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The Te WhAriki Approach

Te Wh ariki (Ministry of Education, 1996) is New Zealand’s national ECE curriculum document. It sets out a framework of interwoven principles and indicative learning goals to guide localized curriculum enactment, and significantly, it is New Zealand’s first bicultural curriculum document. The central curriculum principles derive from Maori philosophy, and Te Whariki is considered to reflect “Maori politics and pedagogy” (Te One, 2003, p. 24).1 Following the release of Te Whariki, a narrative, learning story, approach to assessment was developed. Taken together, the curriculum document, key principles, and assessment approaches have been referred to by scholars as the Te Wh ariki approach (Lee et al., 2013). During the 2000s, “kaupapa Maori” (actions and plans expressing Maori aspirations and values) approaches to ECE assessment for Maori services were also developed (Ministry of Education, 2009; Rameka, 2011).2 The focus in this chapter is on Te Whariki, as curriculum and assessment approach, in so-called mainstream—as distinct from kaupapa Maori—ECE settings.

The impetus for the development of a national ECE curriculum framework emerged out of large-scale policy reforms in New Zealand, from early to higher education. These reforms, beginning during the late 1980s, were precipitated by the convergence of diverse critiques of education—from critical sociological to socially conservative and economic (McCulloch, 1992). Despite the range of concepts and arguments in circulation at the time—educational equity; curriculum, power, and knowledge; educational standards; and changing economic landscapes—emerging new Right economic perspectives are considered to have taken precedence and dominated policy responses, as evidenced, for example, by increased accountability and evaluation practices (e.g., Olssen & Morris Matthews, 1995). Te Whariki was commissioned in the early 1990s in the context of such growing policy preoccupations with measurement and accountability. Yet, in its advocacy for contextual and nonprescriptive educational outcomes, it is widely considered to have avoided the worst reductive effects of the prevailing economic fundamentalist perspectives (Mitchell & Carr, 2014; Mutch, 2003).

As a curriculum text and approach, the sociocultural underpinnings of Te Whariki are emphasized by scholarly commentators and in professional development resources (e.g., Ministry of Education, 2004; Mitchell & Carr, 2014). The understanding, for example, that learning takes place in the context of interactions and relationships with “people, places and things” (Ministry of Education, 1996, p. 9) and the view that the contexts for, and outcomes of, learning and development are variable are cited as key tenets of the approach (Lee et al., 2013). The principle of empowerment is foundational (Te One, 2003) as is the view of the child as a “competent and confident learner” (Ministry of Education, 1996, p. 9). As a text, Te Whariki is structured by a series of key principles—empowerment, holistic development, family and community, and relationships—and indicative strands of learning outcomes—well-being, belonging, contribution, communication, and exploration. These principles and strands are intended to form the basis of localized curriculum enactment following the interests and practices of children, teachers, and whanau (extended family).

The endorsement of open-ended, holistic, and contextual educational outcomes in Te Whariki is often noted. Educational outcomes are, commentators and developers emphasize, conceived neither in terms of developmental stages—as in the idea of curriculum as developmentally appropriate practice—nor as discrete, siloed, and decon- textualized knowledge and skills—as in a curriculum-as-content approach (Carr, May, & Podmore, 1998). Instead, outcomes are conceived as interconnected working theories (knowledge and skills in context) and learning dispositions—fundamental orientations toward events and experiences that provide the basis for developing working theories (Carr, 1998). Learning dispositions are the educational outcomes of primary interest within the Te Whariki approach (Lee et al., 2013) and are defined variably, including as “situated learning strategies plus motivation—participation repertoires from which a learner recognises, selects, edits, responds to, resists, searches for and constructs learning opportunities” and as “being ready, willing and able to participate in various ways” (Carr, 2001, p. 21). Five key learning dispositions—courage, trust, perseverance, confidence, and responsibility—related to the learning strands of Te Whariki are identified as a starting point for making learning stories. Observable behaviors for each disposition are also described: taking interest, being involved, persisting with difficultly, expressing ideas, and taking responsibility (Carr, 1998).3

Like the understanding of curriculum, assessment within the Te Whariki approach is conceived in broad, holistic terms. At its fullest, assessment is considered to encapsulate all of the spontaneous, moment to moment ways that adults notice, recognize, and respond to children as learners. Documented learning stories are considered important tools in sensitizing teachers to the ongoing potential for learning in a variety of social practices and to their role in promoting children’s identities as competent learners (Carr, Jones & Lee, 2005). In practical terms, learning stories tend to be detail-rich, context-bound forms of documentation. They are often text based but may incorporate varied media such as photographs and moving images. Ideally, learning stories are constituted by multiple micronarratives that reflect varied perspectives—children’s, teachers’, and whanau—on a learning experience and its possible future trajectories (Ministry of Education, 2004). Learning progress is conceived in a holistic yet individualized way, is only assessable through attention to the learner in action, and, it is suggested, may be indicated by a growing complexity and intensity in learning narratives and by the transference of learning dispositions to a range of situations (Carr, 2001).

The attention within the Te Whariki approach to myriad social practices as sites for participation and learning, coupled with a vision of the already-competent child, has been interpreted by scholars as representing a significant innovation in curriculum reconceptualizing (e.g., Carter, 2008; Te One, 2003). The focus on the assessment of context-based learning experiences is seen to protect a progressive mandate for wide and meaningful education for the whole person.

The following reflection from Drummond, a UK scholar, captures something of the mood of such interpretations and reception:

Learning Stories are about children’s developing identities as learners . . . [and adopt] the dominant metaphor of story in place of the tape measure . . . the New Zealand approach emphasises learning as a moving event, dynamic and changeful, practically synonymous with living. (2003, pp. 185-186; italics original)

Moreover, in understanding the child, from birth, as a competent, agentic, and socially and culturally diverse learner, the Te Whariki approach is seen to resist normalizing developmental discourse-practices of early education. Through its critiques of the legacies of twentieth-century child development knowledge—which are considered to have viewed the child as a passive object and to have entrenched the dominance of Western norms and knowledge—Te Whariki is seen to have refreshed a progressive vision by proposing a curriculum approach that is cognizant of dynamics of power and knowledge in early education (e.g., Farquhar & Fleer, 2007). Moreover, in its valuing of “cultural diversity” (Haas, personal communication, cited in Lee et al., 2013, p. 15) and multiple viewpoints on valuable learning, the approach is considered to enact and promote democratic values, such as participation and plurality, and to support the empowerment of children, families, and communities through valuing many sociocultural practices, competencies, and lifeways (Mitchell & Carr, 2014).

In summary, among ECE experts, the Te Whariki approach typically occupies a morally valorized position. Indeed, within the relatively limited critical commentary that exists, much is concerned with matters of curriculum implementation and the identification of challenges to the potential of the approach. Key issues identified in such scholarship include difficulties with teacher knowledge and understanding (Nuttall, 2003); challenges to realizing Te Whariki’s bicultural aspirations (Ritchie, 2003, 2013); and structural (Hedges, 2013) as well as ideological (Farquhar, 2008) policy constraints. Postfoundational critiques—attending to the possible effects rather than focusing largely on the potential of the approach—have also emerged. Duhn (2006) suggests that as curriculum text, Te Whariki envisages the child as a bicultural and global, economically enterprising subject. Duhn argues that the curriculum thus has the potential to affirm, rather than destabilize, the primacy of market values within advanced liberal power relations. White (2009) raises doubts, from a Bakhtinian perspective about the extent to which learning-focused assessment practices can sustain “polyphony.” While sharing a concern with the contradictory and reductive dimensions of the Te Whariki approach raised by White and Duhn, the argument and form of analysis pursued here is different.

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