11/15/2013 06:53 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

What a College President Learned Teaching a High School Class: It's About Technology, Time and What's Tested

I recently had an opportunity to teach 9th and 10th grade students at our local high school. I wanted to re-enter the classroom for two primary reasons: the desire to understand and then strategize on improving the current misalignment between high school courses and college readiness across the nation; and a need to experience how "digital natives" use technology in the classroom and how they gather, evaluate and deploy information from the Internet.

After the class, I did what I used to do when I was a professor: I reflected on the class -- what went well and what I would change going forward. I re-ran the class discussions in my mind and focused on where student learning occurred. As is often the case with a post-mortem of a class, I learned a lot.

Basically, the social studies class involved thinking about voting rights in Ancient Greece and then considering voting rights in America where we have a history fraught with disappointments. I had written a blog that summarized what I anticipated we would discuss in class, including "facts" I had Googled explicitly to showcase misinformation.

Following the class discussion/debate, I asked the students to read the prepared blog and to complete two tasks, working together in groups: (1) shorten the blog as it was about 300 words too long; and (2) come up with a title to the blog that would be search maximizing. I planned to publish the blog with the students' input -- engaging them beyond the one class I taught -- looking for the published blog, emailing and Tweeting it and reviewing any comments the blog generated.

So, the blog got published but as was laughably obvious to K-12 teachers, parents and colleagues, the exercise did not proceed as I anticipated. The original blog was long (two and a half typed pages), and the students could not read it quickly. Then, for the exercise to work optimally, the students needed to cull from the blog its key points and then translate those points into a searchable title within a short time.

For starters, many of these students were not familiar with blogs and search optimization; they most assuredly had not seen and compared blog titles for effectiveness. Add to that, the students could not edit quickly, including mainly because they lacked technology in front of them. But, editing also requires ascertaining what to cut and what to leave in the blog based on understanding its core messages. Moreover, the students did not react to the inaccuracies in the Googled information I had included; to be fair, I did not leave enough time for this task.

To their credit, these students tried mightily over the 90-minute class and did remarkably well under the circumstances.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I now see that the tasks required -- use of critical analysis among others - needed to be broken into pieces and then reconstructed to achieve the desired end. Long story short, this exercise needed to be expanded into a two to four week learning suite of multiple activities involving in and out of class exercises, group activities, and expansive use of technology within and outside the classroom. Thereafter, another similar exercise should be used -- a "rinse and repeat" to reinforce learning.

Consider this revised lesson plan: The class would spend several days dedicated to thinking and talking about voting rights before turning to the blog. Reading the blog and culling its main messages would take another class or two. Understanding and constructing titles would take another day or two, playing with and comparing options. And then understanding the technological challenges of Googling and search optimization and editing would also add several days.

Here's the point: learning content is not enough to provide alignment between high school courses and higher education. Information is not the problem -- it is how to think about the information that counts. To the extent there is a fast-paced mandated slate of topics that students are required to master and upon which they will be tested (and teachers and school success will be measured), alignment will remain elusive.

The class I taught compressed key skill development. And the consequences became proof positive of three things: (1) depth trumps breadth every time; (2) high school student readiness for college is not nurtured by oft-tested content; and (3) our "digital natives" true technology expertise is limited in scope; they need opportunities to learn what technology can and cannot accomplish.

I need to teach this exercise again over a two- or three-week period, now that I understand it and high schoolers better. It would also work for middle schoolers or even college students. It would be good to experience the improvement -- for me and for the students. Anyone interested in taking me up on this offer?

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