The Only Thing You Need to Learn in School

There is only one thing you need to learn in school. I’m quite serious. Are you ready?

To think.

Some of you may be upset at this, not because it has the set-up of a bad joke, but because you don’t like the accusation that people go to school without thinking. So I’ll elaborate using two words that remind us all that evil yet exists in the world: pop quiz!

Test questions typically come in two forms. First, you have questions that ask for facts. What is the capital of Georgia?  How many quarts in a gallon? What are the names of the amino acids with hydrophobic side chains? Questions like these have answers that you really cannot argue about. These questions do require thinking, mostly memorization.  Interestingly, recent studies suggest the internet is changing how we remember facts. Instead of memorizing facts, we are starting to memorize where to find information. Think of it as not knowing a street address, but knowing exactly how to find a house with instructions such as “turn left at the stop sign” and “go three houses past the one of the green fence”.

This first type of test question is important and it does involve thinking, but what I really want to address is the second type of question. Questions like, explain the political and economic factors that brought the first settlers to settle in the area that would later become Georgia? Or given a height of 2 feet and a radius of 1 foot, what is the volume of liquid that can be held by this cylinder?  You’ll notice that answering these questions will take more than a few words. They require explanations, discussions, mathematical equations. In short, these questions require you to show your work, to problem solve, and to show what you are thinking.

Now, these questions can be annoying, mainly because they required writing long explanations. I mean, what is the point of showing your work to a math problem if the only thing that matters it getting the final answer?  Partial credit, of course! Take the math question I suggested above. The answer is never going to be 12 cubic feet. However, let’s say I was lazy and punched my numbers into the calculator wrong. I could still get points if I wrote the equation,                                    volume = π(radius)2 x height, on my pop quiz along with the wrong answer. The teacher doesn’t really care about the correct answer (roughly 6 cubic feet), or about the imaginary cylinder. He or she cares if you can use your brain and the information given to solve the problem, so you’re rewarded for being on the right track. In short, did you think in the right direction?

This is not just restricted to the realm of math and science. In English class, you  are taught to write a thesis statement, the central point you are trying to argue. Probably you will have to write a paper about a book.  I had trouble with this early in highschool, because I was afraid of being wrong, and often wrote thesis statements that were facts. I once had a draft of a paper basically arguing “The main character was motivated by his internal values.” My teacher told me that of course that was true, and  it was not a thesis because it is not debatable. The point of the writing assignment was not about the book, it was about me making an argument and backing it up with evidence. So what if my teacher disagreed with my thesis? She was not grading me on my opinion, but on how well I defended my opinion. I feel that my essays in college were much more powerful, because my thesis statements were debatable, and I had to show my professors why I thought they were correct. Once again, it wasn’t about the right answer; it was about thinking.

So that is the secret to education. Yes, you need to learn facts, skills, and all other information that you may need to recall at a moment’s notice. However, all of this information is worthless if you can’t assemble it together into an argument, a hypothesis, or a new idea. If you disagree with me and can prove it, I will consider it a pyrrhic victory.

The Motley Advocate (Editor)
Slide1Motley Advocate is a Christian, a biologist, a writer and an amateur at many other things. He doesn’t  have a twitter but you can e-mail him at

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