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Underpinning theories and approaches

Content from pages 60–62 of Te Whāriki: Early Childhood Curriculum


Kia heke iho rā i ngā tūpuna, kātahi ka tika.

If handed down by the ancestors, it would be correct.


This whakataukī refers to intergenerational expertise and the respect Māori have for the wise counsel of the ancestors. It signals the importance of a credible, sound, theoretical foundation for teaching and learning.

Tamariki smilling with a kaiako sitting with other tamariki in the background and a sign with whakapapa on it.

Curriculum and pedagogy are the means by which kaiako in an ECE setting influence, support and provide guidance for children’s learning and development. Pedagogies described or implicit in Te Whāriki are consistent with the four curriculum principles. These principles are a synthesis of traditional Māori thinking and sociocultural theorising:

Empowerment | Whakamana: curriculum and pedagogy empower the child to learn and grow by giving them agency, enhancing their mana and supporting them to enhance the mana of others.

Holistic development | Kotahitanga: curriculum and pedagogy focus on the ‘whole learner’, reflecting the holistic way in which children learn and grow, with the cognitive (hinengaro), physical (tinana), emotional (whatumanawa), spiritual (wairua), and social and cultural dimensions all tightly interwoven.

Family and community | Whānau tangata: curriculum and pedagogy recognise that family and community are integral to learning and development, with every child situated within
a set of nested contexts that includes not only the ECE setting but also the home, whānau, community and beyond.

Relationships | Ngā hononga: curriculum and pedagogy recognise that children learn through responsive and reciprocal relationships with people, places and things.

When designing curriculum, kaiako will be influenced by a range of educational ideas and philosophies. This is consistent with the diversity of early learning services in New Zealand and will give rise to distinctive features in each local curriculum.

Effective curriculum and pedagogy are underpinned by evidence-informed theories about how children learn and how adults can play a role in facilitating this process.

Leading Māori theorists such as Pere and Durie have contributed to the development of theoretical perspectives and emphases (for example, on identity, language and culture) that are unique to Aotearoa New Zealand.

Te Whāriki draws on the following theories, models and approaches.

Content sections

Bioecological model

Children’s learning is located within the nested contexts and relationships of family, community, and wider local, national and global influences. Kaiako participate in, and may influence, some or all of these contexts.

Urie Bronfenbrenner explains this process through his ecological systems model. An aligned system, focused on children’s wellbeing and development, is conducive to learning. Implementing Te Whāriki means that kaiako will work with others within and beyond their specific ECE context to enact the curriculum. Working together across the whole system is an extension of the Family and community | Whānau tangata principle.

Bronfenbrenner’s model considers the reciprocal individual–environmental influences that drive learning and development. This approach seeks to understand how the characteristics of the developing person, including their dispositions, knowledge, experiences and skills, interact with aspects of the environment to invite or inhibit engagement. This is why, in Te Whāriki, goals for the educational environment are associated with each strand and set of learning outcomes.

Bronfenbrenner’s most recent ideas challenge kaiako to recognise that children’s worlds are rapidly changing and connected across time.

An example of Bronfenbrenner’s theory in action can be seen in the ways kaiako in New Zealand respond to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC). Kaiako work to uphold and protect children’s rights, interests, and points of view from the earliest ages. They recognise children as citizens and preserve their dignity while building their mana and supporting them to build the mana of others.

Sociocultural theories

Sociocultural theories owe a great debt to the theorising of Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner, who researched young children from cognitive and cultural-historical perspectives.

Recent sociocultural theorising builds on Vygotsky’s ideas that learning leads development and occurs in relationships with people, places and things, mediated by participation in valued social and cultural activities. In this framework, play is an important means by which children try out new roles and identities as they interact with others. Peers and kaiako provide forms of guidance and support.

Children’s learning and development are seen to be influenced by three interrelated ideas:

  • Genetic, developmental and environmental factors interact, enabling and constraining learning.
  • Thinking and language derive from social life.
  • Individual and social action and behaviour are influenced by participation in the child’s culture.

In this view, kaiako need to have a sound understanding of child development, including oral language development, and the part that social interaction and kaiako guidance plays in learning. They also need to understand the importance, for young children’s learning, of materials, artefacts and tools and the signs and symbols of societies and cultures.

Kaupapa Māori Theory

Kaupapa Māori theory is drawn from Māori ways of knowing and being and assumes the normalcy of Māori knowledge, language and culture.

It gives voice to Māori aspirations and expresses the ways in which Māori aspirations, ideas and learning practices can be framed and organised. The implementation of kaupapa Māori theory emphasises practices that enable Māori to achieve educational success as Māori. At its core is the retention of the Māori language and culture, which provides a foundation for positive transformations and brings about educational, social and economic advancement.

Kaupapa Māori theory is situated within the land, culture, history and people of Aotearoa New Zealand, constituting a distinctive, contextualised theoretical framework driven by whānau, hapū and iwi understandings.

Pasifika approaches

Pasifika approaches that have influenced ECE in New Zealand draw on different ethnic-specific ways of knowing and being, for example, kopu tangata (Cook Islands), falalalaga (Samoan), fale hanga (Tongan), and inati (Tokelau).

These approaches view respect and reciprocity as crucial for learning and value. They also stress the notion of multiple relationships between people and across time, places and ideologies and the ability to navigate between familiar and unfamiliar worlds, different Pasifika world views, and Pasifika and non-Pasifika world views. Pasifika approaches typically use and value metaphors and models, which provide an authentic means of connecting the familiar with the unfamiliar.

Pasifika view children as treasures and hope for the future. The responsibility for their care is shared by all members of the ‘aiga.

Critical theories

Te Whāriki reflects research that adopts critical theoretical lenses to examine the influence of social conditions, global influences and equity of opportunity on children’s learning and development. Critical theory perspectives challenge disparities, injustices, inequalities and perceived norms. The use of critical theory perspectives is reflected in the principles of Te Whāriki and in guidance on how to promote equitable practices with children, parents and whānau.

Emerging research and theory

Advances in the study of infancy and childhood and development across the lifespan continue to expand our understandings. For example, neuroscientific research is providing evidence for how human development takes place over the course of life, beginning before birth and accelerating rapidly in the early years.

The major difference between the brain of a young child and that of an adult is that the child’s brain is far more impressionable. This difference, known as plasticity, has both a positive and a negative side: the brain of a young child is more receptive to learning and to enriching influences, but it is also more vulnerable.

Neuroscience and studies of gene–environment interaction are providing evidence for how children’s biological foundations interact with specific aspects of the environment during development and how brain development can be nurtured by high-quality early learning environments.