A common misconception is that the purpose of school is to learn concepts. Learn lots of facts, figures, equations, dates…memorize famous people’s names, faces and accomplishments…master your times tables and grammatical structure. The real value of an education is in learning processes; learning how to learn, how to construct an argument, how to break a problem into its component parts and solve it in pieces. Think about “scientific thinking”, “computational thinking”, and “design thinking”. Why are these phrases rarely used in K-12 learning? Why isn’t more attention devoted to how to learn, if that’s really the main takeaway?
I would argue it’s because educators aren’t aware that this is the most important aspect of school, and even if they are they aren’t sure how exactly to go about teaching things like the scientific method and design thinking. It is also worth noting that the vast majority of parents and students don’t think this is what school is for, even if educators are aware of it, so they stuck in the fact-crunching mentality and can’t see the forest for the trees. The student is at odds if their teacher encourages them to make mistakes and experiment, learning how to learn, but their parents is worried that they have not learned all of their state capitals and presidents’ names.
I think one of the quickest and easiest things we can do to change this is ask teachers to explain to students why they are learning the things they are in the way they are learning it, and what they expect students to take away from the experience. Students usually only hear this at the end of their K-12 education, if at all. By that time they have passed through their idealistic elementary years, conflicted middle school years, and apathetic high school years. Educators need to communicate from the very beginning (you would be surprised at what an 8-year-old understands if you explain something to them clearly and patiently) that you are trying to instill in them learning techniques, curiosity, and the desire to explore more. If this message is communicated clearly and consistently, and the lessons are in keeping with this philosophy, there will be far fewer cries of “why are we learning this?” heard anywhere.