Teaching Students, Not Subjects: Why We Need a Deeper Learning Approach

09/25/2014 03:59 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2014

One thing I learned right away when honored with the National Teacher of the Year Award is that people wanted to know my philosophy of teaching. The answer has always been easy: Kids before content. In my classroom, I don't teach English. I teach students.

Everything we know about what it takes to succeed in today's economy and society suggests that our nation needs more individuals with nimble minds capable of creative, innovative thinking, and who have the perseverance to take on -- and learn from -- challenges. These are the demands of the 21st century. We should prepare students by helping them develop these skills across all subjects.

An educational approach known as deeper learning does that. Deeper learning encourages critical, independent thinking across all academic subjects, from history to mathematics. By presenting, defending and analyzing long-term projects, students also learn to communicate effectively, work collaboratively and believe in their own efficacy as rigorous thinkers -- all while mastering core academic content, because robust content knowledge enhances students' abilities to leverage and apply their skills.

In my English class, for example, students explore the wider world through the Injustice Project. Students select a topic that interests them: Human trafficking. Child soldiers. The history and treatment of Native Americans. They choose, read and discuss a relevant book that illuminates the issue. Having gained empathy through the narrative, students then conduct their own research to compose an argument for a solution to the issue. They then "market" their learning by creating a presentation that defends their solution and promoting their cause on social media.

A growing number of schools across the country fully embrace deeper learning and imbed its tenets into their culture and curriculum. But can this educational approach be taken to scale?

I believe it can. But not without overcoming some challenges first. The structure of a typical school day -- 45-minute bell schedules, teachers working in silos away from each other, and the difficulty of orchestrating off-campus projects and internships in the community -- would need to change to accommodate deeper learning's interdisciplinary nature.

Then there's the issue of measuring student outcomes. Many hold the perspective that "what's measured is what matters." For better or for worse, the predominant measurement system currently in our schools is standardized testing. But these tests, at least in their present form, don't fully reflect or measure 21st century skills. To truly capture deeper learning outcomes, we will need to rethink how we measure student outcomes.

Deeper learning also does not translate easily to a simple curriculum guide that teachers can just pick up and implement. As with Common Core, establishing new educational norms requires a different paradigm of training, instruction and assessment. We must invest in teachers on the front lines of this change.

All of this takes work and no small measure of will. But it will be worth it because our kids are worth it. When I started high school, I wasn't working to my potential. My home life was chaotic. But the teachers who became my mentors saw that, with the right support, I could do better. They knew that learning and growth happens when students are highly engaged in valuable learning, and so they stoked my curiosity and gave me room to run with my own questions and ideas. This should be the rule, not the exception.

As students prepare for a future where their work lives are likely to span a dozen or more jobs, one of the most important dispositions they can adopt is to embrace challenge and find joy in continuous learning. Teachers can nurture this resilient mindset. They can empower young people to translate learning into a vital, personal practice that can fuel their ambition and sense of purpose for a lifetime. In this way, our investment in deeper learning for our children returns to students the preparation that the future demands and the education that they deserve.