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.


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