innately, through paying attention to experiences, extrapolating from these, and a combination of the two where new information passes through existing understandings. Theories have explanatory, predictive, and problem-solving powers and are constantly in flux. Sometimes children hold steadfast to theories in the face of contrary evidence as they are not yet linking their theories into coherent concepts.

  • Ministry of Education. 1996. Te Whāriki. He whāriki matauranga mō ngā mokopuna o Aotearoa. Wellington, NZ: Learning Media.

    Discusses within early childhood curriculum that “. . . working theories contain a combination of knowledge about the world, skills and strategies, attitudes, and expectations” (p. 44). Theories become useful for making sense of the world, problem-solving, reasoning, and further learning. They may “retain a magical and creative quality, and for many communities . . . are infused with a spiritual dimension” (p. 44).

  • Ministry of Education. 2017. Te Whāriki. He whāriki matauranga mō ngā mokopuna o Aotearoa: Early Childhood Curriculum. Wellington: New Zealand Government.

    Revised description that offers a definition of working theories, and a description of learning environments that foster these: “Working theories are the evolving ideas and understandings that children develop as they use their existing knowledge to try to make sense of new experiences. Children are most likely to generate and refine working theories in learning environments where uncertainty is valued, inquiry is modelled, and making meaning is the goal” (p. 23).

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