I recently read Cal Newport’s best-selling book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016). In this book, Newport describes Deep Work as the ability to concentrate on important work without distractions. He suggests that the results of such work benefit producers in a way that provides a competitive edge and a deep sense of pride. Implementing deep work requires individuals to develop habits of motivation, dedication, and concentration. While it is not a book specifically related to educational practices in the classroom, it definitely has its place in the educational world. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it would highly benefit all teaching practitioners, regardless of one’s level of expertise, as a required professional development text.
When we use the phrase “deep work” in schools, it can be misconstrued as simply studying or memorizing boring content. Instead, the process of doing deep work, while likely difficult at first, should prove fulfilling, even for children. Unfortunately, we are, as a people, mostly accustomed to a shallow mode of working, from creating a grocery list to completing a detailed project. It’s easy to see how creating a grocery list is shallow work- it takes little effort and mental capacity to create a grocery list. In fact, I could easily create a grocery list while surfing the internet, talking to my kids, and listening to music all at the same time. Sadly, this is often how we go about completing tasks that require greater mental stamina, patience, and time, such as completing a detailed project. We live in a world where distraction is frequent and almost welcomed. We think we are training ourselves to become highly intelligent and collaborative individuals, but maybe instead we are curating a life of mediocre learning and quasi-amazing productivity. What we fail to realize is that deep work is highly valuable in an economy where “low brow attention” is ever increasing (Newport, 2016, p. 211). If this is the case, then why aren’t we teaching students how to work deeply? In this blog, we’ll take a look at six ways deep work, as described by Cal Newport, is directly related and beneficial to the work of educators and their students:
1. Deep work is rare.
Deep work is rare in the educational setting and even more rare in the working world. As previously mentioned, we are a people accustomed to shallow work. But the great intellects of this world are people that have employed deep work habits. Theodore Roosevelt, J.K. Rowling, Peter Shankman are among the many examples Newport describes in his book. This is still only a handful of individuals in our massive population. It is also true that, when we take a look across our schools, only a handful stand out as students that will thrive in the present and future. Perhaps only a few are naturally gifted as intellectuals. But couldn’t it also be true that students are continually missing opportunities to learn how to do deep work? What if educators were to spend more time teaching deep work strategies versus pure content? We would most likely notice more than just a measly handful of students learning at an elite speed and producing high quality work.
2. Deep Work Increases Productivity.
Great workers “think like artists and act like accountants”, says David Brooks (2014) in a New York Times article “The Good Order”. What a great quote to help us wrap our brains around what deep work looks like in practice. Deep work, when implemented well, increases creativity (like an artist) and productivity (like an accountant). What more could we want from our students? What else will promote success in the working world as much as creativity and productivity? Let’s try this on for size: A teacher has instructed students to complete a book project. Whether the students are required to work collaboratively or independently makes no difference in this scenario. Each student has a list of the requirements for the project. The teacher lets loose and the students begin. The intention here could be extremely purposeful, and still, only a handful of students will work toward perfection exceeding all requirements. If, though, the students had been instructed on what it means, what it looks like, what it sounds like, and what it feels like to do deep work, not only would more attain quality products at an impressive speed, but those handful of gifted students would surpass even the highest expectations. We should be instructing students in a way that entices them to create their best product, not just finish a product. We should be providing instruction on, and time for, the process of deep work.
3. Deep work causes individuals to thrive.
When I consider the way in which many, dare I say most, educators instruct students, it’s no wonder that very few students who venture into the working world thrive. Instead of teaching students how to learn, educators are primarily focused on teaching content. To that point, and this might come as quite a blow, if you can’t learn, you can’t thrive. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, is an easy example of someone who has thrived due to the deep work habits she implemented when writing these best-selling, world-renowned books. But when I think more simply, my dad comes to mind. He is no J.K. Rowling, but he is a successful salesperson for a dental company. He has thrived as a salesman, and part of this is due to the deep work he put in over the years. I can recall the many mornings my dad sat in his home office studying manuals, figuring numbers, and taking notes. Imagine the number of students that would thrive if they learned HOW to learn. With deep work strategies on their side, students would be able to quickly master hard things and produce high quality products at an elite speed.
4. Deep work both takes and improves concentration.
Even while writing this article, I have picked up my phone to check the weather. The fact is, the weather doesn’t matter right now. It affects me in no way since I have no plans to do anything remotely related to the outdoors today. As Newport explains, at the slightest hint of boredom, we seek out distractors- a conversation with a friend, a wondering about an unrelated item, or a quick peek at our devices, which inevitably leads us down a rabbit hole. The youth of today are growing up with these distractions and then some. While today’s generation of children may be apt multi-taskers, the statistics of ADD and ADHD are on the rise . Unfortunately, I think educators are too easily coming to terms with this instead of considering our duty to teach students HOW to concentrate, or work deeply, in an age of constant interruptions and distractions. We often believe multi-tasking to be a great asset in the work world. But much more imperative is the skill of concentration. In fact, Newport suggests that breakthroughs occur only when one reaches maximum cognitive capacity. Imagine the greatness a student could achieve when he learns to push his brain to its limit. Habitually employing deep work can promote concentration.
5. Deep work creates a sensitivity to time.
I’m sure you can recall, or even have used, that familiar phrase, “I work best under pressure”. Now, I have to be clear here: I DO NOT mean that we should be formulating a climate of pressure and stress. More can be read about ‘working under pressure’ via Alfie Kohn’s blog. What I DO mean, though, is that when we are in a state of deep work, distractions are limited and we can place full focus on the task at hand. I am guilty of providing deadlines, due dates, and time frames for completion of work. However, if I have not provided strategies for implementing deep work, how can I expect students to be mindful of, dare I say even care about, due dates? Furthermore, how can I expect students to produce quality work within those timeframes? If we are fully invested in a task, without the demise of distractions, we are more likely to “produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed” (Newport, 331), promoting a sense of pride and accomplishment.
6. Deep work fosters authentic learning.
What I find most compelling about Newport’s ideas on deep work is that it promotes authentic learning. Since having completed the book and reflecting on my notes, I have found myself analyzing my own use of time and effort. I am not at all where I’d like to be as an employer of deep work strategies, but I am progressively working toward this by forming deep work habits. What pains me is to know that I have gone a lifetime only having modeled deep work a few times, and probably without even knowing it. But in only the short time I’ve considered my work through a lens of deep work, I have felt more creative, productive, time conscious, and intellectually stimulated. If we could teach students how to become a people that utilizes deep work strategies, we would be growing a population of learners that can out-produce, out-learn, and out-thrive their peers that are being held back by the lack of knowledge of HOW to learn and learn well.
What’s to come next…
The direct relation Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016), has to education is, I hope, evident. But what do we do with this information? How can we promote deep work strategies in students? Over the next several weeks, I’ll be collaborating with fellow educators to develop “Deep Work Strategies” that could possibly be taught in classrooms with the needs and abilities of our students in mind. Check back soon, and in the meantime share your ideas for deep work strategies in the comments below or on twitter with #deepworkstrategies!
Notes and References
Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing: New York, NY.
“[Great workers] think like artists and act like accountants”: from Brooks, David. “The Good Order.” New York Times, September 25, 2014, op-ed. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/26/opinion/david-brooks-routine-creativity-and-president-obamas-un-speech.html?_r=1
Bluth, R. (2018). The Washington Post: ADHD Numbers are Rising, and Scientists are Trying to Understand Why. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/adhd-numbers-are-rising-and-scientists-are-trying-to-understand-why/2018/09/07/a918d0f4-b07e-11e8-a20b-5f4f84429666_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c86218386f5a
Kohn, A. (2017). Do We Perform Better Under Pressure: Exploring Unexpected Complications and Hidden Value Judgments in a Common Question. Retrieved from https://www.alfiekohn.org/blogs/pressure/
Welcome! I am Casey Watts- teacher, mentor, leader, mother, and wife aspiring to be much more!