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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s