ECE Resources

Supporting and extending children’s working theories

In our webinar, Dr Daniel Lovatt (Aro Arataki Early Childhood Centre) introduces two models he uses to understand and support children’s working theory development, and provides practical strategies teachers might use to support, challenge, and enrich children’s thinking and exploration.

Working theories describe the tentative and evolving ideas and understandings that children develop as they use their existing knowledge and understandings to make sense of new information. The concept of working theories has a long history, having been adapted from Guy Claxton’s 1990’s concept of mini-theories for the draft version of Te Whāriki (1993).The development of working theories is one of the overarching learning outcomes of Te Whāriki (1996, 2017), alongside the development of learning dispositions. While these two learning outcomes are intertwined in children’s play and learning, children’s working theories remain an under-theorised and under-researched aspect of curriculum in New Zealand.

Learners develop working theories through a particular process or a cycle of steps, which are repeated many times, resulting in modifications to the theory over time, and enabling children to continually improve their thinking and understanding. Daniel developed a model of this ‘spiral of working theory development’. The starting point is an existing understanding (already the result of previous cycles of working theory development), which may be unsophisticated but comprises some ideas about a concept or understanding. Working theory development begins when the child undergoes some kind of experience – a conversation, reading a book, watching others, or getting hand-on and experiencing a phenomenon through different senses. The child takes information from that experience, and in the third phase of working theory development, the new information gained from the experience is connected to and reconciled with existing understandings. This might cause a very slight change to an existing understanding or a large step change. By making connections, the child forms a new understanding (the fourth phase), which becomes the existing understanding for a second iteration of working theory development.

Working theories are seen as all four parts of this process, referring not only to the resulting theory that the child develops, but to the holistic processes of experiencing, connecting, and processing.  The concept of working theories involves the development of knowledge, skills, and attitudes, and incorporates the process of creating knowledge as well as the knowledge gained.

This spiral of working theory development was developed through research carried out with 3 and 4 year olds, but is likely to be highly relevant to the developing thinking of much younger (and indeed older) children. With younger children, observation and understanding will be key, noticing them perform actions and movements repeatedly, and trying to recognise the very tiny changes that occur with each experience and how these are building up greater skill and understanding.

Teachers can support children in their working theory development and help enrich their working theories. Key to this process is the teacher’s understanding of the child, the concept the child is exploring, and the child’s current understanding of that concept. Teachers are then in a good position to intentionally provide experiences that may result in the child gaining information that they can use to create new enriched and expanded understandings. Intentional actions might be starting a conversation, responding to a question, or providing a planned activity or experience. Within these intentional experiences, teachers make selected information visible, by commenting or otherwise highlighting it. For example, a teacher might say ‘hey, did you notice that?’ or deliberately place a block on a block structure in a specific way to help children notice the effects of that action. Finally, teachers can help children make connections between the new information they have gained and their existing understanding, by helping children to reflect on how their experience is linked to what they already know. In his research, Daniel described all these supports as the Shared Learning Commitments model.

Working theory development does not involve feeding facts to children for them to remember and memorise. Rather, the aim is for children to grow up seeing themselves as working theorists and having confidence in themselves as being able to tackle something hard and to learn. It is important not to have a predetermined outcome for the child’s working theory, but to work alongside children and support their agency as they work through the working theory process. This will help them grow as creative thinkers, without fixing their knowledge in more familiar ways. Teachers should be careful to respect children’s thinking power, and may want to avoid directly correcting or contradicting children, and be subtle about feeding something into a discussion. If teachers have developed good relationships with children, they will have a good idea about what children know and are thinking about, as well as the kind of support that is best for each child, and how direct they might be in challenging or questioning children.

Peers play an important role in an individual’s working theory development. Often groups will form naturally around a topic of interest, such as when one child finds something interesting in the playground, and this draws other children in. Children may have conflicting perspectives, as each child has different experiences and understandings of the world, and may be quite happy to challenge each other’s thinking. Teachers need to use sophisticated facilitation skills to keep children on track, without insisting on a pre-set direction for discussion, but allowing meandering paths too. It is important to remember that children are working things out for themselves to develop working theories. Teachers can repeat what children say, trying to bring in all the voices and ensuring that quieter children are heard in their own way. 

While there is not a set of strategies that will work for every child and every context, teachers can provoke theorising using phrases like ‘I wonder’, which position them as not knowing and therefore as a learner alongside children. Silences are important to allow children to soak up new ideas, or to let a new layer of understanding settle. Teachers might also use phrases like ‘what if …?’ and ‘how about…?’ to broaden children’s thinking. The aim is not to scaffold children to greater accuracy in their understanding of concepts, but to broaden their perspective and encompass other ideas and understandings.

Trying to reconcile new information with existing knowledge is incredibly taxing, and children can benefit from having a break before coming back to think about their working theory some more. Sometimes children are not ready to take on new information. It is important to offer opportunities to revisit and continue developing working theories, knowing that children will let us know when they do not want to.  

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