What Did You Learn Today?

Having been involved in schools for many years now, I came to wonder what they were actually for. Compulsory schooling is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of people on this planet. Mozart, for example never went to school, yet his achievements were incredible. So the idea that you have to be in school in order to learn seems redundant. People do learn things in school, don’t get me wrong; but they also learn things everywhere else too.


If I think back to my time at school and the time since I was at school for thirteen years of my life, I can say with confidence that since then I have learned much more about the world around me and how to navigate through it than during my time of being a servant to the system. Thirteen years of being told what I had to learn and how I had to learn it. Thirteen years of counting down the days to Saturday or the next vacation where I could (after completing my homework) be free to explore, climb, read about something that interested me or play.

We often hear parents say to their children when they come home from school, “What did you learn today?” This seems like a perfectly legitimate question, but one that you rarely hear from a parent on a Saturday after their child has been with friends playing for the day. The question reverts to, “What did you do today?” – a distinction which implies “learning” takes place at school and “doing” takes place outside school. People can choose to learn everyday wherever they are and whatever they are engaged in.

So, you might ask, what are schools for? Why do I spend my days within a community of children and adult learners called Glacier Lake School? The answer is that our school is different from the mainstream. We, like many other schools similar to us, trust children to decide for themselves what they choose to do each day. The curriculum for each child is only limited by their own imagination; their passion for learning is natural, organic and personal. Studies and analysis of children who are given the freedom to pursue what is important for them show that 90-100% of them enter adulthood going to the college of their choice and the others pursue careers and experiences that they choose. They leave school happy and eager to continue learning throughout their lives.

So, next time you find yourself saying to a child, “What did you learn today?” when you pick them up from school, think about what your answer would be if they asked you the same question, “Mom/Dad, what did you learn today?”

Ben Kestner    November 2015

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The decline of free, unstructured play and the rise of depression amongst our teens

Below, is an article published in the Missoulian newspaper on October the 5th by Ben Kestner in response to an earlier editorial.

I read the editorial section of the Missoulian this Wednesday with particular interest as a parent and as a teacher/administrator of some 25 years. Again, we see another report showing more and more of our teens are experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts (see Missoulan September, 30 2015). And again, there is a cry for more training for school employees, parents and peers in suicide awareness and prevention, which is of course, crucial. But instead of only looking at prevention we should also focus on the causes. The editorial, importantly, also says, “(p)arents, peers and others must help create an environment in which youth know their feelings will be taken seriously.”

Home and school are the environments where children spend most of their lives. So it seems logical to focus on these environments in order to reach the cause – like preparing the soil and conditions for a flower to grow. According to research including that of Peter Gray – (Ted Talk “The decline of Play and the Rise of Mental disorders) and his excellent book, “Free to Learn – Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life” – the correlation between the decline of opportunities for kids to experience unstructured play at home and school is directly related to the rise in mental disorders in teenagers.

Not so long ago, we could walk down neighborhoods and see children playing in the streets – the school days were shorter, the school year was shorter and there was a lot more recess time for kids to socialize and play in and out of school. Now, kids are put under more and more pressure at school and at home to succeed academically. They are taking high stakes tests and are being given more and more homework. The emphasis is on ‘core’ curriculum areas and, as a result, other subject areas that encourage and develop critical thinking and innovative practice are on the decline.

When do kids get the chance to experience the important aspects of play that we know helps them to structure their own lives and behaviors?

My plea to parents and educators is to look for ways where kids are given the chance to interact with each other away from adult control and influence. In schools, we need to restructure days to allow for longer recess. We need to cut down on homework. (Did you know, for example, that there is NO evidence that homework has any real benefit to elementary-school-aged kids? See Alfie Kohn’s “The Homework Myth”.) When kids are given more freedom and autonomy, they grow up to be happier and more successful members of society. We need to give children their childhood back.

A.S. Neill, a famous educator who founded Summerhill School in the UK, a democratic self-directed school once said, “I’d rather our school produced a happy street cleaner than a neurotic Politician”.

We, parents and educators, above all, surely, want our kids to be happy, right?

We, parents and educators, above all, surely, want our kids to be happy, right?

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The 6 Essential Features of a 21st century Education

In his introduction to John Gatto’s book “Dumbing us Down-The Hidden Curriculum of compulsory Schooling”, David Albert lists Dan Greenberg’s six consensus points which he says leading educators, business leaders and government officials agree are the essential features of an education that would meet the needs of society in the 21st century.

After reading them, think about whether the school system you are immersed in provides these features. Whether you are a teacher or a student- whether you have children or know of children at a school.I would argue a democratic-self directed learning approach is best for this. I have been spending the last few months working on setting up a new school in Montana, USA which is based on a free-democratic approach. A school where self-directed learning is the key driving force. Influences include Sudbury Valley School (of which Dan Greenberg was a co-founder in 1968) and Summerhill in the UK.

Our school is called Glacier Lake School and we are currently enrolling for a March/April start.

Six Consensus Points- Dan Greenberg

1. As society rapidly changes, individuals will have to be able to function comfortably in a world that is always in flux. Knowledge will continue to increase at a dizzying rate. This means that a content-based curriculum, with a set body of information to be imparted on students, is entirely inappropriate as a means of preparing children for their adult lives.

2. People will be faced with greater individual responsibility to direct their own lives. Children must grow up in an environment that stresses self-motivation and self assessment. Schools that focus on external motivating factors, such as rewards and punishments for meeting goals set by others, are denying children the tools they need most to survive.

3. The ability to communicate with others, to share experiences, to collaborate, and the exchange information is critical. Conversation, the ultimate means of communication, must be a central part of a sound education.

4.  As the world moves toward universal recognition of individual rights within a democratic society, people must be empowered  to participate as equal partners in whatever enterprise they are engaged in. Students (and teachers) require full participation in running educational institutions, including the right to radically change them when needed.

5. Technology now makes it possible for individuals  to learn whatever they wish, whenever they wish, and in the manner they wish. Students should be empowered with both the technology and the responsibility for their own learning and educational timetable.

6. Children have an immense capacity for concentration and hard work when they are passionate about what they are doing, and the skills they acquire in any area of interest are readily transferable to other fields. Schools must thus become far more tolerant of individual variation and far more reliant on self-initiated activities.

Whether you agree or disagree with these points, pass this on to someone else who might be interested in discussing this important issue. I believe passionately that the current public (in the USA) and State ( in the UK) education systems do not go anywhere near meeting these six points.


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What the Tests Don’t Measure

Originally posted on Diane Ravitch's blog:

Just received from a friend, Joan Baratz Snowden:

My daughter’s new elementary school principal sent this to all the students as they received their state standardized testing scores this week:

“We are concerned that these tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you– the way your teachers do, the way I hope to, and certainly not the way your families do. They do not know that many of you speak two languages. They do not know that you can play a musical instrument or that you can dance or paint a picture. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day. They do not know that you write poetry or…

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Fixed versus Growth Mindset

Professor Carol Dweck on how students’ mindsets shape their motivation and learning. – “15 years of research show that praising children’s intelligence harms them”

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How to Escape Education’s Death Valley

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Common Core

Ben Kestner:

If you don’t follow this blog…it’s well worth it.

Originally posted on Nicholas Meier:

I have been hearing from many friends who work as K-12 teachers, as well as some teacher educator colleagues here in California, that they are excited to see the coming of the Common Core standards. They see in them a move away from an emphasis on teaching by rote and a move toward emphasizing higher order thinking skills. I truly hope that they are right about this. A shift in balance from a preponderance of rote and conformist styles of teaching to more emphasis on creativity and the other aspects of what are called the higher order thinking skills in Bloom’s Taxonomy is needed.

On the other hand, I have been hearing some critiques from other colleagues, especially early childhood educators, about some of the specific standards that they say are developmentally inappropriate. One of those that I hear mentioned often is having young children doing more expository reading…

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We know so much more about the brain than we did even 10 or 15 years ago thanks to research around the world led by organizations such the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO) and the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS).

Individuals such as JoAnn Deak, Brian Knutson and Daniel Willingham have analyzed this research over many years and have written and presented compelling arguments and information for schools and teachers to improve teaching and learning.

In education we use this research (not enough in my opinion) to help us understand the best ways to learn. An example of this is how we now understand that the brain processes information in ‘working memory’ and transfers this information to ‘long term memory’. Another example is the way teachers help children to understand how they learn best –metacognition – as an important part of educating the whole child today.

We know from research that for us to learn most effectively, the learning needs to be at exactly the right level of difficulty. Too easy and we get distracted, too hard and we switch off. (How many times has a student described a lesson as ‘boring’ when it was actually too hard). This is what makes teaching so difficult and is why teachers require so much training and experience to meet the needs of their children.

I like to say that a teacher does not teach a class of say, 28 students, she teaches 28 individuals. If she is to personalize learning and help the child to learn at exactly the right level for optimum effectiveness, she needs to understand each individual child’s learning style and differentiate to support that child. So many schools and school systems don’t support this personalization of learning and teachers are forced to generalize or differentiate their teaching to reach groups of kids in their class rather than the individual child.

Computer games companies spend time and money on analyzing the same brain research as we educators do. Their motive (to sell lots of games and make money) may be completely different to ours at school but the goal is the same. Computer games companies want their games to be ENGAGING, ACHIEVABLE and ADDICTIVE.

Achievable, for the reasons I have mentioned (not too easy and not too hard). Educators need to focus on these things. If we can get kids to be ‘engaged’ and ‘addicted’ to learning, we’re on the right path!

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Frappuccino Drinker or Philosopher?

Tweeting for Teachers

Twitter has been around for a few years now (July 2006 to be precise) and has evolved from being purely a micro-social networking opportunity to tell your followers that you are say, in Starbucks enjoying a nice strawberries and cream Frappuccino, to a useful tool for sharing ideas, opinions and stories.

We all know how influential twitter has been in recent uprisings around the world and has given us the power to be journalists one and all. The first on the scene (sometimes the only one on the scene). Like many of these social media start-ups, the public has taken the idea and re-shaped it into something useful to their lives. True, some people still talk about their Frappuccinos, but I find these tend to be either celebrities or people with rather sad lives (sometimes both). Take Justin Bieber for example. He currently has the most followers in the world on Twitter (just over 34 million people). He, like many other celebs, has turned from just being quite a good singer (debatable I know) to a wanna be philosopher and social commentator. A recent tweet to his followers read “If U wanna succeed U gotta put in the work”. Thanks Justin, for that pearl of wisdom.

What about us educators? How could twitter be useful? Well I can honestly say that I find it the most useful professional development tool I have come across. If you select the people you follow carefully and make lists so that the account doesn’t become unmanageable, it can be very useful. I for example follow a number of Middle School principals from around the world who tweet really useful links to articles and personal observations. I follow teachers, politicians, news organizations, NGOs and comedians.

And then there’s the classroom. Yes it can be an extremely useful tool, but I would always say you need to identify a need that will support your class before you try. The link below has many links to uses for twitter in the classroom.

I haven’t written about how to use twitter in this article because I think the best way to learn is to:

1) Ask someone who’s using it


2) PLAY with it.

In case you’re interested, my twitter name is @kestnertweet

Give it a go it might change your life!


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Life Long Learning

Life Long Learning

This is quite possibly the best (and funniest) graphic representation of ‘Life Long Learning’ I’ve seen. Thanks to Dennis Littky for tweeting this.

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