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.

1 thought on “Post 7: Shallow Work

  1. Pingback: Post 8: Tackling Shallow Work #1 | The Lean Department

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