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Hororata Primary – Discovery learning

Hororata Primary School is a small contributing school in rural Canterbury. For the past five years the school has had a strong strategic focus on building their learning culture. 

In this snapshot, Marty Gameson, principal of Hororata Primary, shares how discovery learning aligns with their school vision and explores how it can be applied to improve learning outcomes.

What is discovery learning?

Discovery learning is an exciting, activity-based programme that provides a vehicle for teachers and students to explore curriculum learning and key competency development, in an authentic, fun, challenging, and student-directed context.

Discovery Learning Theory is closely linked to the work of Jean Piaget and Seymour Papert and their constructivist/constructivism learning theory. It is an inquiry-based practice that takes place in problem solving situations where learners draw on their past experience and existing knowledge to discover facts and relationships and new truths to be learned. By empowering a child to take a hands-on approach, the teacher is helping them to think cognitively, creatively, and critically.

Hororata Primary School.

Why discovery learning?

As part of the school's self-review process, we identified "equitable coverage" of all of the essential learning areas as a significant area of development for the school curriculum. This imbalance has seen the 3Rs dominating our curriculum at the cost of other learning areas, and has seen student achievement in these areas decline. In an effort to correct this we endeavoured to promote learning in science and technology within our school curriculum and took some deliberate steps towards implementing a blend of Discovery Learning Theory strategies, in particular STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, The Arts, and Mathematics), and tinkering learning programmes.

This shift in learning theory has seen a pedagogical shift at Hororata from knowledge to experiential based learning and has seen redesign of the school’s "learning culture". This, alongside our "active culture" have been important ingredients in rebranding our school and giving us a point of difference within our rural learning community.

Discovery learning and the key competencies

"Key competencies are the beating heart of education" – Guy Claxton

...they are the very essence of Discovery Learning.

The key competencies underpin everything that happens in teaching and learning. They have implications for all aspects of planning and teaching, including:

  • activities, resources, and language used
  • content, topics, or foci for learning
  • the role that both students and teachers take in the learning process
  • the culture of the classroom and school.

Principles that underpin key competencies diagram

The diagram above identifies four principles that underpin the key competencies and lists indicators to describe what we might see when key competencies are embedded in teaching and learning.

Discovery learning theory aligns very well with the key competencies. It:

  • puts the learning of language, symbols and texts into context; gives it relevance and coherence with future learning, and promotes reading, writing, and counting as tools to help students investigate and understand the world around them
  • provides students with the opportunity to be creative, critical, and altruistic thinkers who are able to reflect on their own learning, draw on personal knowledge and intuitions, ask questions, and challenge the basis of assumptions and perceptions
  • encourages students to be competent thinkers and problem-solvers actively seeking, using, and creating knowledge and skills
  • allows students to manage themselves by being resourceful, reliable, resilient, and striving to achieve their personal best
  • allows students to participate and contribute as a group member, to make connections with others, and to solve complex problems.

Key competencies 
Students at Hororata School are given multiple opportunities to develop key competencies through discovery learning. The key competencies are brought to the forefront of learning so that students can develop skills which are transferable across the curriculum and have real and authentic applications in a student’s life.

Discovery learning and the learning areas

The traditional model for the delivery of the learning areas is often in silos or through learning experiences that are knowledge based rather than skill based. We find ourselves as teachers topping children up with knowledge with little emphasis on the development of skills that are transferred into a child’s life. There is often little coherence between what a child is learning and the application of this new learning into authentic real life situations.

Discovery learning effectively unpacks learning backwards, emphasising the development of transferable knowledge and skills. The learning areas are viewed as necessary tools for children to access learning and are applied in authentic, real world situations.

Integration of learning areas 
Teachers at Hororata School make use of the natural connections between learning areas, especially science, technology, the arts, and mathematics, so that they can develop more experiential and integrated learning opportunities for their students. Coherence is a key characteristic of their local curriculum. 

Discovery learning and the Hororata school vision

Hororata Primary School - beef unit.

At Hororata Primary School we want to encourage our children to "think outside the box"; to use flexibility, creativity, innovation, and social intelligence to solve everyday problems. Our teaching provides children with learning experiences that include elements of developmental, discovery, STEAM, and Tinkering learning theory, with a strong emphasis on science and technology.

Needs and considerations

  • Learning in science and technology is highly valued by the school and has a prominent part in the school curriculum.
  • Learning experiences are designed to provide students with opportunities to apply knowledge and skills, learned through the 3Rs – reading, writing, and arithmetic; and to practice and develop skills in the 4Cs – creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.
  • Learning experiences should encourage natural curiosity and enthusiasm and promote exploration, discovery, problem-solving, and creative thinking.
  • Learners will be competent users of the basic science process skills: observation; communication; classification; measurement; inference; prediction.
  • Learning should:
    • 1. ignite interest in learning (fun)
    • 2. enhance knowledge and understanding of previous learning (educational)
    • 3. encourage exploration & discovery through experimentation (hands-on)
    • 4. build confidence, collaboration and communications skills (collaboration)
    • 5. provide opportunities for inventive problem-solving.

The school curriculum has been designed around our vision, values, and principles and a metaphoric representation of the Five Pillars of Learning – key competencies. The Five Pillars forge a coherent link between our vision, values, and principles. The essence of discovery learning theory runs through the veins of the school curriculum and is rooted in teaching pedagogy and the school culture.

Hororata discovery learning model

The Hororata Discovery Learning Model provides a real-world relevant context for learning in all learning areas through discovery, enquiry, and exploration. The aim is to make learning deep, meaningful, challenging, hands-on, and enjoyable.

The Hororata Discovery Learning Model:

  • promotes the key competencies to the forefront of the curriculum
  • promotes a stronger focus on the development of transferable essential skills
  • provides learners with the opportunity to learn through real-world situations
  • provides learners with experiences that have relevance to their learning now and in the future
  • strives to make learning meaningful for our students
  • acknowledges student diversity by fostering and nurturing students to understand and build on their strengths
  • allows students to work independently in their classrooms or with others
  • encourages students to build on their interests and develop social and problem solving skills.

In practice the (HDL) Hororata Discovery Learning Model:

  • is delivered as part of our integrated curriculum (discovery time)
  • is introduced at all levels of the school through age appropriate project based learning experiences; for example, Calf unit, Poultry unit, Horticulture unit
  • sees learners involved at all levels of the learning process
  • sees teachers engaged as learning facilitators within and across learning projects; for example, teacher expertise will be shared across all projects and is not specific to the area of the school in which they teach
  • sees parents engaged as learning partners to work alongside students to undertake some of the more physically and mentally demanding tasks associated with each learning project; for example, construction of facilities, etc
  • sees local industry engaged as learning advisors to support students with various aspects of the model; for example, financial, animal health, property development, marketing, etc.

Effective pedagogy
Staff from Hororata School have considered how discovery learning can support effective pedagogy. They use discovery learning to encourage students to be reflective in thought and action, to facilitate shared learning, make connections to prior learning and experience, and provide sufficient opportunities to learn. 

HDL Model Part 1: Strategic thinking

The HDL Model is rolled in out in three units. Each unit is mentally and physically appropriate to the targeted age group and has sufficient flexibility to build upon from year-to-year, that is, Discovery learning units: Horticulture unit – junior school; Poultry unit – middle school; Beef unit – senior school (see below for more detail).

HDL Model Part 2: Action planning

Discovery learning structure.

Each component of the HDL model is broken down into three stages:

  • Stage one – physical environment
    The construction component of the project focusing on physically setting up the environment to work within; for example, Calf Unit – feed, fencing, shelter, water. The main contributors to this stage are the learners and learning partners. One-off cost in terms of money and time (year 1) after which the priority shifts to the maintenance of the facility.
  • Stage two– support structures
    The management component of the project focusing on bringing together all the essential resources necessary for the project to operate; for example, sourcing, feeding, caring for and selling calves. The main contributors to this stage are learning partners and advisors. If managed well in advance all essential resources will be secured before the actual operational side of the project commences.
  • Stage three – learning objectives
    The teaching component of the project focusing on translating all of the management components of the projects into learning objectives, effectively engaging students in the management and operation of the project. The main contributors to this stage are learners and learning facilitators. Learning objectives will relate to each piece of the learning jigsaw (left).

HDL Model Part 3: Sustainability

The greatest risk to the HDL model is that it is a "flash-in-the-pan" and that it becomes a one off event in the history of our school. For this model to be truly sustainable and have an ongoing impact on learning at our school it needs to be easily adaptable and have strong links to the real world. A longer term vision of how the model can grow each year is essential as the hype of year one – the establishment year, fades away moving forward.

Beef unit (Years 5–6)

We are currently working with the Ministry of Primary Industries regarding the impact Mycoplasma Bovis will have on the operation of the Beef unit. We have been given guidance on steps we can take to ensure our unit can be safely operated and given the green light to take steps towards the acquisition of calves. It is likely that the herd will be reduced this year from the ten calves we ran in 2017; will focus on rearing beef breeds and will see livestock attained through a closed accredited herd.

Planning is underway for the acquisition of a portable animal shelter, the installation of yards and facilities for the preparation of calf milk. These items will be funded through significant sponsorship attained from Rooney Earthmoving Limited and profit carried over from our 2017 operation.

A sub-committee of students and parents has been established with the purpose of bringing all elements of the 2018 plan together.

Poultry unit (Years 3–4)

We are currently working with advisory groups from within the poultry industry to determine the scale of the poultry unit and to identify any and all health and safety hazards that we may incur by raising poultry in the school grounds.

Planning is underway on the design and build of the poultry enclosure and the acquisition of eggs/birds to be incubated and or reared. These items will be funded by the Board of Trustees.

Our next step is to form a sub-committee of students and parents to take our planning to the next stage.

Horticulture unit (Years 1–2)

We have consulted with leaders in the horticulture industry regarding how the Horticulture unit can be operated within the school and forged some strong partnerships with organisations such as the Te Ara Kākāriki Greenway Canterbury Trust (TAK), who will support our school by providing education resources and assisting with community planting projects.

Major infrastructure for the Horticulture unit, that is, tunnel house; seed/plant raising equipment and gardens, is already in place with additional funds required to bring the facilities up to standard, coming directly from the Board of Trustees. Our next step is to form a sub-committee of students and parents to take our planning to the next stage.

Benefits of discovery learning

  • My passion for discovery/constructivist learning theory has been heightened through my findings of good practice in this field and my visit to Brightworks USA.
  • Our school curriculum has been thoroughly reviewed and the key competencies have been brought back to the forefront of the curriculum. A new direction has been established for our school and the learning journeys of our students have been better defined.
  • My community have embraced the new learning approach, resulting in greater parental/community involvement in our school.


  • Keeping learning at the centre of the conversation.
  • Implementing a sustainable model.
  • Achieving the right balance of student and adult input.

To overcome these challenges we need to remind ourselves:

  • it's not about raising money for our school
  • it's not about growing the next generation of young farmers
  • it is is about providing our children with authentic, real world learning experiences.

Where to next

  • The discovery model will continue to focus on the development of the key competencies through authentic learning experiences delivered through developmental, STEAM, Tinkering, and discovery learning pedagogies.
  • To achieve a consistent approach to the delivery of discovery in our school, we have introduced Discovery Time into the timetable. During this time all levels of the school will be working on discovery based activities in mixed ability groupings.  
  • The key learning areas of beef/bird/horticulture within the discovery learning model will continue to be rolled as originally planned, with the goal of all infrastructure being in place by the end of 2018.
  • Thinking of "discovery" in its broadest sense… "becoming aware of something that you did not know about before". The discovery learning model can be applied across the curriculum, be it discovering something new about yourself, or about the world around you.
  • The HPS discovery model is merely a vehicle to initiate teaching and learning in the discovery space. With the key competencies, 3Rs (reading, writing, and mathematics) and 4Cs (creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration) held firmly at the forefront of our thinking it has unlimited potential.
  • STEAM and the three contextual themes, that is beef/bird/horticulture, have been used merely to reign in our thinking in this space, so we establish strong sustainable foundations…. a learning culture.

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Strengthening local curriculum
This section of NZC Online supports teachers and leaders with the process of curriculum design and review. It includes information, research, tools, suggested areas of focus, and inspirational stories to help schools make decisions about how to give effect to the national curriculum.

effective pedagogy
integrated curriculum
key competencies
learning areas

Updated on: 01 Feb 2020