What are the most important things for a student to learn? Many people will jump to answers such as Math, Reading, and Writing, and those are important things to learn. However, I think that the most important things students can learn are not subjects, but certain skill sets. What skills? How to learn & how to think.
Learning encompasses multiple skills - study skills, research skills, listening, etc. Schools simply don't teach these. In most classrooms, you read the textbook, answer some (very basic) questions about what you read, the teacher lectures or explains how to do the work, and you do the assignment. When the teacher is lecturing or explaining, they are generally talking AT the class, not TO the students. Now, some of you are saying "I had a teacher that wasn't like that" or "Hey! I am a teacher & that's not how I teach class." Please, don't be offended. I said MOST classrooms. There are some fantastic teachers, who really want the students to learn & get them involved in their education. Unfortunately, they are not the majority (at least not in my experiences and the experiences I've heard from many other people).
Students will learn more from discussion - active listening, asking questions, asnwering questions, comparing different perspectives - than they will from being talked at.
Students need to learn to research using a variety of media sources. They need to be able to use books, magazines, newspapers, the internet, software, and DVDs (educational ones, like documentaries). They need to understand that each event and topic has more than one perspective. They need to be able to tell the difference between Fact and Opinion.
They need to utilize various study skills. They need to understand that each person's ideal study environment is different. When I was in school, they gave us a very generic (and ridiculous) description of The Ideal Study Environment. It included pretty much everything that would guarantee I would get nothing done. Sitting, with proper posture, at a desk or table; brightly lit room; complete silence; no food; no drinks; have everything you could need (including extra pens & pencils) so that you have no reason to get up and leave the study area; read your books the exact way we tell you to; take notes the exact way we tell you to (usually that meant in an outline format). AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Leave me in that room for an hour and you're likely to find the desk through the window & me missing. I need noise - tv, people talking, music (with lyrics, no instrumental stuff), or some combination of them. I need comfort - couch, bed, overstuffed chair, etc. I need fairly dim light, I have very sensitive eyes & a brightly lit room gives me headaches. I need a drink and snacks close by and I need to get up and move around regularly. I read how I want to read and take notes in slightly unusual ways.
Instead of telling my kids how they should study, I introduce them to various different study ideas. We then try them out to see which ones work & which don't. I invite them to offer ideas that they think may work. I don't lecture or talk at them when working on school. I involve them. We discuss the concept. I ask them questions, not just to verify that they've been listening & comprehending, but also asking for their ideas & opinions. They get to ask me questions & I answer honestly, including admitting if I don't know. We work through examples together, then I provide examples for them to work through alone, and then allow them to come up with examples of their own. When they ask me what a word means, the answer is almost always the same "look it up." They learn, at a young age, how to use a dictionary. They are not allowed to use online dictionaries until they have proven mastery with a regular dictionary. They start out doing research with me, and graduate to doing research alone. They learn to use books for research first. Then, they learn to use the computer for research.
I think that learning how to think goes hand in hand with learning to learn. When I say learning to think, I mean learning to think for yourself. I don't want my kids to just believe everything everyone tells them. I want them to be able to apply logic and critical thinking skills. I want them to be able to put themselves in someone else's shoes to see things from a different perspective. I want them to learn about a topic before forming an opinion. I think we cover this quite well, with the way we school & the types of questions we ask. The kids have learned to ask & answer open-ended questions, not just one word answer questions. We try to make sure they know that their ideas & opinions matter to us, so they'll continue to share them, even when it's not 'school time.'
This week, I'm working on planning Dea's History for next year. She'll be doing her first year of High School History. We've decided to allow them to choose specific time periods to study for High School History. Next year, she wants to do a comparative study of Ancient Civilizations. She gets to help me plan the course. She's helping me choose the topics to cover, based on what's important & what she wants to know more about. We will determine together which civilizations to include in the study. She will study each topic one at a time, and learn about that topic within each of the civilizations. So, when she studies Government, she'll learn about the government of each civilization and compare them.
The great thing is that if they know how to learn & how to think for themselves, they can apply those skills to learning anything they want to learn - any subject, any topic, any concept, for school, for a job, or for fun.