Innovative practice - In your interests

A school based entirely around 'discovery learning' is being praised for its unique approach and top results

Hamish Lace

The background

In 1993, a group of teachers at Elmwood Normal School in Christchurch, New Zealand, became involved in a project to explore innovative and progressive theories of learning.

The scheme, led by principal Jon Clough, gained ground over the years that followed and led to the creation of a special "learning lab" at the school, set up with the backing of a former mayor of the city.

The teachers involved were especially keen on the "discovery learning" approach, where pupils direct their own learning around their interests.

The New Zealand Learning Discovery Trust, set up by the teachers involved and their supporters, noted that the group began wondering if it could achieve even more in a new kind of school.

"Along the way we discovered a number of things that led us to think that our approach would need to be different... that our earlier concept of doing this within existing schools might not be the most effective way of achieving our aims," they state on their website. "We had also learned how strong the appeal of this style of learning was, and how much the students enjoyed the fact that they had a sense of control and direction over their learning."

The project

In 2001, they opened a new school in Christchurch called Discovery 1. It took them three years to establish the state-funded primary, which was the first to be set up under New Zealand legislation allowing people to create innovative schools.

Its entire approach is built around discovery learning - so its curriculum and assessment criteria are all worked out for pupils individually, in negotiation with their teachers and their families. The curriculum includes the national curriculum and "key competencies".

The timetable is flexible, but the school day is structured around compulsory "must do" literacy and numeracy tasks and optional "can do" workshops. Pupils also have time for their own self-directed learning.

The school was originally established in a former office building in the centre of the city, giving pupils access to nearby libraries, galleries, museums and cafes. Older pupils (in Years 6, 7 and 8) were given "trust licences" allowing them to travel around in groups of three on their own, phoning in using mobile phones to confirm they had arrived at their destinations.

However, when Christchurch was hit by an earthquake last year, Discovery 1 was among the city's schools forced to abandon their sites on safety grounds and move further out.

It is now sharing with Halswell Residential College, 9km outside the city, where it is based in 10 temporary classrooms. This, however, has not stopped its innovative approach, and staff look forward to when the school can return to the city centre.

Tips from the scheme

Discovery learning can involve parents more in their children's education; Discovery 1 even allows some children to use their homes as a learning "base".

To find out more about the school's discovery learning approach, see

Evidence that it works?

The school's success has led to the formation of a small secondary school using a similar curriculum, Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti, which was set up in Christchurch in 2003 and has also moved to the Halswell site. Pupils at Discovery 1 have significantly higher reading and attitude scores than the New Zealand average, and the school has been heavily oversubscribed.

Discovery 1 was chosen for the UK Innovation Unit's report 10 schools for the 21st century, which can be downloaded at bit.lyzVPEx5

The project

Approach: Creating a school based around 'discovery learning'

The school

Name: Discovery 1

Location: Christchurch, New Zealand

Pupils: About 200

Type: Co-educational primary and intermediate.

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Hamish Lace

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