Understandings of Te Whāriki: Perspectives to support Tiriti-based curriculum

Dr Chris Jenkin, AUT

Many teachers and student teachers (and myself, as an ECE researcher) struggle to implement the Tiriti-based (bicultural) aspects of Te Whāriki, the New Zealand early childhood curriculum. Indeed, a recent research review concluded that:

“the early childhood curriculum goal of integrating Māori ways of knowing and being within early childhood settings has not been attained universally in mainstream services.”

So, what contributes to the difficulty associated with implementing the bicultural aspects of Te Whāriki, beyond issues of teacher capacity such as knowledge and confidence? My doctoral research (completed in 2010) explored whether less obvious factors were also at play, making implementing Te Whāriki in a Tiriti-based way so challenging. Specifically, I considered whether some of the difficulties might be related to how people were interpreting the nature and purpose of the Te Whāriki document itself.

I identified three ways in which people could see Te Whāriki:

  • As a curriculum,
  • As a philosophy, and
  • As a curriculum framework.

Below, I unpack each of these perspectives. Our perspective affects our understanding and use of all aspects of Te Whāriki, but my interest is around the implementation of the Tiriti-based aspects of Te Whāriki in particular and how our perspective of the document supports or hinders the enactment of Tiriti-based early childhood education and care. It should be noted that this discussion and my doctoral research drew on the 1996 version of Te Whāriki; I am currently investigating the 2017 update and anticipate reporting on that later next year.

Ideas of Curriculum

Te Whariki cover.JPG

The front cover of Te Whāriki has the subtitle “Early Childhood Curriculum”. It seems reasonable, then, to try to understand Te Whāriki as a ‘curriculum’. The Ministry of Education define ‘curriculum’ in Te Whāriki as:

“the experiences, activities, and events … which occur within an environment designed to foster children’s learning and development.”

The Ministry also define curriculum elsewhere as:

“a clear statement of what we deem important in education”

and as something that:

“sets out what we want students to know and to be able to do”

These ideas of curriculum are challenging to put into practice for Te Whāriki because the curriculum document is non-prescriptive in relation to content. This means that the sorts of experiences, activities and events that make up the curriculum are open to interpretation by teachers.

If we expect Te Whāriki to be a prescriptive curriculum, then we encounter issues with knowing what skills and knowledge we are required to deliver. In relation to Te Tiriti-based practices, teachers are left floundering, unsure of what bicultural experiences, activities and events they can incorporate with confidence into their programmes. Ultimately, we end up with a disconnect between the curriculum document and the enacted curriculum.

Perhaps this is not such a helpful way to view Te Whāriki, then.

Ideas of Philosophy

The Te Whāriki document itself is more a collection of philosophies and principles than prescriptions. This is perhaps not surprising given that the principles and strands of Te Whāriki were derived from Māori values and principles which lend themselves to being understood as guiding philosophies rather than prescriptive outlines.

As an example of this, during my doctoral research I asked two early childhood centre owners/directors about how they saw Te Whāriki. Although they both referred to Te Whāriki as “a curriculum,” their subsequent comments that suggested that they were actually taking a broader view:

“[Te Whāriki is] a descriptive curriculum as opposed to a prescriptive one.”

“[Teachers] bring to it their own philosophy and that’s what you implement.”

If Te Whāriki is seen as a guiding philosophy rather than a prescriptive curriculum, then this clearly distinguishes the early childhood sector from the formal schooling sector in Aotearoa New Zealand (with the schooling sector having a more explicit, content-driven curriculum). Perhaps if we view Te Whāriki as a philosophy, then the lack of explicit content or curriculum guidance becomes less problematic, as teachers will not expect to find this sort of information in the document.

At the same time, however, teachers may still want or need some form of explicit of content / curriculum guidance, even if it is not the role of the Te Whāriki document itself to provide this guidance. For example, one of the participants in my research reported that teachers in the centres that she owned were using the primary school curriculum as their source of curriculum content guidance for their ECE practice! Sadly, this push-down effect of drawing primary-based content into the early childhood setting is exactly what the early childhood community wanted to resist when the 1996 version of Te Whāriki was first developed.

To illustrate this issue in terms of Te Tiriti-based provision, the schooling-sector Te Reo Māori Curriculum Guidelines document is full of specific achievement objectives stating that students should be able to (for example) greet, farewell, express numbers, and communicate about personal topics in Te Reo. The specificity of these objectives means that if they were used to draw inferences about curriculum content for early childhood (the ‘push-down’ approach described above) then there would be a danger of a tick-box approach turning the Tiriti-based curriculum that Te Whāriki envisions into a recipe for rote learning. Without appropriate supporting documents to inform practice, then, teachers may be hindered in their delivery of the early childhood curriculum – including (but not limited to) its Tiriti-based aspects.

So – seeing Te Whāriki as a curriculum is problematic, and so is seeing it as a philosophy. Is there a third way?

Ideas of Curriculum Framework

When Te Whāriki was developed, the overarching vision of its authors was to articulate a philosophy of quality early childhood practice, based on the values of Aotearoa New Zealand. Notwithstanding the label “curriculum” on its front cover, the Te Whāriki document was not intended to be about content, and nor was it to be only philosophical. Rather, the document was intended to:

“provide a framework for action guided by philosophical principles”.

Interestingly, the term “curriculum framework” actually appears a few times within the Te Whāriki document (although the terms “curriculum” and “curriculum statement” are more frequently used). In particular, it is specified that:

“The purpose of this document is to provide a curriculum framework that will form the basis for consistent curriculum and programmes …”  (emphasis added)

It seemed to me that if we viewed Te Whāriki as a framework rather than expecting it to provide specific curriculum content, then we would be able to (productively) view the document as providing guidance for action. In this context, Te Whāriki can be considered a curriculum framework that is intended to shape but not prescribe the enacted curriculum.

This ‘third way’ of understanding of the nature and purpose of the Te Whāriki document could be important in achieving successful implementation of a non-prescriptive curriculum. For example, teachers could take this framework and develop their own plan of action for successful Te Tiriti-based practices. This process might involve collaborative self-review, professional reading, and relationships and consultation with Māori parents. Given the new government’s intentions to implement compulsory Te Reo Māori education for Years 1 to 10 of the schooling sector by 2025, there is also ample room within this non-prescriptive framework understanding of Te Whāriki for increased efforts to integrate Te Reo into early childhood education and care.

For me, considering how people view Te Whāriki – as a curriculum, a philosophy, or a curriculum framework – has enabled me to gain a clearer understanding of the challenges. I hope to apply this understanding to the practical implementation of Tiriti-based aspects of Te Whāriki, and to contribute to teachers in this area. One of the first steps in this process is to scrutinise the revised Te Whāriki with regard to Te Tiriti-based curriculum and see where the new document fits within the curriculum or philosophy discussion.


Chris Jenkin.jpgDr Chris Jenkin has been involved in education (early childhood and primary) for more than 45 years, with particular interests in bicultural development, family and society and equity issues, with a focus on Aotearoa/New Zealand. Chris is currently researching how early childhood staff implement the bicultural aspects of the early childhood curriculum. Other research interests include family and society issues, research (including ethics), leadership, gender and equity issues, and teaching and learning with tertiary students.

One comment

  1. Thank you for this Chris, it is a challenge. I sometimes see the curriculum as needing to be directive and sometimes as a “guidance for action”. It depends on who I am speaking too. I have only just begun to unpack the new version and have a few queries however I can see that this newer version will help ERO with their reviews.

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