Also, I'd love to hear more about this idea that school is for skills. What kind of skills? Are we talking broad, generalized skills (like knowing how to learn), or specific skills (like writing five-paragraph essays)? Any thoughts?I'm going to attempt to answer this without digging out my giant concept map as referenced earlier, so this will be an incomplete list. The skills I'm talking about are primarily broad, generalized skills, the sort that you can apply all the time in life. Skills that aren't just needed for playing the school game, but for being an active citizen.
Take your example of five-paragraph essays. I want my students to know how to organize their thoughts, come up with a thesis, defend it, cite evidence for their opinion, and end with a solid conclusion. All of these skills are used in a good five-paragraph essay, but the essay in and of itself isn't the important thing. It's those skills, which can then be applied to other forms of writing, verbal debate, habits of mind, whatever. Similarly, if students spend time learning different writing formats in English class, I want them to do so with the idea that they are learning about making choices when expressing oneself.
In history and social studies, the major skills I see as relevant outside of schooly-ness are those having to do with analyzing and evaluating primary sources. I want my students to be able to look for bias, to interpret a variety of documents/photos/speeches/videos/artifacts/etc for information about their source, to use primary sources as data to support an opinion, and to evaluate the usefulness of these sources for a particular inquiry. All of these things are skills I see as critical for survival in the "Information Age." Sorting through the mass of documents available on a topic of research in order to determine what's relevant, after all, is pretty much the essence of the web.
I also see historical awareness as a highly important and lacking understanding. This is more of a perspective than a skill, though, so I'll come back to it some other time. Still, I'm convinced that if history classes in grade school did a better job of developing historical awareness, many of the myths of our national history and their negative consequences would not survive.
Knowing how to learn is important too! In my teacher-prep classes, we had a huge emphasis on reflection and metacognition. Why don't we do this with students?