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…

1 thought on “Post 8: Tackling Shallow Work #1

  1. Pingback: Post 9: Tackling Shallow Work #2 | The Lean Department

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