“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.“
When talking about Deep Work in this blog I’ll be referring to the above definition by Cal Newport as mentioned in his wonderful book of the same name.
Honestly, I was sceptical about his book when it first came out. ‘He’s obviously never worked in a school’ was my immediate reaction. But during this challenging year when we have gone from one teams meeting to another, I have had to start questioning whether there is a better way to organise and use time whilst at school. My first thoughts around this came when the PISA 2012 report was published and then, when a few years later a colleague had got funding to see how maths was taught in China. Both the report and feedback from the visit mentioned the critical role of co-planning and thinking time for teachers as a key element in enabling effective classroom delivery.
Why is it necessary in schools?
Schools are often reaction zones, overseeing hundreds if not 1000s of student needs a day. Safeguarding concerns can’t wait, poor behaviour in the classroom must be dealt with immediately rather than allowing it to affect others etc..
However, education is not short of big challenging questions!
- How do we equip students for a workplace that is consistently shifting?
- How do we close attainment gaps between groups of students?
- How do we make our curriculum more representative and diverse?
These are just a few.
Even if many of these are addressed in the run up to an academic year they often need to be monitored to see if actions are having the desired affect and more often than not tweaked.
Staff, from senior through to classroom staff rarely get the time needed for deep work to solve big problems such as these.
What does Cal Newport suggest
There are different ways to accomplish deep work – whereas some people consistently avoid distractions by refusing to engage in email for instance, others may block out a few days to do this. Bill Gates famously would take a bag of books to a cabin for two weeks a year to just think through problems. Most in education don’t have this luxury so I started looking at other methods. The bimodal method (1 day of uninterrupted deep work) or rhythmic (90 minutes) seemed more reasonable. But seriously when was the last time you had 90 minutes of uninterrupted time at work?
What does this mean?
If teaching staff or leadership want to think deeply about problems it is often in their own time, weekends or holidays. The downside of this, besides the obvious that they are eating into what should be their down time (another element Newport suggests is very important to schedule in so people can think clearly) is that they cannot do this with colleagues, so often solving a problem collectively is a no go, which later creates issues with buy in. A lack of opportunity for deep work in education often leads to quick solutions being implemented that have an equally quick life span.
Some ways in which schools have tried to find time for deep work
- Involving planning in CPD – so longer but fewer CPD sessions (90 to 120 mins) that deliver information but allow depts to apply immediately within faculty areas.
- Depts days covered by other staff – allowing a whole department to take a day to solve a problem and create a solution e.g. if their EAL students are not performing well to rework resources
- Strict email policies – to avoid emails eating into blocks of time and creating a distraction rather than a smooth flow of communication
- Extension of school days containing a mandatory hour of planning each day.
The fact of the matter is, the government is not about to hand over a chunk of money so we can employ more teachers allowing us more periods in which to allocate deep work. We will need to carve it out ourselves. Unfortunately, so far this has meant for many eating into their weekends which is something that needs to be addressed. However, I’m excited about the creative ways in which schools are finding time to solve the big questions.