Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Government Plans for our Beloved Te Whāriki

As part of it's agenda of reform, the National Government is placing a lot of value on the recommendations of 2011's ECE Task Force An Agenda for Amazing Children. See my earlier post here for a wider discussion on the report. Most merely rubber-stamped existing policy moves, but a couple indicated future challenges for a sector already shell-shocked from attacks that were ideological rather than based of positive educational outcomes. The curriculum document Te Whāriki is one such area.

Essay six of the report deals specifically with this area. All quotes are from this essay.

Now I would say that Te Whāriki is considered a model of best practice, nationally and internationally. That is exactly what the Taskforce authors state – but they continue with:

"but could benefit from a comprehensive review of its implementation."

The obvious question is why? Let's go exploring shall we?

Again from the Taskforce:

"Research shows curricula that address motivational aspects of learning, focused on learning dispositions rather than static skills or competencies, are associated with better performance in later schooling than those that are overtlyacademicallyoriented or standards-base. Examples of learning dispositions are to communicate, to be curious, and to persist with learning despite difficulties. Non-cognitive skills such as these have been shown to have a direct effect on future earnings and educational success. (Te Whāriki's) approach to learning, and the principles, goals and strands it contains, align well with recent research and evidence. We therefore do not believe that the content of Te Whāriki requires review."

Yes they like the document. But that's hardly surprising. While many champion the document's 'liberalism', Iris Duhn (2006) argues that Te Whāriki is in fact a tool of neoliberalism with its portrayal of an 'ideal child':

"Learning is defined as the ability to continually seek opportunities for problem solving, which involves lateral thinking, a sense of self in relation to a variety of others, and the willingness to search for solutions from different angles" (Duhn, 2006).

Ahh, the undefined ever-changing future that leaves children with low expectations of achieving anything tangible in the here and now and just waiting for life to begin...
To be fair, Te Whāriki and the 'ideal child' was informed by the perspectives of adults who themselves were immersed in neo-liberal rhetoric of the time so it's no surprise that the language of Te Whāriki resonates with the language of neo-liberalism and contemporary discourses around education. Such rhetoric stresses independence, choice, process over product, rooted in local communities but global in aspiration. Learners invest in their education to be part of the knowledge wave – the door is open to all, but success depends on cultural and social capital to compete. Unlike the conservative // neoliberal battle that shaped the curricula of the compulsory sector which left us with mixed messages, Te Whāriki can almost be considered pure in its aspirations. Hence:

"We have found nothing to detract from the widely-held national and international view that Te Whāriki is a profoundly important document that is fit for purpose and meets our societys needs as well as the needs of a diverse early childhood education sector. We do, however, believe that its implementation, which began in 1996, should be reviewed in order for strengths and weaknesses to be identified and learned from."

Implementation has long been the thorn in the side. It was like an own-goal. The document was designed to be descriptive, educators would weave their own curriculum based on its guidelines that best suited their local community - arguably an essential stance for a country as diverse as ours. This ability for interpreting and constructing curriculum is a powerful tool for educators, but is a double-edged sword as it places the onus on personal discourses held by educators (Nuttall, 2003; Duhn, 2006). Traditionally, New Zealand has favoured a free-play approach to learning, a position that drew upon Piaget's constructivist theories of a naturally occurring, lineal process of development which assumes children have the perquisite skills and abilities to make choices. This discourse of learning through free-play remains powerful today (as you well know Pikler is increasingly popular in infant care) and sees teachers adopting a hands-off role (Nuttall, 2003).

Play? Ha, this is not acceptable in a 'homogenised' world that demands literacy and numeracy standards regardless of individual context! Yet they also discuss the failings of standardised testing - are we once more witnessing a clash of ideology and educational research?

Despite the in-built faults of the document, support from the sector is unanimous as the Taskforce reports:

"The majority of submissions, including academic submissions, supported Te Whāriki in its entirety and the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) highlighted a 2010 sector-wide forum in which attendees showed unanimous support for it. Many submissions appreciated the model for its innovative, bicultural, holistic and contextual nature and the broad support it enjoys. However, one submission, also from an academic, was critical of Te Whāriki, saying it contained little in the way of activity planning guidelines and lacked performance measures, including assessment of learning outcomes."

Has one right-wing academic provided 'official' support and thus justification? Politicians and their fucking mandates eh? will we see more emphasis on 'activities with measurable outcomes'? The antithesis of play and natural learning...

The Taskforce:

"The successful implementation of Te Whāriki requires that teachers are well qualified so that they can understand and implement a socioculturally-based curriculum and have good subject knowledge in a range of domains. Tertiary education for early childhood education teachers is therefore essential."

Yet they have reduced the minimum number of qualified staff required in a centre and cut funding for professional development. University funding cuts are seeing degree qualifications cut in favour of one-year post-grad courses. With the foundations cuts out they resort to using the stick: monitoring outcomes.

So while some aspects of the Taskforce's recommendations are positive - resources in languages other than English; working with children with special educational needs; assessment practices; self-review; creating and supporting aspirations for Māori children etc; the focus is on “a need for a monitoring framework to be developed to capture the extent to which the outcomes of Te Whāriki are being achieved: at a sector level, a service type level, a service level and at a child level.

It will be interesting if the 'measurable outcomes' get linked to funding.

However, after all this hand-wringing there is a qualifier that worries me:

“The Taskforce attempted to consider how well Te Whāriki was working to:
  • support children’s well-being, learning and development now and in the future
  • provide support for families in their primary role in caring and educating their children
  • promote the assessment of learning
  • promote learning in centres and at home
  • encourage an effective transition to school
  • align with the National Curriculum for schools.
This assessment has been difficult because of the lack of evaluative information.

So really the whole report is a load of hot fucking air driven by ideology.

Neoliberalism's Attack on Education:

I rant and rave about how education has become a battleground of ideology that pits educational research against neoliberalism's drive for a homogenised education system that benefits only the global elites.

Peter O'Connor from University of Auckland (smart man - I attended a lecture of his a while back) thinks so too. Go read this succinct account now:


Get your argument sorted and get busy debunking this government's plans to further corporatise education.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Pikler and Co-construction: bridging a theoretical divide

This post continues my series on Pikler's learning principles and the need to take a critical social-constructivist view of its developmentalist foundations. I'm a staunch advocate for Pikler. I must confess that I was initially attracted to Pikler because it seemed to bypass the complexities of the learner/teacher relationship. Just as I was getting a handle on co-construction and such, bam – Pikler seduces me, pulls me across this chasm of messy theory and lets me take on a 'wants nothing' position (thank you Janet Gonzalez-Mena for making this role sound so bloody nice!).

Now however it is the image of the child as a free and empowered learner that I find most appealing about Pikler and, paradoxically, what I don't like is its association with constructivist ideas on development which see learning as an individual journey that requires no 'interfering' with by teachers. We are products of our cultural and social worlds – there's no denying that and socio-cultural views of learning reflect this. Do we have an unbridgeable chasm here? In my last post I explored content knowledge – go read it now if you already haven't (in fact go right back to Pikler Revolution 1 so you get the whole picture – and my evolution of thought). Now I want to keep going with this inquiry and explore possible ways of imparting new knowledge to learners while respecting their rights.

First up: a central tenet of my personal philosophy is an image of the child as being an active, self-initiating learner with the fullest of human rights who wants and needs to engage in play. I consider play to be a human right, a cultural right and the right way to learn. No teacher-led transmission of knowledge stuff like in a classroom – and sadly in many centres. Play is the vehicle for learning.

Contemporary theories of learning have evolved from Piagetian constructivism to focus on Vygotsy's social-constructivism which recognises that all learning occurs within a social and cultural context – we are not isolated, nor 'coded' to learn as constructivism would have us believe. Learning and learners are not moving on a linear path to a homogenised universal truth. Everything is inter-related. Evolving from this recognition of social interactions as the basis of learning, social-constructivism envisions a different role for teachers in considering children can perform more challenging tasks when assisted by more advanced and competent individuals through both informal and formal interactions (Hedges, 2010). Unfortunately, while Te Whāriki (New Zealand's early childhood curriculum) fully embraces this line of thinking in that it “emphasises the critical role of socially and culturally mediated learning and of reciprocal and responsive relationships for children with people, places, and things,” it hits a brick wall of traditional free-play practice that is compounded by teachers failing to fully understand social-constructivist strategies and interpreting them as being about teacher-led. This confusion results in teachers returning to a default constructivist-orientated practice – our happy place :)

What a fuck up right? And it just goes on and on. So we have a legacy of constructivist inspired free-play environments and a social-constructivist curriculum that rightly reflects the incredible diversity we experience. Throw into the mix the need to introduce new knowledge.

Tina Bruce (1991) describes how too often educators attempt to teach through play, where the teacher cuts into play situations in order to teach a concept that may have emerged as the children played. This interventionist approach to teaching devalues play, renders it useless by dragging the children back into a reality constructed by the adult. Play, and thus meaningful learning, is effectively suspended. This is just major theoretical/practice confusion and you can see it happening all the time at kindergartens.

Isenberg and Quisenberry (2002) describe play as a means for children to facilitate the understanding of skills and concepts, and to take ownership of new knowledge, that it is both a process and a product. The importance given to play as the leading factor in learning and development owes much to developmental psychology: Vygotsky considers play to be the space where children operate at their highest level of functioning and where they apply all they have experienced – their working theories, their funds of knowledge (Bruce, 1991; Hedges, 2010). According to Bruce (1991), what we broadly refer to as 'play' is actually an inter-connected process with foundational learning processes like struggle, manipulation, exploration, and discovery leading to competence and a sense of control. This control builds self-confidence, autonomy, intrinsic motivation, the desire to have a go, to takes risks and solve problems. Thus, rich and varied experience is a prerequisite to play where wallowing in ideas, experiences, feelings, and relationships, transforms the actual into the possible with new, meaningful knowledge the result. In pulling apart our concept of play and recognising that within play there are periods where more direct support is needed, Wood (2004) argues that teachers are better positioned to introduce discipline-based knowledge skills and understandings. My question is: how?

Children at play naturally behave like scientists in that they learn by doing things and asking questions. Children's questions are often fundamental, complex and not easily answered, and as a result, they provide a natural learning context for enquiry-based education (Jordan, 1982). Questions also serve as a useful guide to determining what is significant and interesting to them. Hedges (2010) refers to a child's funds of knowledge, their “unique family and community experiences” (p.28) as a possible framework for teachers to recognise and understand a learner's motivation for inquiry in everyday activities and interests. The pedagogical challenge is to move from “having information about children, to knowledge of children at a deeper level” (Hedges, 2010, p.35).

A socio-cultural view of learning places a great emphasis on culturally and socially mediated interactions and clearly defines a role for teachers in children's learning with the zone of proximal development highlighting the difference in independent problem-solving versus collaboration with more knowledgeable peers or adults. Hedges (2010) describes this adult-child relationship as intersubjective, in that it has “a mutual or shared understanding, a sharing of purpose or focus,” that allows for constructing new knowledge not predetermined or defined.

Can you see it? Space grows from respect and mutual interest (the child's inquiry and the teacher's response) and allows for new learning that is mutually constructed.

Hedges (2010) discusses three pedagogical strategies within the socio-cultural framework to guide teachers within this space: Scaffolding, Guided participation, and Co-construction.

Scaffolding refers to the technique of providing temporary guidance and support as a learner masters independence. Hedges (2010) claims that while often misinterpreted as direct teaching, the weight of control does remain with the adult. Guided participation sees children cast as apprentices, “active in learning through observing, participating with peers and adults to develop skills and knowledge” (Hedges, 2010). Again there is a gradual shift of power to the learner, but often involves outcomes that are predetermined by the expert. Co-construction however, “holds a potentially empowering approach to encouraging both adults and children to have an active role in the teaching and learning process” (Hedges, 2010, p.18) and it is this equity that elevates co-construction as a key strategy for teaching through play.

Bernstone (2009) claims that “teaching strategies are about the different degrees of control of power” (p. 6) and that teachers need to question ownership of knowledge. With co-construction, a shared approach to meaning-making is possible that is empowering for all. By acknowledging cultural and social forces that both shape and influence a learner, by engaging with inquiry processes and accommodating shared meaning-making, co-construction aligns with the goals and intent of Te Whāriki, as well as respecting the deeper drive for free-play.

Can you see the process that differentiates this strategy from others? It's not about learning to use the scissors or climb the big ladder, it's new ideas and concepts that fundamentally challenge and change. We build a community of inquiry that recognises the importance of children's funds of knowledge, activities and interests and the real questions that grow from this base. In responding to this inquiry - participation, intersubjectivity, shared purposes and goals - we co-construct new meaning.

Co-construction provides a pedagogical framework to guide the process of inquiry and I see this role of the teacher alongside a learner at play as an empowering one – principally because it does not seek power and this makes my little anarchist heart skip with joy :)

Well after all that I have to say that it's still all a bit vague. There is simply too little accessible and practical information out there for the average teacher to study. In an attempt to remedy this, a mate is dropping of Fleer's new book 'Early Learning and Development' for me to read over the holidays – apparently it's the latest and greatest on social-constructivism. We'll see where it takes us eh? As you were.


Bernstone, H. (2009). An exploration of teacher power and its place in negotiation as a
teaching strategy in early years. New Zealand Journal of TeachersWork, 6 (1), 20-27.
Bruce, T. (1991). Time to play in early childhood education. London, England: Hodder and Stoughton.
Cahill, A., & Fleer, M. (2001). I want to know: Learning about science. Canberra: Australian Early Childhood Association.
Cullen, J. (2003). The challenge of Te Whāriki: catalyst for change? In Nuttall, J. (ED.), Weaving Te Whāriki: Aotearoa New Zealand's early childhood curriculum document in theory and practice pp. 161-187. Wellington: NZCER.
Hedges, H. (2000). Teaching in early childhood: Time to merge constructivist views so learning through play equals teaching through play. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 25(4), 16-21.
Hedges, H. (2010). Whose play, goals and interests? The interface of childrens play and teacherspedagogical practices. In L. Brooker & S. Edwards (Eds.), Engaging play. Open University Press.
Isenberg, J., & Quisenberry, N. (2002). Play: Essential for all children. Childhood Education: Infancy Through Adolescence, 79(1), 33-39.
Nuttall, J. (2003). Exploring the role of the teacher within te whāriki: some possibilities and constraints. In Nuttall, J. (ED.), Weaving te whāriki: Aotearoa New Zealand's early childhood curriculum document in theory and practice (pp. 161-187). Wellington: NZCER.
Wood, E. (2004). Developing a pedagogy of play. In Anning A, Cullen J, Fleer M Early Childhood Education: Society and Culture. pp. 19-30. Uk: Sage Publications.