Efferent Understanding and Working Less! Highlights from the Hawaii Literacy Conference

February 17, 2011 – Hilton Hawaiian Village

“I want you to work less.”

This was Dr. Mel Riddile’s directive in his keynote at the Hawaii Literacy Conference. OK. Who is he? Why was I a totally jive turkey for my presentation later that day? (I presented post-lunch, therefore there had been a significant exodus)

Riddile was the 2006 MetLife/NASSP National High School Principal of the Year, but that isn’t why you should listen to him. You should listen to him because he wants you to work less and achieve more in the class room by creating a school culture that’s free. Not free, in that you aren’t paid or that your pay is cut or free in that you start a drum circle and relax your hygiene, but free in the same way culture is free.

Working less. A taboo suggestion for educators. Isn’t working harder part of the solution? (I have previously referred to such folks as teacher martyrs)

I believe my answer to this question is easily deduced.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” Riddile proudly projected this in the midst of his talk. In my short 4 years teaching on linoleum, I have been barraged by a host of organizational, educational and political strategies – all in love with themselves and burning out more quickly than ever. Speak to one of the old dogs at your school (this happened to me when I adopted enthusiasm for the AVID program) and they will hammer off at least 10 separate movements which invaded and then evacuated their halls. Moving on, in many ways, is very similar to allowing yourself into a new relationship after another either crashed and burned or just faded away. If you learn from each relationship, eventually you change yourself and the next relationship will be more positive and lasting in the long term rather than the shorter impassioned bouts of fiery, conjoined euphoria. Eventually, relationship becomes culture – if we learn and change.

Riddile built a culture of literacy at his school by developing a simple standard of operation for every class throughout the school no matter what the content area was: beginning: what I’m going to ask you at the end of class, engagement and practice: read, write, discuss and pair share; ending: formative assessment – think aloud, short quiz, reflective writing. Students weren’t allowed to call-out. Instead, campus-wide, cold-calling was the standard – every student had to be engaged and ready. Students were always given wait time, couldn’t opt out but had the option of getting a lifeline from the class if they needed it. Eventually, once the culture has grown, they just don’t need it.

“We do more when we do less.” Riddile relieved his teachers of all duties besides classroom instruction. “You’re teachers, you’re not hall-monitors.” Indeed, we are not – though I think there have been nearly whole generations of hall-monitor type teachers in our country.

The afternoon keynote speaker had a much smaller crowd after lunch but his message was the whip cream on Riddile’s ice-cream sunday – actually it was more like a fudge swirl infused into the core sweetness of the iconic treat: efferent understanding. Dr. Michael Kamil, Professor of Education at Stanford University threw a spear through my beloved literature circles. “They don’t do anything. They’re fun but they don’t accomplish anything.” That is, unless students are somehow engaging with their efferent understanding of the text first. Efferent: conveying or conducting away from an organ part. Our goal is to guide students to the critical/analytical stage but the trend has been to drop them there. That’s what I’ve been doing anyway. To gain an efferent understanding is to explicitly understand the meaning of a text. Not how you feel, not what caused it and not what other people think about it; but merely, what is this saying? What does it mean? Explain. Why? How do you know that?

He snapped a few brain cells of mine into action. My most successful lesson, by far, was a simple whole-class discussion during which I projected several famous quotations on the screen, “A coward is incapable of exhibiting love,” – Ghandhi – and the like. Our goal was simply to explore exactly what each quote meant. The kids ate it up all day, no matter how reckless the class usually was. If I was asking them to engage in efferent understanding, they were in.

That’s what a successful culture has, right? They all understand deeply what they value. They share this value. They practice it daily and pass it on because that is what they understand. A culture can grow and understand new things but that core understanding of who they are binds them together. A successful culture understands the meaning of its existence.

Strategies don’t always understand, in fact, strategies understand nothing because they are just strategies. Motions, movements and fads. Strategies can be outwitted and outrun. A culture that loses touch with its core understanding will become a shell, a strategy, and die. So will a class. I have tried many different things in my classes – some successful, some not, actually most not; but my weakness was that I didn’t lead and build a culture of literacy and learning. I wanted a fresh strategy to cut through the butter – it’s easy to run out of butter.

It’s been a little over a month since the HLC. My students have learned more in this past month than in the entire year combined merely because I adopted a standard of operation and engaged my students in efferent understanding. Do less, accomplish more.

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