Working theories and meaning making
As human beings with the capacity for thought and action, we carry with us working theories that shape and influence the way we interact, choose, problem solve, avoid danger, see ourselves in relation to others, and much more.
Working theories are developed through our experiences and interactions with the world. These experiences and interactions differ between people – and so do the working theories that guide our everyday life. We don’t all react in the same way or hold the same opinions and beliefs.
These theories are called “working” because they change and evolve. This happens as experiences and interactions serve to disrupt and challenge existing ideas and assumptions. It is through this process that new ways to respond and make meaning are learnt.
Tamariki and working theories
Tamariki are forming and refining their working theories from birth. Initially, responses seem more intuitive and spontaneous than thought out. This is because infants are beginning to develop a kete of experiences from which they will gradually put together more informed, sophisticated, mature, and useful working theories.
While tamariki working theories may not be as visible as some skills and knowledge (such as crossing the monkey bars or counting objects), they are just as pivotal to learning and development. This is recognised in the emphasis placed on holistic learning in Te Whāriki and on the Thinking key competency in The New Zealand Curriculum.
Where tamariki are given opportunities to “bump up against” new, diverse experiences, test out their ideas and actions, and express their thinking to others, their working theories are more likely to become visible. When this happens, the potential to expand thinking, and therefore learning, is significant if the adults around them are tuned in – aware of what to look for and how to respond.
Boys have short hair, girls have long hair
In this excerpt Ange, a teacher at Northcote Baptist Community Preschool, takes time to gently encourage Jin (three years old) to rethink his working theory of how to tell boys from girls. By the end of the conversation Jin appears to understand that his initial theory is not making sense anymore. A small group of children are gathered around the rabbit cage. A conversation begins about whether the rabbits are boys or girls. This leads to a talk about hair length.
Jin (three years old): Girl’s hair.
Ange (teacher): My hair? If I cut my hair short would I become a boy?
Jin: nnnnn... yeah.
Ange: So I am a boy if I cut my hair short?
Jin: Yeah (nodding).
Ange: How short? How about Chloe’s hair? (Chloe is another child nearby with a short hair.)
Ange: So is Chloe a boy or a girl?
Jin: A boy!
Ange: But she is wearing a dress so is she a boy or a girl?
Jin: nnnnn... A girl!
Ange: A girl? But she has short hair.
Jin: (Looks away. Pats his own very short hair).
Ange: And I am not wearing a dress. Am I a boy?
Jin: (Pauses, fingers on lips, thinking) Yes! (This time he laughs jokingly.)
Claxton (1990) says that it, “...is the business of improving our theories, elaborating and tuning them so that they keep track of the changes in the world and come to serve us ever more successfully.” Yet how often are working theories considered in curriculum design (planning) alongside the choice of experiences and activities? Leaving the development of working theories to chance, runs the risk of tamariki refining their working theories in ways that are less helpful to them as learners. For example, if tamariki come to think that their interests and ideas don’t matter in a context, they are less likely to contribute and engage.
Kaiako who are effective in supporting tamariki to refine and expand successful working theories will intentionally:
- model curiosity and inquiry in their interactions with tamariki
- set up the environment in ways that invite curiosity and opportunities to puzzle over ideas and events
- make listening to tamariki thinking and ideas as expressed through gesture and words a priority
- monitor their own inclinations to give “correct” answers
- use responses (questioning and commenting) that give value to diverse perspectives. For example, “Who has a different idea?”, “That’s a reason we haven’t thought of”, and so increase the likelihood that tamariki feel safe to express their thoughts
- use responses that encourage tamariki to adjust and refine their working theories (as in the example above).
Claxton, G. (1990). Teaching to Learn: A direction for education. London: Cassell Educational.
This collaborative study describes ways a group of teachers nurtured and encouraged children’s working theories on identity, language, and culture, and the impact of doing this on children’s participation.
This is a report on research looking at how teachers might usefully "notice, recognise, respond to, record, and revisit" children’s interests and working theories. The project focused particularly on interests, working theories, activities, and events linked to children’s families, communities, and cultures. Authors Helen Hedges and Maria Cooper worked together with teachers in two early childhood services.
Kei Tua o Te Pae Assessment for Learning: Early Childhood Exemplars is a resource that provides many practice examples, highlighting children’s working theories and Kaiako, parent/whānau responses to these.
This two-year research project explored children’s working theories in action. The authors Keryn Davis and Sally Peters looked at the ways young children expressed their working theories and how these were understood and fostered in Playcentre environments. The findings show ways that children express and develop working theories, how practitioners understand these, and how best to respond to this learning.
Helen Hedges has researched and published widely on working theories. Her blog is informed by this work and includes links to further literature.