• Brent Kaneft

Deep Work and Teachers: How Do We Make Time?


I recently finished Cal Newport's Deep Work, and I'm curious how his research applies to the teaching life. Teachers have a lot on their plates: teaching, advising, coaching, tasks as assigned by principal. We are busy. We offset the chaos of this lifestyle with long breaks during Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring Break, and summer. But are those good times for deep work?

What is "deep work"?

Here is a short description from Cal Newport's website:

"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. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep—spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way."

Yes, the teaching life offers great breaks where this type of deep work can happen (and does), but usually the breaks we enjoy are filled with family time, holiday celebrations, and mundane tasks (like finally getting a haircut or going to the doctor). It's difficult for me to imagine telling my wife and kids that once dad is on break, he will then dive into a really complicated research problem he's been wanting to tackle. I think deep work on breaks can be problematic. Certainly summer offers a compelling chance to dig into some ideas you're interested in, but even then, family vacations, second jobs, and professional conferences demand our attention.

When does deep work happen?

According to Cal Newport, there are four philosophies behind when we schedule deep work:

The Monastic Philosophy: "maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations" (103).

This approach is for professionals who "have a well-defined and highly valued professional goal that they're pursuing, and the bulk of their professional success comes from doing this thing exceptionally well." Teacher's responsibilities really don't gel with this approach. Our many obligations might keep us from deep work, but I wouldn't label them "shallow." Parents have to be called. Student comments must be written. The fan bus won't drive itself to the game. This type of "multiple-hats" approach is what we signed up for. We can't just put those significant obligations on hold and narrowly focus on one task for the majority of our work day. The monastic approach might work for some teachers, but I don't find it to be a sustainable approach. If a teacher has an upcoming presentation at a conference, s/he might use this method the month prior. But our "professional success" is often determined by how we build relationships with our students, and our intense work provides multiple opportunities for doing just that. It's hard to imagine that a description of an effective teacher would include "monastic."

The Bimodal Philosophy: "divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else" (108).

This approach is for professionals who can carve out huge chunks of time where they can "reach maximum cognitive intensity." Though "the minimum unit of time for deep work in this philosophy tends to be at least one full day," which causes some problems for teachers, the approach is promising for those among us who are diligent planners. As I said, our schedule provides large chunks of time, like summer, when we can delve into our deep-work challenges. If that deep work is not immediately beneficial to the school, then I think this philosophy makes sense (e.g. you're writing a novel, you're consulting on the side, you're earning a graduate degree).

The Rhythmic Philosophy: "the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit" (111).

This is the approach I prefer. Each morning I am up by 3:30 am. My first hour and a half is spent writing — blogs, articles, creative nonfiction. Then I read for an hour before I take my morning jog. This schedule guarantees that some deep work is getting done each day. These "rock-solid routines [...] make sure a little bit gets done on a regular basis." Of course, there are sacrifices here. I go to bed earlier than most people. My wife and I don't plan a lot of social events at night. But because we have three young girls, this approach (which she shares with me) ensures that I spend time every day doing concentrated work. Again, my morning work is not immediately beneficial to my school, so carving out this time is a personal decision.

The Journalistic Philosophy: "fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule" (115).

This approach seems to be the default mode for most teachers. But because the teaching life is chaotic, cordoning off your time might appear selfish and disobliging. Colleagues depend on each other when things go wrong, when that trip needs a last-minute chaperone, or that team member gets the flu. So, the journalistic philosophy offers a tenable model; however, it doesn't guarantee that consistent deep work happens. Too often we are pulled into roles/tasks at the last second. I think it's part of the job.

What about deep work that directly benefits the school?

Do administrators want teachers to research pedagogical and learning practices? Do they want teachers to discuss ideas, reflect on success and failure, and collaborate on projects? Do principals want their teachers to be experts on the science of learning? If yes, then it is incumbent on the administrative leadership to find time for this kind of work. Here are some thoughts:

1. If we want our students to work in meaningful and deep ways, shouldn't teachers role model what that looks like?

2. Can there be a periodic rotation that frees time for a few teachers to tackle a research question that interests the school or those teachers?

3. Is that elective, activity, or new program more important than giving teachers time to do deep work?

4. If faculty attrition is a problem at your school, would providing time for deep work improve the situation (you can't increase their pay, but you can increase how they feel about their work, how they're valued by the school, etc.)?

5. Are teachers professionals? If so, then we must provide the time to do professional work.

Most teachers will find a way to get deep work done. But does this contribute to teacher burnout (and the teachers who find the time are usually your best and brightest)? If they had the scheduled opportunity each week to dive into research, to plan that staff presentation, or to collaborate on a project with a colleague — time that was sacred and untouchable — would professionalism increase as teacher attrition rates fall?

Deep work goes beyond planning daily lessons. Deep work gets to the core of teaching: brain science, pedagogical innovation, reflection. This time should be intentional, but I don't think it should be heavily supervised. Allow teachers to go down the rabbit hole and research what is important to them. And then see what happens to the culture of your school. Are people happier? Do they look more invigorated? Deep work, I believe, will fulfill a professional need in your teachers.


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