Post 9: Tackling Shallow Work #2

If you service low-impact activities, therefore, you’re taking away time you could be spending on higher-impact activities. It’s a zero-sum game.

Cal Newport

This post is a part of a series on how Deep Work can be employed as philosophy of effective leadership in schools. Cal Newport’s book of the same name is the source of the ideas elaborated here.

In my previous post, I identified, at a school leadership level, how automation and reduction can be applied to shallow work.

There is also another dimension to this. Are there examples of shallow work that are necessary? Absolutely, and for good reason.

Fail to prepare…

One of the most significant lessons I learned during my time at Dixons Trinity Academy was the importance of routines for students. However (and this took some time to truly embed in my brain) it’s not as simple as just sticking to the routine lesson in, lesson out. If you want a routine to work, you need to be absolutely explicit of what you expect of students for them to be fully successful in meeting that routine. Let me explain.

During the last two weeks at Horizon we have a ‘rollover’, where Y6 moves up to Y7, Y7 to Y8, etc. The reasons for this are numerous, and the benefits equally so. I have a new group that have significant individual needs and I’m not afraid to say that this will be a challenge for me, but one that I’m relishing.

Anyway, through conversation with key staff and their previous teachers, I learned that in the main, this group want and need familiarity and routine. However, as I say, the lesson I’ve learned is that making this happen is not a switch you can just flick.

So, for the past two weeks, I’ve been explicitly demonstrating and getting students to follow everything I want them to do in terms of routine – entering the classroom, five minutes of reading at the start, how to do the connect activity, even to the point of preventing students showing me anything on whiteboards until the on-screen timer beeps to indicate their time is up!

In fact, early on, I’d say that in an hour’s worth of lesson, 50% of that was dedicated to developing these routines. The relatively low cognitive impact of these activities certainly fits into Newport’s definition of shallow work, but, there’s a rider to all of this – and I’m sure you can see where this is going.

By lesson 4 or 5, the level of explicit instruction on the routines was cut significantly, because the routines were beginning to embed. Don’t get me wrong, it was far from perfect, but the fact that during the 5 minute reading phase and the connect phase of the learning you could hear a pin drop in my classroom meant that something profound had happened: the initial effort of properly executing the shallow work of implementing routines meant that over time, the capacity for deep work in the classroom (you know, actual teaching and learning), was greatly increased.

The lever

Actually, it’s not as easy as saying shallow work was necessary to enable deep work. In fact it’s slightly more subtle than that. The necessary shallow work was actually thought about (a deep work process) before execution. It’s not as simple as ‘do some shallow work and deep work will come later’. It’s like a lever. We all know that a lever allows us to shift greater loads with proportionately lower effort; however, an understanding of why that works that allows us to use a lever optimally. A crowbar is a great lever, but would you use it to open a paint can? For example, do we need to explain to Y11 students how and when to turn to a new page in their books? Perhaps we do!

There is an ideal type of shallow work – initial effort that lowers the need for future effort. However, this initial effort needs careful planning in itself. In my next post, I’ll explore this latter point further.


Post 8: Tackling Shallow Work #1

…[The reality is] that deep work is hard and shallow work is easier, that in the absence of clear goals for your job, the visible busyness that surrounds shallow work becomes self-preserving…

Cal Newport

This post is a part of a series on how Deep Work can be employed as philosophy of effective leadership in schools. Cal Newport’s book of the same name is the source of the ideas elaborated here.

In my previous post, I identified that to tackle the problem of shallow work in schools, we have to identify ‘hornets’ (as defined by Joe Kirby and Tim Brighouse) and tackle them through one of three ways:

  • Reduction – if the hornet is necessary but can be redesigned, or over time could be something than can be elimnated;
  • Automation – if the hornet is necessary but can be taken out of the hands of staff without negatively impacting the school;
  • Elimination – if the hornet is, in actuality, unnecessary.

Choices, choices

In my new role, I’ve been tasked with the responsibility of coordinating the choices process for GCSE options. Students choosing GCSE options can be a lengthy and drawn out process; from providing the information, the choices evenings for parents, getting the forms out to students, giving students and parents time to discuss and finalise choices, students remembering to bring forms in to school, chasing up students who’ve not submitted/lost/want to change their forms…

It can be a wasteful process:

  • Firstly the forms themselves: hundreds of bits of paper, that are often incorrectly completed, needing replacing, etc.
  • The time it takes to complete the form, if mistakes are made or changes required.
  • The time it takes to process the forms: take the form, input the data from the form into some form of spreadsheet/database/MIS, check the validity of the data.

In other words, this was a whole ton of shallow work – “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks”. Hence reduction, automation or elimination of said processes would be beneficial. So, I thought about doing it differently.

  • I wanted to maximise the time students had to think about their options. Discuss them with parents, form tutors, subject leaders and make a better set of choices as a result. This is where the value lies.
  • I wanted to minimise processing of the data. We’re a school of 2000 students. We have Y8 and Y9 making choices this year. That’s 800 students’ worth of data to process. Let’s say that takes 2 minutes a time to input into the aforementioned spreadsheet/database/MIS, then that’s nearly 27 hours of inputting to take place, or about 3 working days. That’s a significant amount of time. It will also need processing again when the timetabling of options takes place.

How could I make this happen? Automation. We have use of the Frog VLE system, and our Assistant Principal for Teaching and Learning had set up a form on the VLE for choosing workshop sessions for an upcoming INSET. This was the model I was looking for. All students have access to the VLE at home or at school, and as such I could set up a form on the VLE for students to input their options. What did this mean?

  • All paperwork eliminated. Distributing, explaining how to complete, and taking in 800 forms takes time. No paperwork, no time lost to logistics.
  • Problems with submission reduced. It takes seconds to complete the form. The VLE form can’t be lost, either. This also reduces the amount of chasing of forms (how many are laid dormant in students’ bags, bedroom drawers, etc).
  • The data is valid, instantly. By controlling what students can choose, it solves the problem of validating what students have chosen.
  • Processing time regained. Data submitted via the form is recorded instantly. The dataset is then exported directly from the VLE in a form that can be imported into the MIS. That’s 3 working days reclaimed.

What does this mean? As the processing time – the shallow work – is reduced, the choosing time – the deep work – can be increased. More time to promote subjects, more time for discussing choices, more time for finalising options… you get the picture. Not only is this shifting the work from shallow to deep, it’s also a lean approach. Quality improves, waste is reduced, costs are cut and time is saved.

In my next post I’ll explore the idea that in schools we have quite a lot of necessary shallow work, but we should look to reduce it…

Post 7: Shallow Work

This work is attractive because it’s easy, which makes use feel productive, and it’s rich in personal interaction, which we enjoy (there’s something oddly compelling in responding to a question; even if the topic is unimportant).

Cal Newport

This post is a part of a series on how Deep Work can be employed as philosophy of effective leadership in schools. Cal Newport’s book of the same name is the source of the ideas elaborated here.

In my previous post, I defined the difference between Deep Work and Shallow Work. As a reminder, Cal Newport defines Shallow Work as:

Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

In his blog post, Hornets and Butterflies: How to reduce workload, Joe Kirby borrows the term Hornet from Sir Tim Brighouse to categorise high-effort, low impact ideas. Kirby defines a series of these:

  • No graded or high-stakes observations
  • No performance-related pay or divisive bonuses
  • No appraisal targets based on pupil data
  • No individual lesson plans at all
  • No expectation of all-singing, all-dancing lessons
  • No starters, plenaries, group work, attention grabbers, whizzy/jazzy nonsense
  • No cardsorts, discovery activities or flashy interactive whiteboards
  • No writing, sharing or copying learning objectives or outcomes
  • No extensive photocopying of worksheets
  • No shoe-horning of IT into lessons
  • No mini-plenaries or checks on progress within a lesson
  • No labour-intensive homework collection, marking or chasing up
  • No unnecessary manual data input or entry
  • No unnecessary paperwork
  • No labour-intensive written ‘dialogue’ marking
  • No time-wasting, temporary display
  • No split timetabling
  • No long-winded written reports to parents

N.B. I’ve underlined what Newport would define as Shallow Work. Note the amount of resources and time expended on these examples!

Now, Kirby had an advantage in being able to make these calls because the school he is employed by, Michaela Community School was in its infancy and did not have GCSE results to focus attention on – instead, they could experiment with what made a difference in workload without negatively impacting on students’ learning. Making these calls in established schools with long embedded hornets is a big challenge. The reason for this stems from the negative impact ‘big call’, step changes can have in a school. As I outlined in Post -1:

small actions via the controller stage place low stress on the process and create feedback that is easier to determine and measure

In addition to this, there can also be self-generated inertia due to understandable vested interests and the fear of moving into the unknown. No-one wants the consequences of a negative OFSTED inspection or a poor set of GCSE results. Rapid change is rarely good.

Rather than deciding not to do a whole tranche of hornets in one go, instead the goal here is to pick one or two, confirm why they’re hornets, and define what actions can take place:

  • Reduction – if the hornet is necessary but can be redesigned, or over time could be something than can be elimnated;
  • Automation – if the hornet is necessary but can be taken out of the hands of staff without negatively impacting the school;
  • Elimination – if the hornet is, in actuality, unnecessary.

We have a responsibility to the people we lead to ensure that they are dedicating their cognitive resources to what truly matters in a school: what will improve the life chances of students in our care. By tackling Shallow Work first, we can create greater potential in order to make that happen.

In the next post, I’ll give an example of how Shallow Work can be converted into something more useful. Stay tuned in.

Post 6: Deep Work: Introduction

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

Cal Newport, Deep Work

This post is a part of a series on how Deep Work can be employed as philosophy of effective leadership in schools. Cal Newport’s book of the same name is the source of the ideas elaborated here.

Deep Work, as Newport defines it, is:

The ability to quickly master hard things and the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed, are two core abilities for thriving in today’s economy.

In contrast, Shallow Work, in Newport’s definition, is:

Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Does the latter sound familiar?

School is a sea of distraction. In lesson, out of lesson, in meetings, e-mails, interrupted conversations, social media updates, etc, etc, etc… So much of what negatively impacts on effective school leadership, teaching and learning and pastoral care is due to addressing what you might call admin, red tape, whatever. This is shallow work. I don’t think I need to go through specific examples, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Shallow Work isn’t Lean – it’s non-renewable action, and thus a sunk cost and wasteful.

Deep Work, however, is something very different. As we’ve seen from the definition above, Deep Work is literally thinking hard to find a solution to a challenging problem and delivering it with quality. There are amazingly challenging problems in education right now. The disadvantaged gap. SEND. Motivation. Low-level disruption. Parent support. Social mobility. You get the picture. Now, there is a great deal of research on how to tackle these problems, but the connection between the research and action on the ground is only now starting to gain real traction after much talk of evidence-based practice in recent discourse: Hendrick and McPherson‘s book What Does This Look Like In The Classroom? is a case in point. But is this enough? I’m not sure, I believe that so many problems that schools face in actuality are contextual, and I have seen first hand how evidence can be misinterpreted to address a contextualised need. This is not to dismiss the cause of evidence-based practice, far from it (and What Does This Look Like In The Classroom? is a fantastic book). No, the challenge here is to frame in, and then apply, the evidence in the context of the school one is in, without losing efficacy. Generalities are not enough. I lose count of the number of general, non-contextual initiatives that are externally imposed on schools in the name of ‘school improvement’ only to founder, wasting time and resources and thus being far from Lean.

As this series progresses I will focus first on the problem of Shallow Work in schools, and suggest how we can limit time wasted in this area, and thus make Lean both departmental and senior leadership systems. From there, I’ll focus on Deep Work, and how it can be employed in a fashion that takes advantage of Lean processes.


Post 5: Status update

It’s not enough to be up to date, you have to be up to tomorrow.

David Ben-Gurion

Yes, I wrote a post last week! But I’ve made some changes. One is that I’ve dumped the Twitter account for The Lean Department. It was superfluous and you can just follow things on @workedgechaos – a process of consolidation that was necessary.

Second is that the focus of the next few posts on The Lean Department will be interpreting Cal Newport’s book Deep Work and how this can be employed as an overall philosophy for working effectively as a leader in school. From there I’ll then elaborate on the systems, methods and tools that help one operate in a lean fashion as part of a Deep Work strategy.

Keepin’ keepin’ on…


Post 4: Working Deeply

“Less mental clutter means more mental resources available for deep thinking.” 

Cal Newport, Deep Work

In my sister blog, I shared my thoughts on the power of collaborative planning. You can click here to read more but in summary, collaborative planning is effective because:

  • Staff have 80-90% of their planning – the structure, the starter activities, the modelling, the resources, the formative assessment – done for them;
  • It allows staff dedicated time to interact and share subject knowledge, a situation rare in the high-speed modern school environment;
  • The combination of the two points above means that staff have more time to focus on the things that really matter in lessons – questioning and feedback.

As a result of (indirectly) forcing the Maths department to concentrate wholly on one tasks for 1-2 hours a week, without distraction, the amount and quality of planning that took place in that time outstripped what one individual, or the team working as eight individuals – was capable of in that time outside of that dedicated effort.

What interests me in this blog is what this collaborative planning time is an example of: Deep Work. According to Cal Newport, the author of the definitive text on the subject (a book that I’ve read multiple times, and am reading again):

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.

Planning is cognitively demanding. It is a task that requires consideration of multiple variables and required outcomes in order to create an effective set of actions that help students learn. I believe that effective planning is an increasingly valuable skill, because as the labour market in education continues to shrink, and the turnover of teaching staff continues to increase, then consequently the knowledge base of pedagogical and curricular understanding is concentrated and for many teachers, inaccessible.

As a result, textbooks are back in vogue. The reason for this is that they provide a ready-made set of premises, examples and practice exercises that teachers know will provide something of a ‘learning journey’ that students can follow. My problem with this that teachers – because they are human – will choose the easiest possible route, and whilst textbooks are useful, they are not a proxy for planning. Textbooks function independently of the aforementioned multiple variables that a teacher needs to consider to effectively plan.

The collaborative planning process is a lean process because it requires significantly less time to produce useful results for a larger group of people. It is lean because done correctly it considers the potential issues that might happen in advance of the planning being put into action, and thus avoiding waste as a result. It is lean because the whole planning process need not be done again – in the next year, it is simply a case of refining the planning material and resources to be even more effective. Ultimately after a few curriculum cycles, the planning takes care of itself. What can be more lean than that?

Merry Christmas, everyone.




Post 3: Introducing Kaizen

In the previous post, I explained that in any working system, there are two types of measures – lag, and lead. Lag measures are results, outcomes: they are achieved, or they aren’t. Lead measures are indicators, predictors: they are variable, and on-going.

It’s lead measures that The Lean Department approach is concerned with. Although, in educational terms, data is probabilistic rather than deterministic, the more measures that indicate a high potential for a successful outcome you have, the more confident you can be that you are on the right track. This much is obvious.

But measures are simply that. Measures. Behind the quantitative judgements needs to be qualitative reasoning about why the measure is what it is, and what needs to happen next. Enter kaizen. Kaizen means ‘change for better’, in other words, action that improves a situation. In business circles, kaizen has become synonymous with ‘continuous improvement’; that there is no such thing as good enough, that processes will never be perfect.

Fundamentally, there are two forms of kaizen: flow kaizen, and process kaizen.

Flow kaizen concentrates on how materials and information move in an organisation. This is kaizen that focuses on leadership and management. In flow kaizen, a group identifies how said materials and information flows are contributing to outcomes, and then compares this with how the group would like the flows to happen to improve the situation. Think project management. In certain respects this can be seen as ‘top down’ approach, where decisions are made by those further up the hierarchy that influence the organisation as a whole. For example, it may be identified in a school that students are struggling to retain knowledge over the long term, even though short term assessment showed a good level of understanding. The flow kaizen here would be for SLT to work with HODs to implement methods of retrieval practice in lessons.

Process kaizen concentrates on how work is carried out. This is kaizen that focuses on planning and execution of operations. In process kaizen, staff and leadership identify incremental improvements on a constant basis – in some cases that can be carried out that day. This can be seen as a ‘bottom up’ approach, where improvements identified ‘on the ground’ can be formalised as part of standard ways of working. Think ‘the aggregate of marginal gains’. A classic case of this would be where a department has chosen an agreed method of teaching a particular concept, but a teacher (or teachers) has identified problems in the method, perhaps in terms of clarity, or level of detail. By reporting this back straightaway, with a suggested adaptation to the method, the kaizen can be carried out.

Kaizen is a daily process; it is literally continual, with every member of a team at every level contributing improvements to the work an organisation carries out. Instead of ‘command and control’, leadership philosophy is more fluid and concerned with innovation, responsiveness and experimentation. When considering kaizen, both in terms of flow and process, a team member should ask themselves four questions:

  • Does this improve quality?
  • Does this eliminate waste?
  • Does this reduce time?
  • Does this reduce cost?

Whenever the answer is ‘no’, then the person should reflect on what might need to take place to make the answer ‘yes’.