Today's schools are barely recognisable to adults who went to school in a different era. Grandmother Denise Mills and education reporter Simon Collins spent two days in a Year 4 "modern learning space" to see just how different things really are. Finally today: self-directed learners.
The teachers have laid down a challenge: can you design and make a cardboard chair that is strong enough for you to sit on it?
Students at The Gardens School in Manurewa are sitting in a large group and being told to select a team with peers who can contribute the kind of skills needed for this science project.
Usually the 70 Year 4 children at the Manurewa school are streamed by their teachers into groups based on their abilities, but this time is different.
"We brought them together and allowed them to choose their own groups across the whole room, so that is quite nice for them for a change," says one of their four teachers, Tracey Kuba.
The teachers urged them to choose their team-mates to make sure each team of three included "a person with good ideas and creativity", "a problem-solver who can come up with solutions when things don't go well", and "a doer, someone good with their hands, good at building things".
"They are learning collaboration, problem-solving, listening - soft skills, as well as the logical skill of how to follow instructions," Kuba explains.
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On the Monday of the week we visit the children initially sat on the floor as another teacher, Carly Kidd, taught them about three techniques that would strengthen their cardboard chairs so that someone could sit on them.
Two involved slits and tabs to fit pieces of cardboard together. The third was rolling a piece of cardboard up into a dense cylinder shape that could serve as the leg of a chair.
The teams were then set to work practising the three techniques on old pieces of cardboard.
On the Wednesday, when we returned, the big moment arrived when they were finally asked to make their cardboard chairs.
First, they had to design their chair and submit their design to one of the teachers for approval; then they had to actually make it out of a pile of old cardboard boxes at the back of the room.
They loved the chance. These are 8-year-old kids. They loved drawing their designs, and they were even more excited to take dozens of pairs of scissors to cut up cardboard and try to piece it together again in the shape of a chair.
Their designs brought to mind Leonardo da Vinci's detailed plans for a flying machine and other fantastic inventions.
These chairs would have been thrones, with sturdy legs, arm-rests and ornately shaped backs.
Although they were supposed to work in teams, each child created his or her own design, vying with their team-mates to draw the grandest, most beautiful chair.
Unfortunately, construction proved more challenging. Bedlam descended.
This time they did, more or less, work in teams, attacking slabs of heavy cardboard with scissors that were too small for the task.
Some climbed inside boxes while their team-mates laid thin cardboard on top of them, hoping that a human being could provide the sturdiness required for someone to sit on them. They were ruled out of order.
One team turned a box upside down so that someone could sit on top of it, with what could conceivably pass for arm-rests.
Another team went further, creating a box to sit on, arm-rests, a foot-stool and a painted cardboard "remote" so that they could control the TV while lounging at ease in the chair.
Only one team created anything vaguely resembling what they had designed on paper, with rolled-up cylindrical legs and some of the slits and tabs they had learnt on the Monday.
Most teams failed to produce more than a mess - but they had lots of fun!
Christine Hansen, the school's information technology lead teacher, says inquiries at The Gardens School try to follow the " LAUNCH Cycle " developed by American teacher John Spencer: Look/listen/learn (research), Ask questions, Understand the problem or process, Navigate ideas (brainstorm), Create a prototype, Highlight and fix problems, Launch to an audience.
Spencer, now an assistant professor at a Christian university in Oregon, is an evangelist for learning by creating. He says our digital society moulds children as passive consumers, and that we need to release their creativity by encouraging them to become designers and makers.
"I was a social studies teacher. Over time, as I moved into self-contained (all subjects), I incorporated design thinking into math and science," he has said.
"We used it for hands-on projects, service projects and publishing projects. This is why I'm convinced that it can work in all subjects."
Hansen says the process puts the children in charge of their inquiries.
"You are giving students more agency into what they inquire about because they generally will get more interested, and actually do a better outcome, if they are interested," she says.
"So you might have a science topic. We might be doing space. But you let them have more space within those things so that they are interested about what they are learning because it's their question."
The topic might come out of one subject, such as science, but typically the inquiry might span several conventional subjects including literacy, maths, art, social studies and technology.
"In the real world we don't just go out and do an experiment. You have to write up the experiment. You sometimes have to engineer something to do that experiment, and sometimes you have to present that," Hansen says.
And the students are allowed to fail. On the Monday, as they prepared to design their cardboard chairs, Kidd told them that Edison tried and failed to make an electric light 100 times before he finally succeeded.
"If we have mistakes we are going to ... ?" she asked the children.
"Try again!" they chanted.
"And what do we do then?"
"Learn from our mistakes!"
It was all, she told them, about developing a "growth mindset" - not being discouraged by mistakes and failures, but treating them as an integral part of learning and growing.
"In Year 4, 'Growth Mindset' thinking guides our learning as well as developing the fundamental skills for 'Self Directed Learning' (SDL) to prepare our students for their future," the school website says.
In one of the breakout rooms in the Year 4 learning space, the Year 4 children's names are listed on the wall in four groups: Supported, Interested, Involved and Self-directed.
At this early stage of the year, most are still listed as "supported".
"As the year progresses, they move towards self-directed," teacher Elizabeth Barrowman explains.
Tanya Griffin, the school's Years 7 and 8 leader who co-developed the system, says students start each year as "supported" - colour-coded grey - and can progress to "self-directed" (blue) as appropriate for their age.
"For example, someone who is self-directed at a new entrant level might remember to carry their own bag to school, they might remember to take their shoes home, they might remember to bring their pencils to their lesson," she says.
"In the grey zone, we are all supported. Those kids in the supported zone generally have learning behaviours that need support. It's things like they may not stay on task, they may forget to bring their books or their rulers, that sort of stuff.
"They have a specific area that they have to sit in. That area is where all the teachers go first if we have some independent time."
In the red ("interested") stage, students are "slightly more organised".
"They are able to identify when they are being distracted and identify the change they need to make, as opposed to us needing to tell them that they need to make that change," Griffin says.
"They sit a little bit further out in our space, so they have a little bit more freedom."
Students in the green ("involved") space "can identify their next learning steps" and are allowed to work independently in breakout rooms as long as a blue-banded self-directed learner is with them to model good learning.
"Eventually, our self-directed learners get a blue band which tells them they are able to go anywhere they like. They do have to tell us, they can't just wander around the school," says Griffin.
"They are given a lot of trust to know that they will get on with their learning."
Although this particular system is unique to The Gardens School, the general concepts of self-directed learners and learning through inquiry are now common in schools, not just in New Zealand but across the developed world.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says "21st century learning environments" should develop students' "understanding of their own activity as learners ('self-regulation)", encourage group work and "promote 'horizontal connectedness' across areas of knowledge and subjects as well as to the community and the wider world".
"Central to authentic teaching are realistic 'real-life' problems, which are interesting because they are more relevant, complex and challenging," it says.
To Denise Mills, a 67-year-old grandmother of two girls at The Gardens School, the new ways are astonishing.
"I don't ever remember having this type of fun at school," she says.
"We used to have prefects standing on the bridge that we had to cross morning and night. I'd be on detentions because I had ladders in my stockings or my tie wasn't straight.
"The boys would get the cane, the girls would get a rap over the knuckles, but the biggest part was detentions. I would spend most of my time in detention after school. It was dreadful."
"The minute I turned 15, I was out the door."
Some feel the dramatic swing from rules to "self-management" has swung too far. Briar Lipson , a former British teacher who now works at the NZ Initiative, argues that children still need structured teaching to acquire a coherent understanding of the world which they can then use as the basis for informed problem-solving and creativity.
"I taught Year 1. If you asked them, we are going to do a project on something of your choice, I can think of three girls who wanted to talk about cats," she says.
"Fine. But it's not necessarily the most powerful knowledge we could be teaching them at that age.
"What about Year 2? What is the teacher going to teach in Year 2? Teaching should be cumulative, coherently building on the knowledge that was taught in Year 1."
Lipson says children still need to learn all the traditional subjects so that they develop a wide vocabulary and understanding of the world.
"The way you teach reading is through a broad, knowledge-rich curriculum, i.e. science, history, arts, because that's where you learn the vocab," she says.
"I want children to have knowledge of the world. They will then be equipped to think critically and solve problems. It's not either/or - the way to become skilled is through knowledge."
But Hansen argues that children at The Gardens School do learn about the world through their inquiries.
"If they are inquiring and they are really enthusiastic about things, then they actually look deeply into things, and that gives them the enthusiasm to find out about things in a deep way," she says.
"I don't think we need to know absolutely everything. Research shows that we actually forget most of what we learnt at school within a year.
"So I don't know that it's that you have to remember, but it's a love for wanting to find out and inquire further."
How school has changed
Monday: No more rows of desks .
Tuesday: Learning on devices .
Wednesday: Literacy - reading to understand .
Thursday: Maths - the right answer is not enough .
Today: Self-directed learners.