Thinking Curiously About Critically Oriented Curriculum: Critical Theories and Te Whāriki
Dr. Alex Gunn thinks curiously about the place and possibility of critically oriented curriculum from early childhood education me ngā Kōhanga Reo into kura and school.
Gunn is Associate Dean (Teacher Education) & Associate Professor at the University of Otago College of Education. She has been at the University of Otago College of Education since 2011 where she teaches and researches early childhood education, inclusive education, teacher education, and assessment. While her teaching home is early childhood education, Gunn has worked for almost 30 years within and across the education system, curious about teachers' beliefs and practices, and how teacher actions come to reflect and (re)produce certain norms.
This talk was a part of Growing from Strong Foundations in Auckland on 5, June, 2018
- New Zealand Curriculum
- Te Marautanga o Aotearoa
- Te Marautanga o Aotearoa (English translation, pdf, 0.39MB)
- Te Whāriki (pdf, 4.4MB)
Best Evidence Syntheses
- School Leadership and Student Outcomes Best Evidence Synthesis: Chapter Seven (pdf, 0.7mb)
- Iterative Best Evidence Synthesis (BES) Hei Kete Raukura Resources
Developing Mathematical Inquiry Communities
- School leadership for improvement in primary mathematics education: Russell School best evidence in action implementation exemplar
- Improvement in Mathematics Education: Evidence in Action Hangaia te Urupounamu Pāngarau Mō Tātou
- Developing Mathematical Inquiry Communities
Hei Oranga Tika: Wellbeing Matters
- Hei Oranga Tika: Wellbeing Matters Emerging evidence of the impact of the Christchurch earthquakes on young children
Reading Together Te Pānui Ngātahi
- Reading Together Te Pānui Ngātahi: Implementation for impact and enduring, reciprocal high trust relationships between families, whānau and schools
- Poutama Pounamu
- Evaluation of Te Kotahitanga Phase 5 (2010-2012)
- Disciplined innovation for equity and excellence in education: Learning from Māori and Pasifika change expertise
- 'Walking the talk' matters in the use of evidence for transformative education (pdf, 0.7mb)
Writers in Schools
As you watch the presentations, think about these questions:
- What is something that has challenged or confirmed your thinking about the curricula?
- What can I do as a result?
Dr. Alex Gunn: E ngā mana, e ngā reo, e ngā rau rangatira mā. Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.
Thank you for the introduction Lynda and I am really glad to hear that NZEI Te Riu Roa is up for a challenge because I think as an education sector, we have a lot of challenges ahead. So, I wanted to speak to you this morning about thinking curiously about critically oriented curriculum. I am going to land eventually on some thinking about Te Whāriki and how it is imbued with critical theories and critical thinking and critical questions.
And I want to also get to that point by talking a little bit about some experiences that I have had recently in the TLRI study where I followed some children for three years across that 18 months … in their last 18 months of early childhood education and through to their first 18 months of school.
The video shows the weaving pattern from Te Whāriki.
But to start here, the image that I have here on this slide is a really important one – the background image is from the point in Te Whāriki where Te Whāriki and Te Whāriki O Kohanga Reo meet. So, if you haven’t picked up Te Whāriki and its revised version yet, I will let you know – it is a flip book.
Gunn holds up Te Whāriki.
So, on this side we have Te Whāriki, the early childhood curriculum in English text and here we have Te Whāriki O Kohanga Reo. And there is a meeting point in the middle of this curriculum policy document with this image on it. This image shows the intersection point of the two Whāriki underpinning curriculum policy, practice and potential in early childhood education centres Kohanga Reo in New Zealand.
This Whāriki is unfinished. There are loose strands in the Whāriki still to be woven. These loose strands acknowledge children’s potential and their ongoing learning journeys. Other intersection points with these Whāriki could be woven similarly, representing children’s curriculum and learning journeys beyond early childhood education and into, for example, kura and school.
So, it is this open-ended potential of curriculum that I wanted to bring to this conference today and I want to make my discussion around being open-ended and critically minded. I want to acknowledge NZEI Te Riu Roa for the opportunity to speak. I cut my teeth in this organisation; I was a student member of KTA way back in the day, a student member of the Early Childhood Workers Union. ECWU and KTA merged to form CECUA – the Combined Early Childhood Union of Aotearoa which merged with NZEI and brought into being the Early Childhood Caucus which is one of your Leadership Groups within NZEI Te Riu Roa.
I was fortunate enough to be the Otago Southland Early Childhood Caucus member. I was probably about 21 or 22 and I tell you it was an awesome introduction to education in this country and to the power of the Union movement and collective activism. And I credit a lot of where I have been able to get to from my Union involvement early in my career. So, it is a real privilege for me to speak to NZEI Te Riu Roa members… and somewhat daunting because whenever you speak to your peers in your profession you pretty much are guaranteed that they are going to speak back.
So, lets get into it hey?
Over these last few months we have come into a tremendous moment I think in our education sector. For me – 30 odd years in – I think we are in a bit of a career defining moment. We have been going in a particular way and have come through a period of endarkenment, which is what I think of over the last nine years or so and we are about ready to turn the corner and expand again. I think there is a definite upswing in the air. We have the great potential here to return to trusted, sound, localised situated curriculum decision making as we move beyond the recent policy period we have come through. And I want us to begin thinking curiously about the place and possibility of critically oriented curriculum from early childhood education from Kohanga Reo through into Kura and school.
So, let me tell you about a person I met in a TLRI study I was involved with between 2014 and 2017. His name was Jacob. The study I was involved in was a study about children’s storying. We were interested in the storying opportunities that were happening for children in those last 18 months of their early childhood experience and into the first 18 months of school. Partly we were interested in story because the people I was researching with – Mandy Bateman, Margaret Carr from the University of Waikato, Elaine Reece and myself at the University of Otago – were deeply invested in story and in the concept of story. Not only for literacy outcomes, but actually story as in its power for making lives and making meaning.
Jerome Brunner was very much about story and life and how we make our lives through stories and in fact, everything we do when we think about what we have done during the day or when we tell someone what we are doing next is actually a form of story. And so, we think that story has huge potential for helping form lives and education. So, we wanted to know what teachers were doing to actually support this and what children’s experiences were as they moved from early childhood education through into school.
So, one day I collected data with Jacob at kindergarten. This afternoon, he and some friends were playing in the sandpit and Jacob was producing multiple story lines. Over a period of 30 minutes or so, he let me video and then he looked over to me and took off the microphone – the lapel mic he was wearing for me so I could get good audio because I was of course interested in the stories he was telling – he took off his microphone indicating that the data gathering was done for the moment, thank you very much and handed me back the microphone and off he went.
During this 30-minute window of video taking and data production with Jacob, I had recorded his story making across three distinct narratives. And these each came to intersect in very novel and complex ways. At one-point Jacob was the owner of Dog. Dog needed to be instructed in particular ways to do specific kinds of doggie things, as he learnt how to behave in a proper way. Sit, stand, go there, lie down for instance. Jacob though was also car, truck driver and crasher with a peer as he and his dog - who had transformed into car, truck, driver and crasher with Jacob – they started building ramps and hurtling trucks and cars over them at great speed.
But Jacob was also the instigator of a burglary as part of a robber narrative took place. When he and another three or four children were starting to play a story called Mums, Dads, Kids and cars which also by the way involved a visitation by Jacob’s dog from earlier in the sandpit play. So, three discreet narratives were playing out here over this 30-minute period. In this emerging curriculum context, Jacob was able to produce stories very quickly, he joined them up when necessary and he advanced them independently as the immediate context allowed.
Now I was interested in his story telling; I observed his faculty with building a narrative, sustaining it and I observed his many communicative acts. I saw his working memory in action, I saw his imagination and his social competencies and his ability to plan and his ability to sequence. All of these things interacting in play at once. Now interpreting Jacob’s behaviour multiply like this was possible because of the broader curriculum context in which this data was produced. Sure, I was interested in storytelling, story making and storying – but Te Whāriki underpinned by very high-level principles and outcomes about learning to learn and about growing strong in your identity and about developing working theories in the world encouraged the additional kind of sense-making about Jacob as a communicator, a rememberer and imaginator that I was making.
The open-ended nature of Jacob and his peer’s curriculum opened up my teacher/researcher curiosity about the curriculum in action. Now as well as those first order kind of learnings that I was engaging in, I could also see other critical curriculum experience happening. Jacob was a compassionate dog owner towards his unwieldy at times dog companion. The way he and his friends contested normative family structures shone through – remember the story was Mums, Dads, Kids and Cars – this was a group of boys that were playing. Of course, there was no place for a boy who could be a Mum. One of the children thought there could be and so tried to reconcile that issue in the context of this play was a very big discussion indeed.
And also, one of the boys was being largely excluded from the play for quite a long time and so eventually together they co-constructed a reality in which everybody had a place in the narrative that they were going onto play. Unfortunately, I didn’t see this kind of curriculum very much occurring for Jacob or with Jacob when I went with him to school.
Now my first visit to Jacob at school – he was 5 years and 3 months – so he had turned 5 years old right at the end of November and I was with him at school, so he had 3 weeks at school before the break. I was with him at school in the second week of February the following year, so it was very early on in his schooling experience. My first visit to Jacob at school involved a lot of watching him sitting at the mat. But, Jacob was also called to writing during the visit and I was very excited to be able to see his story production at school and also its expansion into the written and read forms.
Now at the start of the day, one of Jacob’s teachers had explained proudly to me about the modern learning environment – that is what it was called at that time, goodness knows what it is called now – but MLE that they and their colleagues were working in. The teacher noted in particular how flexible it was with multiple teachers in a large teaching space and that this allowed for a busy and rich curriculum. The classroom arrangement allowed for others – the teacher explained – to come in and out of the space and to undertake routine activities like reading and literacy assessments, extra teaching for instance to help with the burden of delivering a curriculum that would later deliver on National Standards.
This was 2015.
So, I wasn’t surprised when Jacob was called with four of his friends to the kidney table for story production and writing in that morning and after the children settled in, what came next was 18 ½ minutes of teacher-led curriculum experience. An elicited story, principally belonging to the teacher, developed as the teacher worked hard with children to find something that could be narrated, illustrated and eventually written down about the previous days music lesson.
Jacob formal story in curriculum at school ended up being ‘we are going in the hoops.’ Now this is my early childhood interpretation. I put that out there – and I don’t want to contend the teacher’s teaching or what was happening in that sense, I am thinking about the curriculum that Jacob was experiencing. For me this was 18 ½ minutes of Jacob’s life he was never going to get back and I wondered how the teacher actually felt about the curriculum that Jacob and his peers were being exposed to.
Was the teacher proud of the teaching and the student’s eventual work product? Quite possibly actually. Was the teacher bored? 18 ½ minutes of trying to pull out of these children’s mouths a sentence that could be written and illustrated? Maybe. Or was the teacher actually just simply resigned to this higher imperative of needing the children to learn to write quickly so that they would themselves produce themselves as learned, self-governing, reading, writing and numerate subjects ready to perform at standard or above when the time came.
Now I didn’t get to ask the teacher, they were busy. Another group of children had come to the kidney table when Jacob and his mates had finished. I was busy and Jacob had shot off to free choice time and I had to go over there and see what stories he might be making.
I have been really puzzled over that entire experience of being at school with Jacob that day and others actually – I was working with six kids. I was in four different schools and I did at least three visits with each of those children to school. And it has really puzzled me and I really came to appreciate just how far curriculum – as in the NZC in these English medium schools – was being derailed and narrowed by those assessment rules in primary education at the time.
Instrumentality and the routine of the day – because that was the other thing that really stood out to me. Most teachers started the day with some form of representation of the routine of the day on the board, so that presumably they could share power with children and children could know what was coming next. It was all a very good idea, but nevertheless that list of activities was what had to be gotten through. So, instrumentality and routine rather than creativity and curiosity seemed to be governing teacher’s practice for me. There was a fundamental shift from child-led and co-constructed open-ended curriculum to fixed activity based and teacher-directed experiences.
I was really perplexed at why early schooling was still like this. I had had kids in the system – they are older now – but you know, I had had children through primary and secondary schooling and it was like that when they were coming to school, before NZC and its current form was in play. And so, I was really perplexed at why early schooling still thought that it had to be like this. But also, I am encouraged by reports of a growing network of early years teachers currently in this country who are engaging again with playful and complex curriculum, entertaining the idea that they may well take Te Whāriki to school and engage in play-based pedagogy again.
So, I want to give to Te Whāriki because I think it is time to stop and take stock and let ourselves get into complex and curious curriculum once more at school. It will require teachers to speak back to norms for practice that have settled over New Zealand education these recent years and it will involve likely some ‘heart-in-mouth’ moments as you help children and their families fly. New Zealand curriculum and Te Marautanga give you plenty of license to do this.
I heard young people from Ka Aroha College speaking on video at the Edconvo in Christchurch. They were all up on issues of hegemony, institutional racism, intergenerational impoverishment. That is the kind of curriculum that Te Whāriki NZC and Te Marautanga enable you to do. How? Well I want to turn to a reading of Te Whāriki for a few moments and its critical underpinnings to show you where you can pick up from if you are up to it when your early childhood children come to you from kura and school. And I hope you are up to it, because Te Whāriki sets up the promise of a very critical and curious curriculum indeed.
Okay, “Te Whāriki recognises that all Kaiako bring to work with them theories about what and how children should learn and then the teacher’s role in relation to this. While it may be difficult for Kaiako to articulate their working theories with conviction and clarity all or some of the time, they – we – are always motivated to do particular things because of their and our implicit beliefs, assumptions and preferred forms of knowledge.” Take a minute and answer this question. Theoretically, what drives you? Just take a moment and note it down.
So Te Whāriki names social and cultural theories as central to its construction and I think we could make the same argument about NZC and Te Marautanga. Taking a lead from Matauranga Māori leaders and scholars, Te Whāriki has been anchored uniquely within a vision for education that addresses treaty potential and bi-cultural outcomes. Early Te Whāriki papers speak to the power and influence of Rose Pere, Arapera Royal Tangaere, Sir Tamati and Lady Tilly Reedy to name a few. As well as this, western empirical science thinkers – Urie Bronfenbrenner – you know he came to New Zealand in the late 1970’s. Early childhood people were very enamoured with what he was saying with his cultural ecological theory of human development and it made good sense in terms of only, always, ever seeing people in the context of whanau, hapu, iwi over time back through the ages.
So western empirical science thinkers – Bronfenbrenner, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner – they are also named as scholars of influence and they all say that learning happens in place, with others and things meaning that making is always only ever social and cultural. And while there are of course echoes of Piaget and his cognitive constructive perspective and I think you could say that over NZC as well, it is the social, the cultural and the ecological perspectives that we in New Zealand have been working to develop since Te Whāriki’s introduction in 1993/6 - because there was a draft before the 1996 version.
So, my argument is this. That the social, the cultural and the ecological thinking and theorising essential to Te Whāriki is really important for what we – you – may go on to do in curriculum because it shows that from the outset, early childhood curriculum policy was produced from and informed by ways of describing the world that came way before and also after the 18th to 20th Century rise in empiricism, rationalism and accepted scientific method. It is true that we are currently caught in a particular evidence informed paradigm, but other truths matter.
The curriculum already and always emerged from Te Ao Māori. It foregrounded Māori aspirations for children, whanau, hapu, iwi and recognised Māori strength and knowledge. It posited human development as a product of your unique position in a particular ecological niche that could account for the particular learning and development pathways that opened up for you. Te Whāriki foregrounded the social and cultural nature of learning and development and a particular relation between the two. Western empirical scientific thought taught us that learning led development so that curriculum experiences are the things that actually lead to developmental change.
Te Whāriki makes teachers get to know you and your uniqueness. We have to be curious Kaiako and we have to be curious about individuals and their strengths, their interests, their aspirations and in this we have to be very critically minded about curriculum experience to ensure that curriculum is going to be fit for purpose – for every single person that walks in the door. That the interaction between the individual and the collective is foregrounded in Te Whāriki means that it was always going to address issues of dominance, inequity and justice.
Te Whāriki has always required us to work with children and families and communities to speak back to power. What do I mean by this? Early childhood children and children under 5 speaking back to power? Well of course – how many of you have ever tried to get a jacket on a 1-year old on a southern winter morning when they are refusing and kicking and screaming on the floor? This is the work of young children; understanding the norms and resisting them as they learn to differentiate themselves in community.
The early childhood curriculum makes us pay attention to the way that individuals are constituted within the dynamic field of relations, between them, their histories, their family, their communities, their class, their social context. The interests of the individuals are always relational with the interests of others and sometimes they are even intentioned with them.
This also happens at school and I want you to work with that. The production of individuals – albeit in context – is always a struggle too. Te Whāriki starts with the premise that all children are born with mana, they are born into positions as citizens whose actions, thoughts and desires effect their world and the worlds of others from the very earliest times. This is not a position that everybody shares and there is much work to be done in curriculum to help others recognise children as people in this way and such work needs to be happening at kura and school too.
And in both instances here, there are power relations at play in terms of how adults take up specific norms and practices that project the dominant cultural view and try to fix it as a way or a truth, like for instance, what is terribly defensible about subjecting 5-year olds to a ‘pick the story out of the teacher’s head’ type curriculum episode that I described earlier with Jacob. But also, the very fact that Te Whāriki emerged gifted from Te Ao Māori seeking treaty-based education leading to bi-cultural outcomes means that the pursuit of early childhood education in Aotearoa with this curriculum was always primed to speak to power and to hopefully assist in our recuperation from our history of colonisation and treaty failures.
Now when you have got children arriving at kura and school from early childhood environments with curriculum potential like this, where curriculum opens up every day – the possibilities for you are endless and I want to urge you to take them.
NZC and Te Marautanga give you plenty of license to act critically and ethically and responsibly with children and whanau in this country. You can build critical curriculum with the strengths that children and their families bring to your classrooms and to your kura. The result? A type of curriculum that is an ever-expanding conversation from diverse standpoints about how to make the world fairer, more reflective of everybody’s interests and aspirations, of troubling what comes to settle as routine and as the norm. Such is the promise of critical curriculum with curious teachers and children to the fore.
No reira. Tēnā koutou katoa.
More from this series
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