This evaluation report presents ERO’s findings about the ways in which early childhood services are working with Te Whāriki. As noted by Alvestad, Duncan and Berge (2009), implementation of national curricula is a complex task raising many questions. This evaluation report raises important questions about the implementation of Te Whāriki in New Zealand’s diverse range of early childhood services.

What is the purpose of a curriculum: the documented, mandated and practised?

The findings raise questions about what working with Te Whāriki actually means. The definition of curriculum as the ‘sum total of children’s experiences with people, places and things’ looks at curriculum from the learner’s experiences of that curriculum. The prescribed curriculum framework of principles and strands sets very broad parameters for what those experiences might be. Nuttall (2002) notes that a definition of curriculum as ‘everything the learner experiences’ is very difficult to put into practice. Nuttall (2002) asks:

How do early childhood teachers interpret and enact Te Whāriki’s definition of curriculum? On what basis do they think, decide and act in the design and implementation of curriculum experiences? And what is the role of Te Whāriki in this process? (p.92)

Te Whāriki (the document) highlights the place of the goals in helping to “identify how the principles and strands can be incorporated into programmes at a practical level” (p.44). However, the absence of the goals in the prescribed framework may have inadvertently weakened the link between the principles and strands and what they mean for children’s learning. This is an area for further investigation and discussion.

Is the framework of principles and strands in Te Whāriki too broad?

The non-prescriptive and open nature of Te Whāriki has been referred to as both its strength and its weakness (Cullen, 1996; Nuttall, 2002; Dalli, 2011). ERO acknowledges these strengths and weaknesses in this report. On the one hand Te Whāriki enables services to adopt many different philosophical and pedagogical approaches to curriculum within the broad framework of principles and strands. On the other, it is evident that Te Whāriki can accommodate considerable variability in quality. In some services Te Whāriki was used to justify quite inappropriate, poor quality practice. Cullen (1996) and Te One (2003) highlight the risk that Te Whāriki could be used to affirm and justify current practice rather than being a curriculum to transform practice. Te One (2003) noted that “many teachers found it difficult to implement Te Whāriki in a way that was not just confirmation of existing practice”. Ten years on, the findings in this report confirm that this is still the case in some early childhood services.

Has Te Whāriki become too familiar?

ERO’s findings suggest that many leaders and teachers have become comfortable with Te Whāriki as a curriculum framework. Smith (2011) notes that familiarity with Te Whāriki can become an issue where this leads to complacency or a degree of comfort where there is no challenge. She notes that this familiarity may result in its use being quite narrow and limited. The findings in this report indicate that most services are comfortable with the prescribed framework of principles and strands while the document itself has become less familiar.

Does Te Whāriki offer sufficient stretch and challenge?

A consequence of this comfort with the principles and strands is that there is a sense that Te Whāriki no longer provides stretch or challenge for many services. It may be that the issue lies with the broad nature of the prescribed framework or it may be that leaders and teachers do not have the theoretical and pedagogical knowledge to effectively implement this framework. Smith (2011) notes:

Rather than producing recipes for what to do, Te Whāriki makes bigger demands on teachers and challenges them to apply theoretical knowledge to their practice. Effective implementation of Te Whāriki demands interpretation, reflection, dialogue, careful planning, observation and consultation with parents/whānau and children (p.151).

It may also be that additional guidance is needed for services to support the implementation of Te Whāriki. Hedges and Cullen (2005) question the broad definition of curriculum in Te Whāriki noting thatit potentially lacks guidance for teachers with regard to content, with its emphasis on learning processes and orientations rather than knowledge outcomes and bicultural content. According to Smith (2011) “one of the main criticisms of Te Whāriki has been its lack of attention to subject-based knowledge”. Hedges (2008) also notes that the learning outcomes described as dispositions and working theories in Te Whāriki have not been fully explored. ERO’s findings highlight the need for further guidance and support for services to explore more deeply the strands and associated goals, dispositions and outcomes in Te Whāriki.

Is Te Whāriki useful in guiding the implementation of a bicultural curriculum?

The variability in how services were implementing Te Whāriki as a bicultural curriculum raises the question about the extent to which Te Whāriki provides useful guidance. Ritchie (2003) notes that implementation of Te Whāriki:

...is subject to the extent to which a largely Pākehā early childhood teaching force are able to deliver on expectations that require a level of expertise that is beyond their experience as monocultural speakers of English with little experience of Māori culture and values (p.10).

ERO’s reports Success for Māori Children in Early Childhood Services (May, 2010)[17] and Partnership with Whānau Māori in Early Childhood Services (February, 2012)[18] both highlight the challenges for early childhood services in working in partnership with whānau to provide a curriculum that is responsive to their aspirations for their children. Both reports made recommendations to the Ministry of Education to provide professional development support in these areas.

The findings of this evaluation also suggest that there are some misunderstandings about the nature of a bicultural curriculum and the difference between providing a bicultural curriculum for all children and supporting Māori children to experience success as Māori. This is an area for further investigation.