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Te whakamahi i ngā ariā arohaehae

Critical theories

On this page, you can read about how critical theories and understandings derived from them are put to practical use – informing both teaching and learning.

What's this about?

Why does this matter?

How do we apply it in practice?

Three kaiako discuss critical theories and how to apply in their practice

What's this about?

Critical theories represent a range of theoretical perspectives and practices through which people may pursue social justice, address inequality, and work to produce a fairer, more inclusive and equitable society.

Critical theorists argue that certain groups in society – because of their gender, ethnicity, ability, economic and social circumstances – have better access to opportunities that lead to success than others, and that this is unfair.

They stress that inequities are systemic, based in institutions (the legal system, the economic system, religious and class institutions for instance) and that they support certain ways of thinking and behaving that privilege some people over others.

To create a fairer and more just society, critical theorists ask for the critique of social structures and practices – big and small – that privilege certain groups and marginalise others.

Associate Professor Dr Alex Gunn 1 has used the analogy of gazing at an object through different faces of a geodesic dome to explain how critical theories support us to think things through from multiple perspectives. Doing this encourages us to question our assumptions, beliefs, and practices that we may take for granted and that can disempower and marginalise groups of people.

1 Presentation to Te Whāriki Curriculum Champions 2018.


image of a geodesic dome

Image source: Flickr

Why does this matter?

Critical theory perspectives underpin the equity emphasis in Te Whāriki. It is most evident in the way the curriculum seeks to empower all children to live and learn well, and to be able to make valued contributions to the worlds of which they are part. The curriculum expects kaiako, in partnership with children and families to strive for equitable and fair practices.

Teaching is not value-free

Teaching involves making minute-by-minute decisions, all of which have an impact on others’ lives. Each decision tells children and adults a little bit more about how to behave, what knowledge is valued, and what counts as success.

The decisions we make are inevitably shaped by our experiences, values, and beliefs – which in turn reflect and sometimes contradict the dominant values and beliefs from the communities and societies of which we are part. Our decisions are therefore not impartial or value-free, nor are they entirely our own. Critical Theorists make the point that none of us, including kaiako, are immune from the influences of dominant narratives in our lives.

Understanding that teaching can never be value-free is important because over time decisions and practices can easily slip into taken-for-granted assumptions that become non-negotiable. It is the unquestioned acceptance of practices that critical theorists argue lead to inequities in education.

Supporting super diversity

Since the second half of the 20th century, technology and globalisation have enabled people to have greater connection and mobility. As a result, families who use early learning services are increasingly diverse.

Adopting critical theory thinking opens up opportunities for kaiako to listen to and address issues that arise from these diversities. It encourages us to shift our gaze to different faces on the geodesic dome and to ask if practices remain relevant.

Addressing inequalities

The aspiration statement in Te Whāriki (2017) promotes a curriculum in which all learners have the opportunity to make a valued contribution to society.

Critical theorists tell us that groups and individuals whose values, identity, and privileges most align with those of the education context they attend are more likely to experience success and therefore meet the aspiration of Te Whāriki.

Critical pedagogies maintain that management and kaiako – individually and collectively – have a key role in reducing these inequalities. Power is in their hands to question and challenge what knowledge and whose knowledge is valued through the daily enacted curriculum.

On the other hand, maintaining an uncritical or neutral stance may perpetuate practices that tend to sustain inequalities. The term “hidden curriculum” is often used to refer to practice that advantage some groups and disadvantage others yet go unchallenged.

How do we apply it in practice?

Internal review is a process where the application of critical theory perspectives is particularly useful. Internal reviews that are framed around critical theory thinking and questions are more likely to result in deep change and a fairer and more just interpretation of Te Whāriki.

There are several questions derived from critical theory perspectives that kaiako can use as part of an internal review. These support kaiako to interrogate their beliefs and assumptions and consider how their decisions may affect children differently. They can also be used to decide and promote new actions.

  • How might my/our backgrounds – ethnicity, gender, interests, abilities, socio–economic circumstances – be shaping this practice, decision?
  • Whose ways of knowing, being, and doing are valued in this practice/decision?
  • Why am I/we teaching this?
  • What/who determines what is normal/acceptable?
  • Whose voice/perspective is missing here?
  • Who benefits from this practice/decision?
  • Who is mostly affected by this practice/decision?


At Collectively Kids in Auckland, kaiako identified that children were being offered different experiences, and sometimes their abilities were being highlighted and valued in gender stereotyped ways. This led kaiako to conduct an internal evaluation on the implementation of their curriculum to ensure all children were offered a range of learning opportunities.

A feature of this review was kaiako interrogating and sharing their own understandings and life experiences of gender. Although not always comfortable and easy to do, it contributed to their understanding of gender as a social construct and therefore something that could be changed.

You can read more about the steps this team took to introduce learning experiences that challenged gender stereotypes in Stories of practice from kaiako and leaders, “Persons and buses can be a rainbow if they want to”: An exploration of gender-neutral education.