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Vygotsky's phases of everyday concept development and the notion of

children's working theories

Helen Hedges
Faculty of Education, University of Auckland, New Zealand
a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t
Article history:
Received 12 January 2012
Received in revised form 20 June 2012
Accepted 20 June 2012
Available online 17 July 2012
The impact of Vygotsky's theorising about culture, development, learning and education
continues into the 21st century. This paper focuses on teachers' understandings of elements of
young children's thinking. Young children have been described as life theorizers, keenly
motivated to make meaning about their worlds during interactions with others. This paper
discusses working theories, one of two indicative learning outcomes of the New Zealand early
childhood curriculum, Te Whriki. Working theories occur in children's thinking and
sense-making as they attempt to make connections between prior and new experiences and
understandings. Specifically, the paper explores the Vygotskian notion of the development of
everyday concepts as one theoretical underpinning for the notion of working theories. The
concept of working theories is argued as a mediating mechanism that young children employ
to progress through Vygotsky's three phases of everyday concept formation. It may also be a
strategy that children utilise as they begin to develop and connect everyday and scientific
knowledge. Working theories therefore provide a way teachers might recognise and build on
children's everyday and early conceptual knowledge. To substantiate this argument, examples
of children's working theories and associated pedagogical issues from a qualitative study in
two early childhood education settings are provided. Some implications for teachers'
knowledge and practice and future research are described.
2012 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Working theories
Everyday and scientific concepts
Early childhood
Children's learning
Children's thinking
1. Introduction
Vygotsky's cultural-historical theoretical legacy is immense. This paper will add weight to Vygotsky's (1986) perspective that
everyday learning is a foundation for scientific learning. Specifically, it develops recent ideas that consider childrenas life-theorizers
(Inagaki & Hatano, 2002, p. 126), active agents in their own learning and inquiry into understanding the world they live in and the
cultures and communities they participate in. The paper therefore argues that children's working theories act as both a mechanism
for developing everyday knowledge and a potential later mediating link between everyday and scientific knowledge. Sensitive
mediation in terms of both curricular and pedagogical approaches from knowledgeable teachers within children's zones of proximal
development (ZPDs) can assist this early meaning making.
This paper first describes the curriculum document and context in which working theories have become a pedagogical
consideration. Vygotskian theories of everyday and scientific knowledge are discussed as they are significant to developing and
extending understandings of this concept. Examples of young children's working theories and pedagogical issues related to phases of
everyday concept formation from a qualitative study of children's working theories are provided to exemplify the concept.
Learning, Culture and Social Interaction 1 (2012) 143152
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1.1. Curriculum in Aotearoa/New Zealand
Te Whriki (Ministry of Education, 1996), the curriculum policy document in Aotearoa/New Zealand, is designed for children
aged from birth to 5 years and values children as competent learners. Te Whriki's two indicative learning outcomes are
dispositions and working theories, described as combinations of knowledge, skills and attitudes. While the notion of dispositions
from a sociocultural theoretical perspective has been developed (e.g., Carr, 2001; Claxton & Carr, 2004), the parallel and
interdependent concept of working theories has remained less well-understood. Although a few projects have included
consideration of working theories (e.g., Peters & Davis, 2011), there has been little progress so far in defining the concept beyond
Claxton's (1990) notion of minitheories to underpin studies theoretically.
In outlining the notion of working theories, Te Whriki states:
In early childhood, children are developing more elaborate and useful working theories about themselves and the people,
places, and things in their lives. These working theories contain a combination of knowledge about the world, skills and
strategies, attitudes, and expectations. Children develop working theories through observing, listening, doing, participating,
discussing, and representing within the topics and activities provided in the programme. As children gain greater
experience, knowledge, and skills, the theories they develop will become more widely applicable and have more connecting
links between them. Working theories become increasingly useful for making sense of the world, for giving the child control
over what happens, for problem-solving, and for further learning. Many of these theories retain a magical and creative
quality, and for many communities, theories about the world are infused with a spiritual dimension (Ministry of Education,
1996, p. 44).
The term working theories is also included in one of the goals for the strand of exploration: [children] develop working
theories for making sense of the natural, social, physical, and material worlds (p. 82), including theories about social
relationships and social concepts, such as friendship, authority, and social rules and understandings, and working theories
about the living world and how to care for it (p. 90). However, these descriptions and examples describe what working
theories do, how they might arise and develop during social interactions and what they might be about, rather than providing a
clear definition of what a working theory is as a notion. Further examples that researchers and teachers can relate to and
develop in order to better understand children's thinking and concept development provides a useful contribution to the
1.2. Working theories
Children are motivated to explore their experiences from the viewpoint of prior, possibly limited, understandings. Within
cultural-historical approaches, temporality, motive, culturally-valued knowledge and pursuits are central to understanding
children's thinking. During children's inquiry into their worlds, their thinking is dynamic and involves theorising and developing
ideas, often in creative ways that relate to their current, albeit limited, experiences. In general, theories are viewed as ways to seek
patterns, meanings and explanations about phenomena. While working theories do not have the same status as grand theories, as a
form of inquiry and hypothesising they are a way to acknowledge the serious nature of children's knowledge seeking about their
worlds. Working theories might be considered the manifestation of this inquiry into meaning seeking, either implicitly, in
children's internal cognitive processes, or explicitly, as children express their thoughts to others (Hedges, in press). The overall goal
therefore that concurrent sets of working theories are working towards is children's meaning making and knowledge building.
A definition-in-progress of the notion that is being tested in the present research is:
Working theories are present from childhood to adulthood. They represent the tentative, evolving ideas and understandings
formulated by children as they engage with others to think, ponder, wonder, learn and make sense of the world in order to
participate more effectively within it.
Adults cannot assume or intuit children's motivations and understandings, therefore they need to know children and their
lives well, and listen to and observe children's behaviours closely to interpret actions and understandings. Hence, a number of
theories related to children's participation in everyday learning and inquiry are likely to be pertinent to the development of the
construct (see Hedges & Cullen, 2012). This paper focuses on Vygotsky's notions on everyday and scientific concepts and potential
links to the construct of working theories.
2. Theoretical informants to the notion of working theories
Claxton's (1990) concept of minitheories was noted in the draft of Te Whriki (Ministry of Education, 1993) as the theoretical basis
of working theories. Claxton argued that in the early years of life, through gradual editing and improvement, minitheories become
more effective, comprehensive, appropriate and connected. However, Claxton's theory alone is insufficient almost 20 years later to
describe the complexities of the construct, as they are more multifaceted than the somewhat discrete explanations of minitheories he
described. Claxton stated that the theoretical foundation of minitheories was constructivist because of their personal nature.
Yet, the ways he described the effects of emotions and motivation on learning, and the roles of people, cultural tools and
experiences and educational contexts in the origins, development and utilisation of minitheories lead to theoretical considerations
144 H. Hedges / Learning, Culture and Social Interaction 1 (2012) 143152
that are more broadly sociocultural in approach. As the definition-in-progress states, children need opportunities to think,
inquire, participate and discuss ideas with others. This paper specifically focuses on Vygotsky's (1986) theories of everyday and
scientific knowledge. Therefore, explanations of these ideas and their potential relevance to the notion of working theories are
now described.
2.1. Vygotskian concepts: everyday and scientic concepts
Vygotsky (1986) argued that development is shaped by cultural-historical inheritances. Vygotsky valued children's early
experiences in families and communities, viewing these as a foundation for later cognitive development. Therefore his
theories were not confined to consideration of cognitive development per se, but were in keeping with his belief that
development involves affective and cognitive components. Of significance, he also believed that learning involved much more
than domain knowledge and included knowledge about becoming a contributing member of a community, culture and
One central idea in Vygotskian theorising is the reciprocal relationship between everyday (i.e., spontaneous, experiential) and
scientific (i.e., formal, conceptual) concepts. During the early childhood years, Vygotsky believed that everyday concepts were
most prominent. Everyday concepts emerged from children's thinking about their daily experiences, that is, they occur
spontaneously in the context of normal participation in family and community practices and activities. Conversely, scientific
concepts were regarded as situated within coherent knowledge systems and are therefore taught in more structured ways using
academic models in specialised educational settings. During schooling, scientific concepts become dominant, but can usefully
draw upon prior everyday knowledge and experience to understand related scientific concepts. Moreover, while scientific
concepts represent theoretical principles and do not rely on practical experiences for their understanding, practical experiences of
everyday concepts can feed intuitively into theoretical understandings. Further, if viewed as a continuum of conceptual
development, everyday concepts develop upwards towards abstractness and scientific concepts ascend from abstract to concrete
in processes of contextualisation that rely on specific academic input rather than occurring spontaneously (Davydov, 1988). The
relationship between the two types of concepts is therefore rich and complex.
This paper focuses on children's spontaneous development of everyday concepts. When a child uses the same concept in
different contexts, perhaps experimentally, inconsistently or inappropriately, working theories about the concept might be
viewed as developing. When the concept is used appropriately consistently, the child might be perceived as now at least
intuitively understanding the concept. Experience and understanding of concepts therefore first occur on the social plane as
children express, test out and revise working theories and are later internalised to the cognitive plane through complex processes
of working through levels and relationships of understandings. Vygotsky based his associated research on the assumption
therefore that concepts could not be assimilated by a child, but needed to undergo a process of dynamic, creative and complex
development during social and cultural interactions.
Vygotsky identified three phases of everyday concept development. First, the collection of syncretic ideas in heaps occurs, that is
ideas and objects vaguely linked through a child's perspective. In other words, a collection of experiences and associated ideas
develop that seemto have no linking conceptual principles and may even be illogical and inconsistent froman adult perspective. The
second phase involves the development from thinking in complexes, using approaches such as functional connections and direct
experiences to establish similarities, albeit often inconsistent ones, between objects, to the chain complex where meanings are
recognisably connected and organised but still ill-formed. This phase then moves finally to pseudoconcepts where generalisations
are formed that resemble adult understandings but remain unsophisticated in relation to scientific concepts. The third phase is the
abstractionof elements of concepts in a formof analysis and synthesis, developing potential concepts where understandings remain
fairly consistent and applied inappropriately less often than pseudoconcepts. However, these understandings are still intuitive and
likely unable to be clearly articulated by children. Moreover, the ways that complexes and concepts develop are predetermined by the
meaning each associated word has in the adult language/s the child is immersed in.
Vygotsky's double-stimulation method used contrived research protocols to establish children's understandings derived from
everyday activities. Therefore it is possible that the processes of considering children's understandings were not as naturalistic as
many modern-day studies that observe children participating naturally in family and community activities. Further, he focused on
children giving verbal labels to concepts that linked perceptual traits. The present study suggests that these labels may be linked in
intuitive, nave ways to form working theories about everyday events and situations.
In relation to everyday and scientific concepts, Vygotsky was keen that future research might further clarify their
interdependence, and we anticipate an extension of the study of development and instruction to lower age levels (1986,
pp. 208209). Early childhood for Vygotsky meant children aged 37 years. Vygotsky could not have foreseen the recent
burgeoning of early childhood institutions for children from birth to 7 years in response to global historical, cultural and
economic conditions. These settings may therefore provide the earlier opportunities he alluded to for researching the ways
children develop concurrently various concepts through the phases of everyday concept development. Further, these enable
such research to occur in more spontaneous ways than adopting experimental approaches. In this way the working nature of
children's thinking, evidenced in their spontaneous actions, behaviours and conversations, may be more visible. Children might
also perhaps begin to link everyday and early conceptual knowledge through play and language. I argue in this paper that ways
everyday knowledge develops, and later, ways everyday and scientific knowledge might develop and merge in children's
thinking and learning, may involve the notion of working theories.
145 H. Hedges / Learning, Culture and Social Interaction 1 (2012) 143152
2.2. The zone of proximal development and mediation
Two further Vygotskian concepts are relevant to the development of understandings of working theories as a concept: the
zone of proximal development (ZPD) and mediation. Vygotsky (1986) described the ZPD as developing psychological capabilities
in children. Vygotsky's aim for education was to provide experiences for children within their ZPDs, activities that are challenging
but attainable, that support and transition their learning. In addition, Chaiklin (2003) explained Vygotsky's ZPD as a metaphor to
represent a zone where children's everyday understandings interact with conceptual knowledge provided by mediators of
learning, such as teachers. Further, the ZPD can be viewed as a dynamic, creative zone during mediated interactions (Lidz &
Gindis, 2003) that may not be confined to academic concepts (Rogoff, 2003). In this way, the zone can be viewed also as a zone of
potential development where opportunities for teachers to observe and mediate children's implicit thinking and knowledge
building in action occur.
Mediation is a relational concept that describes tools and processes used in meaning making in implicit and explicit ways.
Explicit mediation refers to the constraints and affordances of ideas and activities frompeople or cultural tools to human thinking;
implicit mediation refers to the role of social and inner speech as communication that assists learning (Wertsch, 2007). Mediation
might then be considered the working mechanism or aspect of working theories; processes of creating conscious awareness of
concepts through various implicit and explicit strategies. Mediation also connects societal and cultural processes with human
cognition. The importance of pedagogical relationships, in which teachers recognise and respond to children's attempts to think
and theorise about their lives and worlds, are therefore vital in using a concept such as working theories as a tool for learning.
Thus, children might employ working theories to make sense of new experiences or to test connections between objects and
concepts during their ongoing theorising about their everyday lives and worlds. Working theories might first then be viewed as
acting as implicit mediators within children's active attempts in their own minds to extend and challenge their thinking. Second,
working theories become a way for children to express, represent, explore, connect, extend and/or review and reject their
understandings in pedagogical relationships. Further, when exposed to explicit mediation that incorporates conceptual
knowledge, development through the phases of everyday concept development and, later, links between everyday and scientific
concepts may begin to occur. While children may not be conscious of these mediational strategies, teachers may be able to
recognise these and utilise them to stretch children's thinking and concept development. Therefore it is vital that teachers have
understandings of the concept of working theories, and be able to describe both examples of these and ways teachers might
encourage and support the editing, connecting and revising of early concept development in children's thinking.
2.3. Rationale for study
While Chaiklin and Hedegaard (2009) and Hedegaard (2007) continued to study ways educational practices can lead
concept development through structured research protocols as Vygotsky did, they also attended to the notions of motives in
learning, that is, the child's attitudes and orientations in relation to the particular practices of their societal life (Chaiklin &
Hedegaard, 2009, p. 190). Chaiklin and Hedegaard (2009) also described a concept of radical-local teaching and learning to
emphasise combining intellectual concepts with the local content and conditions in children's families, communities and
cultures. They state that:
Core conceptual relations within subject-matter areas have to be related specically to children's life situations so that this
academic knowledge can become integrated with local knowledge, thereby qualitatively transforming children's everyday
concepts and the possibility to use this knowledge in the local practice (p. 192).
These ideas are of significance to the present paper as they confer a prominent position to children's existing personal
knowledge and interests, ways these might be influenced by family and community experiences, and strategies that might assist
children to develop everyday and early scientific concepts during their play and inquiry in a range of family and community
settings. Working theories may be one of these strategies.
3. Methodology
Settings such as contemporary Western early childhood education services provide opportunities to research natural ways in
which children might build personal, everyday knowledge and begin to develop early conceptual knowledge. In taking up this
challenge, sociocultural methodologies provide rich, contextualised understandings of teachers' and children's thinking and
learning. This paper draws on findings from a qualitative, interpretivist case study.
The study took place in two settings providing all-day education and care in Auckland, New Zealand. Both centres catered for
children aged 6 months to 5 years who mixed freely together throughout the learning and teaching environments. Myers Park
Kindergartens NZ (KiNZ) Early Learning Centre was located in the central city area and Small Kauri Early Childhood Education
Centre (SK) was located in South Auckland. Fifteen teachers took part in the study, 13 fully qualified and two studying for a
qualification. Three of the teachers had qualified well before the introduction of Te Whriki, while the rest had graduated in the
years since 1996 from a variety of teacher education providers nationwide.
The study investigated teachers' understandings of the notion of working theories and generated examples of children's
working theories. The main data generation techniques involved first, group interviews with teachers on three occasions during
146 H. Hedges / Learning, Culture and Social Interaction 1 (2012) 143152
the study to ascertain their initial and later understandings of the construct of working theories and their ability to describe
examples (reported in Hedges, 2011). Secondly, a research assistant spent 6 weeks (4 h per day) immersed in participant
observation in each setting. Field notes and photographs about children's interests and inquiries and teachers' engagement with
these were generated in order to analyse this data for examples of working theories. Additional sources of data were teachers'
curriculum documentation, parent journals of children's interests, questions and ideas, and photos taken by children related to
these, over a three-week period. Near the end of the data generation period, each research assistant undertook individual
stimulated recall interviews with children of sufficient verbal capacity in an attempt to ascertain the veracity of the data
generated on each child fromthe child's perspective. Thus, multiple sources of data over a period of time assisted deep knowledge
of the children and interpretations of their words and behaviours to develop among the teachers and researchers involved.
Once data generation was complete, descriptive and thematic analysis occurred first through continuous reading of the data in
a constant comparative technique (Braun & Clarke, 2006; Miles & Huberman, 1994) to establish teachers' understandings of the
concept of working theories. These understandings were particularly illustrated by the examples of children's learning they
described in interviews that they recognised during their interactions with children or in their curriculum documentation. This
paper draws on the teacher interview data, using the name of the centre, number of the group interview and page of the
transcript as a code (e.g., SK/1/12) in describing and discussing the findings and the child interview data noted as child's name
and interview page number (e.g., Isabella/3), in describing and discussing the findings.
4. Findings: connecting children's everyday knowledge, working theories and early conceptual knowledge
Teachers had intuitive understandings of the concept of working theories as snippets of knowledge that children were
attempting to connect (Hedges, 2011). While they had similar conceptions of what constituted a working theory, they differed on
theoretical underpinnings for these, initially favouring constructivist explanations consistent with Piagetian views and Claxton's
notions. The teachers revealed their understandings through stories of children's exploration and engagement in learning and/or
by recalling examples of children's thinking that had appeared interesting. The importance of working theories as a complex
intuitive construct that may link related everyday and scientific concepts was expressed by one teacher, Daniel:
I just remember thinking there's some things that you learn especially at high school and they just click and I've found that
especially with physics. There's some things that I could just get straight away and I didn't really have to think about it and I
wonder if that's from my working theories developed as a child? I think of hitting that tennis ball. You start to work out
theories about trajectory and power and also about levers then at high school you actually learn exactly why that
happens. You're shown a formula and for me stuff like that just really clicked. But as a child you can't explain it, you do it
without actually knowing. (SK/2/1)
This acknowledgement of intuitive understandings and of their assistance in developing conceptual understandings appears
intrapersonal, but relies on extensive experiences in social and cultural contexts, including engagement in interpersonal dialogue
with others, in order for complex knowledge to develop. Therefore this study sought to move explanations of working theories
forward, consistent with present sociocultural interpretations of Te Whriki.
4.1. Children's working theories and everyday concept formation
This paper now takes up Vygotsky's challenge of considering how ideas about everyday concepts, specifically in the three
phases of concept formation from random and spontaneous thinking to the early consideration of more abstract concepts in
coherent patterns might be observed in children aged from one to five years, an age range including those younger than Vygotsky
considered. The concepts represent those children explored during the opportunities afforded by activities and interactions with
peers and teachers in their early childhood centres. Examples accompanied the teachers' discussions of what constituted working
theories over the course of the research. While these findings did relate to the phases of Vygotsky's everyday concept
development, there also appeared to be a necessary precursor stage to the development of thinking: infants' (children under the
age of 2 years) exploratory play with objects in the teaching and learning environment.
4.1.1. Exploratory play prior to the rst phase
In the context of technology, Napper (1991) proposed a two-stage model for capability development. Napper identified that
an exploratory phase was vital as preparation for a problem-solving stage. Similarly, in the present study, hands-on exploration
and manipulation of objects and materials such as water, sand, paper and balls were of apparent importance in pre-verbal infants'
play experiences prior to the development of everyday understandings. The following examples of exploratory play with objects
all relate to infants, indicating that this phase of engaging in practical experiences might indeed represent a common aspect of
early cognition. Although no examples were offered in relation to toddlers and young children, this may simply mean that
teachers were more focused on noticing aspects of children's thinking that were more recognisable verbally.
Kirsten, a teacher of infants and toddlers, described one girl's exploration with materials as:
She was holding it up and she was exploring it, she was scrunching it and just kind of guring out what this piece of paper
or thing was [A few weeks later] I had put out some different material in our room, material that you can look through
that was quite sheer in different colours, she was doing the same thing, looking through it, scrunching it up, so I made a link
147 H. Hedges / Learning, Culture and Social Interaction 1 (2012) 143152
to that because she was just exploring the different materials that were around her in the environment, but she might not
have made a link between the two yet. (KiNZ/3/34)
During this phase, the main issue that arose for teachers was how to try to understand what pre-verbal children are thinking
and theorising.
You can't work it out at that age, you've just got to keep observing them in order to nd that out as you go along,
especially at that age, you can't question them, you've really got to observe. (Kirsten/KiNZ/3/4)
Teachers commonly responded to these kinds of explorations/investigations by offering more materials and different experiences
with the same kinds of ideas and concepts to help children move towards the next phase of attempting to make some early
connections, even if these were quite child-specific and/or idiosyncratic. Teachers also let childrenexperience difficulties during these
explorations. As Kirsten suggested, allowing children to experience frustration during strategies such as trial and error may be vital in
developing dispositions such as persistence and resilience that may be vital to the encouragement of working theory development.
Here the parallel nature of the two outcomes of Te Whriki (dispositions and working theories) was apparent.
4.1.2. Phase one: syncretic heaps
The syncretic heaps phase is the way that children indicate some understandings about ideas through objects that are linked
from their perspective. Several examples were narrated where there appeared to be no connection between the ideas children
were expressing. One teacher, Anna, described an example she had observed:
I think when children express themselves they're making their own sense of things [T]he other day in the sandpit
someone said oh the volcano that we made is milk and we're giving the milk to our cow and it can't make its own and it
needs to feed its babies so they'd just taken two different things and linked them together and that was their knowledge of
the world. It doesn't have to be right; it's just piecing together all the parts I guess and working it out. (KiNZ/1/10)
It is possible to see a link here to Chaiklin and Hedegaard's (2009) concept of radical-local teaching and learning that emphasises
teachers can build intellectual concepts using the local content and conditions in children's families, communities and cultures. New
Zealand has a strong history of an agricultural economy and its geography is replete with volcanoes. In this way, it may not be so
difficult to understand children trying to make sense of experiences utilising familiar ideas and representing these in their play.
Nevertheless, teachers expressed some pedagogical difficulties related to this phase. One was that some theories were
outrageous (Nadine/KiNZ/1/15), foreign (Anna/KiNZ/1/10) and totally ridiculous but great to hear (Daniel/SK/1/8). The
examples illustrated that in this phase the task of connecting and transferring, editing and/or revising two seemingly-relatedpieces of
knowledge from children's perspectives was not yet possible. Yet, participating with adults and peers assists the development of
experiences and opportunities that illustrate the intuitive nature of connections that are accurate fromtheir perspectives, but may be
situation-specific for very young children. These ideas can contribute to later, more sophisticated theorising if teachers respond
positively and encouragingly to children's initial thinking and can drawon conceptual frameworks such as Chaiklin and Hedegaard's.
4.1.3. Phase two: thinking in complexes
In this phase, Vygotsky suggested that children are actively trying to make connections between objects and to extrapolate
understandings about ideas that may result in unsophisticated generalisations. Simply through age, maturity and experience,
these connections are often inconsistent or nave.
Jia Mei described children observing parents and teachers planting gardens and children's linked assumption that the act of
planting something in soil will lead to growth. This assumption is supported by Inagaki and Hatano's (2002) conception of nave
biology, whereby children make unsophisticated generalisations based on limited experience. As Jia Mei explains, such situations
provide opportunities for teachers to engage in conversations that may lead to more mature understandings.
[The adults] put the seeds inthe soil the plant will come upandthe childwill maybe one day he pick upa stick but it's just a stick
he put it in the soil, in the ground, he thought the thing will come up but actually the thing is dead so that time like a teacher or
anybody can support him or explain him why the stick not growing That's a working theory for the child. (KiNZ/1/26)
Two pedagogical issues arose in this phase. First, this kind of teaching and learning situation created a dilemma for teachers in
relation to valuing the theorising that children engage with and deciding when the introduction of conceptual language and
knowledge might be useful, to introduce ideas and contribute to eventual scientific understandings. Daniel (teacher) noted that:
Facts are cheap so it's not necessarily about correcting somebody; it's about helping them to develop working theories,
whether they're right or wrong. (SK/2/6)
We tell children don't pick [a tomato] until it's turned red. Well I've got green tomatoes growing at home now that don't
turn red so a fact, I always thought you never pick a tomato until they're red, that's from childhood. Actually that's turned
over on its head now and you can get yellow ones with stripes [T]he world is changing and facts aren't facts anymore.
148 H. Hedges / Learning, Culture and Social Interaction 1 (2012) 143152
Vygotsky (1986) clearly supports Daniel's thinking: [D]irect teaching of concepts is impossible and fruitless (p. 150), as do
Chaiklin and Hedegaard (2009): Facts alone are not sufficient. Children need some way to make sense of these facts (p. 192).
Furthermore, introducing concepts too early and without relevance to children's context and experiences may cause confusion so
that children reject the new information and continue to use their own experiences to make meaning anyway (Hannust & Kikkas,
2007). However, it may also be important for teachers to introduce language to support children's theorising, use accurate
terminology and attempt to challenge and extend children's thinking in order for learning to (eventually) lead development in
the way Vygotsky envisaged.
The importance of language within a domain suggests that one should not cheat on vocabulary; terms such as respiration,
nutrients, and the concepts to which they apply belong in the preschool classroom, both because children learn words at an
astonishing rate during these years and because proper vocabulary is part and parcel of conceptual growth (Gelman &
Brenneman, 2004, p. 152).
Moreover, repeated experiences where children are exposed to incongruous information make conceptual change more
likely to occur subsequently (Inagaki & Hatano, 2002).
The second main pedagogical dilemma related to this phase of thinking in complexes was the ways teachers might value and
respect children's partial and developing theories. Teachers were keen to find ways to respond to and document working theories
so that parents understood and were not critical of teaching approaches that did not necessarily correct children's conceptual
I think as a teaching profession we need to know that you can identify a working theory, write a learning story about it and
the working theory can be completely wrong [conceptually] but you can feel comfortable [Name] was trying to work out
about her ears and why they were stiff and she ended up saying they had bones in them and I left it at that actually and I
didn't start talking about cartilage [But] I wouldn't want to write that because I would see that as a slight on me that the
parents would think You're not doing your job. You haven't taught them the right way. (Daniel/SK1//2021)
This lack of documentation of working theories (influenced also by the dominance of efforts towards documenting
dispositions that has occurred in New Zealand) was countered later in the research by growing confidence in understanding and
explaining these kinds of examples of children's thinking and theorising. With this increased confidence and understanding,
teachers may begin sharing children's working theories more often with parents, which in turn will enable parents to further
mediate the development of children's understandings with new information and experiences.
Where children are able to make connections with their previous learning in multiple social and cultural contexts, they might
refine their working theories in an effort to understand their lives and world. However, where children's knowledge is limited due to
experience and/or maturity and/or opportunities to make connections across contexts, they may only be able to make functional
connections. In that instance, the inconsistent information is likely to remain as discrete knowledge within chain complexes though it
may later be recalled and eventually integrated into early abstraction to potential concepts. While much of children's learning may
involve unexpected, haphazard and spontaneous opportunities, the potential is nonetheless evident for implicit and explicit
mediation within children's ZPDs to purposefully precipitate working theories and early concept development.
4.1.4. Phase three: abstraction to potential concepts
Few examples of this phase were found through the examination of all data (interviews, participant observation field notes
and curriculum documentation). Perhaps it is an indication that in attempting to apply Vygotsky's theory of everyday concept
development to younger children, that those aged less than 5 years may rarely reach this phase of development. Alternatively, it
may also be that there were simply few examples in this particular data of children with islands of expertise (Crowley & Jacobs,
2002, p. 333); that is, children who may have an interest in a topic that inspires them to develop rich early conceptual knowledge
in that one specific area.
One such example was four-year-old Peter, who had developed expertise in planning and building. He was able to draw
detailed plans of what he wanted to construct, determine the tools and materials necessary, and carry out sustained and complex
projects. This interest, and the conceptual knowledge that went with it, was strongly fostered by the adults around him, including
Peter's father, who was a builder, and by one of the teachers at the centre, Daniel, who was once an electrician and had a
background in engineering and an interest in home maintenance. This interplay was very evident in a long-running project to
build a tree-house at the centre, which was an amalgamation of Peter's ideas and plans, implemented with materials provided by
Peter's father and with the help of Peter's teacher who was able to help him execute his ideas and develop the conceptual
knowledge and skills he needed. Therefore some early intuitive scientific concepts that Peter displayed were related to planning,
designing, implementing, executing and evaluating technological processes.
From the present small study, the findings could only support that some appropriate abstractions to potential concepts were
being made by a number of children in one important area, that of knowing about significant developmental characteristics of
infants and of caring for younger citizens. Chaiklin and Hedegaard's (2009) work on the local content and conditions in children's
families, communities and cultures related specifically to children's life situations (p. 192) became particularly apparent. It is
likely that some children with younger siblings and cousins have had a number of everyday experiences in these areas. Children
149 H. Hedges / Learning, Culture and Social Interaction 1 (2012) 143152
aged less than 5 years are perhaps less likely to be developing potential scientific concepts that relate to discipline-specific
academic knowledge and more likely to have relatively sophisticated knowledge about matters such as caring for other human
For instance, four-year-old Isabella had a strong interest in taking care of younger children at the centre, particularly her
younger brother. She was very involved in helping the younger children with everyday tasks and with getting help for them from
teachers when they were upset. Isabella commented:
I look after all the little kids tell the teachers when they're crying I help the little kids with a lot of things, do puzzles
and wash their hands, get the towels and get their lunchbox and bottles. (Isabella/3)
She had a relatively sophisticated conceptual understanding of the developmental characteristics of infants and their
behaviours and care needs, to the extent of being able to explain what and how infants learn through putting objects into their
mouths. Further, she knew this was something that was less appropriate once a child was older.
The field researcher (Lisa) asked Isabella about the conversation she had with a teacher about why infants put things in their
Lisa: Do you remember what you said?Isabella: So they can grow up. And so they can learn. Lisa: How do they learn by
putting things in their mouth? Isabella: Because they can feel it, so they learn. So when they grow up they don't put
things in their mouth. Sometimes big kids still put things in their mouth like [name] because he still puts things in his
mouth. But when you are big you are not supposed to. Babies can put sand in their mouth so they just put sand in their
mouth and learn that they can't put sand in their mouth and they are just learn[ing] all the time. (Isabella/23)
This focus on culturally-valued knowledge related to knowing about and caring for infants and social well-being is in keeping
with Vygotsky's (1986) belief that development involves learning much more than discipline knowledge and includes knowledge
related to becoming a contributing member of a community and society. It is also consistent with the exploration goal from Te
Whriki related to theories about social relationships and social concepts and social rules and understandings (1996, p. 90)
and with Te Whriki's overall aspiration for children:
To grow up as competent and condent learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body, and spirit, secure in their
sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society (Ministry of Education, 1996,
p. 9).
In summary, working theories appeared to act first as an implicit and explicit mediating mechanism in children's ZPDs to
progress through the phases of everyday concept development. Second, working theories may eventually lead children to the
beginning of the development of formal and coherent bodies of conceptual knowledge that are vital in the adult world, such as
literacy and science, and knowledge pertinent to the multiple identities, roles and responsibilities they will enact as responsible
adults in their families and cultures. Growing understandings occur when children's learning and thinking are supported by the
mediation of peers and knowledgeable and sensitive adults.
5. Discussion
5.1. The importance of motivation in working theories
Children's curiosity and exploration as expressions of their eagerness to learn are present in the examples of children's
thinking and theorising described in this paper. These can be utilised as motivation for thinking and knowledge construction.
Children are first learning through their experiences related to their lives in families, communities and cultures. These
experiences lead to intuitive knowledge that can be drawn on as a cognitive and cultural resource for learning, in what Daniel
(teacher) described as a breakthrough moment.
Young children [have] lots and lots of working theories which are all over the place and thinking and reasoning and
problem solving sometimes links in, and then it's like a breakthrough moment for that child, suddenly something has
happened and two working theories, you know a whole thing might just suddenly t. It's because they've thought and
they've problem solved and reasoned, but maybe not all the time. Maybe sometimes they've just seen something happen
and that's linked those two theories together, it's like oh okay! (SK/1/1617)
Early childhood settings are an important example of community learning facilities that can support working theory and
everyday concept development and introduce interesting experiences, language and concepts to children. Children will later gain
conceptual information through access to books and in collaborative conversations again with knowledgeable others. This will
eventually result in more complex understandings, moving from pseudoconcepts to potential concepts and later, at school,
coherent bodies of knowledge that represent scientific knowledge. Meantime, they use strategies such as questioning, observing,
puzzling and creative and imaginative thinking to associate, dissociate and re-associate pieces of knowledge (Fleer, 2010) in the
form of ever-evolving working theories. Repeated opportunities to participate with others (adults and children) to develop
theories and knowledge and practice related skills in an early childhood setting are valuable.
150 H. Hedges / Learning, Culture and Social Interaction 1 (2012) 143152
5.2. Teacher knowledge and practice
Vygotskian and post-Vygotskian theories serve to highlight early childhood pedagogical emphases as comprising a responsive,
knowledgeable role for teachers to lead learning. Conceptual learning can then potentially be co-constructed between teachers
and children (Fleer, 2010). Teacher professional knowledge building can then incorporate learning to use conceptual language
that treats children as capable young learners (see Gelman & Brenneman, 2004). Teachers can also consider interactional
strategies that support children to reflect on their learning (Carr, 2011) and promote complex and sustained learning (Simmons,
Schimanski, McGarva, Cullen, & Haworth, 2005).
Hedegaard (2007) notes that the ways children's personal knowledge might be related to conceptual knowledge depends on
the situational conditions, that is, the affordances and constraints of early childhood institutional environment. The situational
conditions include the way curiosity is stimulated, provided for and responded to. Working theories might become recognised as
a significant strategy within children's thinking and cognition strategies. Working theories place an onus on a teacher to have the
knowledge and skill to foster understandings, particularly to highlight conceptual knowledge embedded in children's play more
consciously (Fleer, 2010). Teachers' subject content knowledge and knowledge of pedagogical strategies appropriate to early
childhood education may need to be re-thought within an inquiry approach built on sociocultural perspectives, particularly when
teachers attempt to connect conceptual pathways and foster curiosity.
6. Conclusion
This paper has developed Vygotskian ideas related to the constructs of everyday and scientific knowledge in relation to the
concept of working theories, a learning outcome from Te Whriki. Children are motivated intrinsically to develop their
understandings of their worlds. The construct of working theories appears to have a considerable appeal as an implicit and
explicit strategy, mechanism and tool to explain both the content and processes of children's early thinking and knowledge
development. I have also suggested that early exploratory play with a range of equipment, materials and resources may be an
important experiential precursor set of practical experiences to inform early everyday concept formation. The paper has provided
examples of children's thinking from teachers that illustrate intuitive connections between ideas that may be evidence of
everyday knowledge and working theories in action, even when children themselves have not expressed these verbally.
Further, I have argued that children's working theories may act as a construct that represents children's inquiries and efforts at
life theorising, assists children to progress through the phases of everyday concept development and forms a potential mediating
link between everyday and conceptual knowledge. Sensitive mediation in terms of both curricular and pedagogical approaches
from knowledgeable teachers can assist cognitive thinking processes and knowledge creation. Future research is necessary to
progress understandings of the construct of working theories more rigorously in order to distinguish it from more general ideas
about children's cognition, thinking and concept development and consider to what extent each working element constitutes a
theory. Further research can also develop connections between dispositions and working theories and develop further insight
into children's thinking and knowledge building processes across teaching and learning in differing contexts and cultures.
Sincere thanks is due to the participating teachers, parents and children of KiNZ Myers Park Early Learning Centre and Small
Kauri Early Childhood Education Centre, November 2010February 2011, for generously allowing the research team to share in
their lives for the duration of the project.
The study was reviewed and approved by the University of Auckland Human Ethics Committee (reference 2010/446). In
addition, approval was granted by the Auckland Kindergarten Association Research Access and Ethics Committee on November 9,
2010 for KiNZ's participation in the project. Ethical considerations occurred throughout, including at the end of each study when
the principle of credit was appliedteachers' and children's real names are used to acknowledge participation.
The School of Teaching, Learning and Development provided funding for the fieldwork costs of the study. The University of
Auckland's provision of summer research scholarships enabled Lisa Guest and Nadila Roslee to undertake the fieldwork with
teachers and children. A scholarship the following year to Sarah Jones is also acknowledged. Sarah assisted with the investigation
of the literature and preparation of this paper.
I am also appreciative of my graduate students, particularly Daniel Lovatt and Jude Knight, for their interest in this concept,
contributing to my thinking about children's working theories and encouraging me to venture further into the unknown in
attempting to see inside children's minds and motivations.
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the International Society for Cultural Activity Research triennial congress,
Rome, September, 2011.
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