Deep work: What it is and why teachers need it

The knot I’m tugging at: becoming a better teacher by managing my most valuable commodity: time.

My inspiration: Deep Work by Cal Newport

My working solution: Ritualize the use of time for the work that I know is important: writing, planning, reflecting – not assessing. Treat my time with respect.

In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted Word, Newport defines deep work as “professional activities” that are completed in a “state of distraction free concentration” in an effort to “push your cognitive capabilities to their limit” (3). The goal is to “wring every last drop of value” from our “intellectual capacity” (14). He compares that to shallow work which he labels as “noncognitively demanding logistical style tasks” that are completed “while distracted” (6). This was an apt description for most of my work this school year.

I approach the craft of teaching with the philosophy that  despite my veteran (17 years) status, I know very little. There are lots of intricacies involved in teaching reading and writing to juniors and seniors in high school. Sure, I can show up every day and rely on my “bag of tricks” to fill the class. But does it all go anywhere? Does anything transfer? Is what I am teaching what they need right now?

The key phrase that stands out in Newport’s book is “new value.” This is exactly what I was seeking. The exact thing that is lacking in my teaching – the time and energy to immerse myself in a new skill areas. I needed to “concentrate on the hard things” (14). I wanted to learn more about teaching revision or immerse myself in the research on effective feedback for writers. I just didn’t have the time given the numerous demands of the job.

In making his case for the value of deep work, Newport also argues that it is very rare in the workplace. He writes that most people follow the principle of least resistance, in which lacking “clear feedback” on the work we’re doing, we “tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment” (58). If we look at teaching in the traditional way, feedback is tough to come by. We are rarely observed and most of us don’t have the desire or guts to consistently invite outside eyes into our rooms. We have enough hassles without voluntarily adding more.

But if we look at it from a different lens, we have all the feedback we need in the seats in our classrooms every day. You want to know how you’re doing with something? Ask students for specific, guided feedback. Teach them how to provide feedback. I first read about this in Originals by Adam Grant. A professor at Wharton, he often asks his students for focused feedback on his teaching, collates the results and shares it with the class for discussion. I did this recently and it was powerful and eye-opening. Everything they offered was spot on. And uncomfortable to read.

Looking back at the principle of least resistance, it’s very easy to give the test vs. really thinking about what the students in the seats need right now. It’s easier to use the same handout than find a model, get get the doc camera, and go live.

But if we ask, or at the bare minimum really just look at their reading, writing, and thinking skills, we can see what they need. We can then find a way to adjust or teach the skills rather than relying on what is “easiest in the moment.” We can adjust what is expected and/or required to meet the needs of our kids. We can win that argument with administration.

According to Newport, there are a few keys to deep work as he defines it:

  • Ritualize the use of time. Determine a small number of ambitious goals to pursue. I choose to immerse myself in one area of weakness (there are many) per month. I gather resources, take notes, immerse myself in the knot for 90 minutes or more once per week. I’m up at 4:15 a.m. on morning a week. At the kitchen table. I’m a learner. By bunching my time, I’m able to add some “new value” to my teaching life. My library of teacher-resources is immense. And that’s not always a good thing. One downside is reading too much and trying to too much. It never allows me to get deep.
  • Focus on lead measures. According to Newport, the big goal – or lag measures as he calls them – are distracting. He recommends you focus on WIN – what’s important now. This is helpful in using my time as well as choosing the topics to pursue. I just completed a month of revision strategies. Next up is improving feedback. As teachers, we need to focus on what our students need today and adjust our own learning and instruction accordingly. We need to control our own professional development.
  • Keep a compelling scorecard. For me it’s checklists, a schedule of time I’ve set aside, and a monthly goal of researching and writing about one topic. I turn that research into this blog, which I plan to publish monthly. I write and publish the blog for me, as a written summary of the research (getting more value from my time was the topic this month). I can see the blog published. Views are irrelevant. That’s my scorecard.
  • The cadence of accountability. I’m always reminding students to hold themselves accountable when they choose not to do the work. I need to use the same language with myself. On Monday nights I go to bed earlier. I get up early Tuesday. I use the quiet time for my own deep work. That 90 minutes per week on one topic – no emails, texts, social media, etc., quickly adds up.

Then he offers four simple rules to achieve deep work. What follows is an insanely over-simplified synopsis from my own notes:

  1. Work deeply. Be lazy. Have downtime where we don’t check email. Make a list each day of unfinished tasks to start the next morning.
  2. Embrace boredom. Schedule breaks from grading, messing on the Internet, etc. Schedule work time each morning based on my preps. Identify your deep tasks. Set a deadline. Work.
  3. Quit social media. Try a 30-day fast.
  4. Drain the shallows. Eliminate the trivial tasks, or at least manage them. I’ve started making a list of “shallow” tasks each morning. I schedule 20-30 minutes when I know students will be fluttering about my room and use that distracted time to complete my shallow tasks: filing, emails, etc. As Newport writes: “treat your time with respect” (227).

Newport has much to say – some very compelling points I might add – on the use of technology and social media itself.  One key point he makes, and one I stress to my students all the time, is that social media use is typically driven by a “quest for self-importance” that ultimately convinces us “to thoughtlessly fragment” our “time and attention.” His ideas have definitely limited my use of social media and made me question why I have Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts. Read him and make your own decision.

The most compelling argument he makes about deep work is why it matters. Newport cites the “flow” research of Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi, something many teachers strive to achieve in their classrooms. Newport argues that many conditions of flow – stretching your mind, concentrating, and getting lost in a task – are all associated with deep work.

Work completed in this state is worth completing. As Newport argues: “To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction” (86). It’s working for me. So far.

Design Thinking Part Four: How the design thinking process helped me see my own failures

 

What question I’m grappling with this week: How do I use all the elements of my design thinking process?

Throughout the lengthy process of reflecting on how to better serve my students, I have been grappling with the big ideas I use to guide my classes and my practice.

And the design thinking process ultimately showed me how far I was from actually helping my students grow as people.

For the past month, I have been playing with design thinking, working slowing through the steps by defining the challenge, really considering my students, brainstorming solutions, and then creating a prototype plan as the starting point. I know it seems silly to spend so much time on this process so late in the year. But this class I have – 19 low-level juniors intent on attending college – has challenged much of what I know and think.

We have slowly been reading and discussing The Great Gatsby, and it has only been through the design thinking process that I have started to see my students and understand what it is they need.

The prototype for my solution isn’t something concrete. Nor is it a unit, lessons, or a sequence of texts. It isn’t classroom management adjustments. It all comes down to me: As part of the problem, I now see I am key to the solution.

What I thought the design process would yield was far different from what I discovered. As a veteran teacher, I sometimes think the solution lies in the perfect combination of texts, lessons, and assignments. I am always dreaming of how to do it better next year before I even finish this year. I read a lot, tweak my lessons, and try everything.

The impossible part of teaching like this is figuring out what works. Teachers live in a sea of data. Learning what info is relevant – and how to get it – takes a lot of trial and error. There’s no way to know if the silent discussion on Ch. 4 or the film analysis for Ch. 5 really made any difference in the overall learning arc or my students.

The design thinking process allowed me to rethink not what I was doing, but more how I was approaching my classes, what message I was sending, and what I was truly trying to do.

If we’re all being honest, the day-to-day grind of the Common Core, essay writing, teacher-led discussions, tests, and exams really doesn’t accomplish much of anything. Sure, I cover material. My students read and write a ton. But all the variety of ideas, academic key terms, texts, and strategies get lost in the shuffle of an adolescent life. Only a few truly get what I am doing. And since I shift what I’m doing so often, even those few probably get precious little.

Students tell us everything we need to know. I just stopped hearing. I listened. I love my kids. I talk to them constantly. But I wasn’t hearing what they were telling me. The process of exploring a single class has allowed me see that how I was approaching my craft was just out of focus. It wasn’t wrong. I worked hard. Students were happy. They all showed signs of passion and life. It was just not what they needed.

My students need love. They need to be given opportunities to explore the questions that truly matter to them, even if they don’t know they matter:

  • What does it mean to truly engage in my life?
  • How can I make sense of my life?
  • Where do I belong in this ever-changing world?
  • How can I hear myself in the sea of noise around me?

I’m 48. These are questions I still grapple with. The world moves fast. I need to constantly remind myself to slow down and make sense of it. My students need the skills and ideas to help them sort through these questions. And in my classroom, I wasn’t delivering the goods.

So now the challenge is to show up tomorrow, tell them I love them, apologize for not hearing them, and start to listen. I need to find better ways into these questions and provide them the time and space to really grapple with life. It’s the only thing I can do that will truly teach them how to live.

I challenge you all to do the same.

 

Design thinking Part 3: Organizing the research

What question I’m grappling with this week: How do I organize the research I generated about my students as I seek new ideas?

In my last few blogs, I wrote about the ideas of design thinking. Jessica Lahey, in an Atlantic article, broke it down into three parts: empathizing with the intended audience; organizing the resulting research; and generating lots of ideas to solve the problem.

I’ve also been reading the Design Thinking for Educators toolkit, by Ideo, which breaks the theory down even further, using five distinct steps. Ideo’s ideas on organizing the research helped me make sense of the all the information I gathered on that class, the one that requires the most time and energy.

The first step for me was to break the information – gathered via student writing, interviews, and a class survey – into themes. I was able to identify a few strands: my students wanted to be taken seriously; they wanted to be challenged, within reason; they wanted a voice and for that voice to be heard; and they wanted a chance to really succeed- now and in the future.

The Ideo toolkit suggests one way of organizing the information is to find links between the themes. My students spent a lot of time in classes, they told me, where teachers asked little of them. They replied in kind. One link in the data was that they wanted to do the work, but often were not explicitly taught to do so. They were also not held accountable in the same way teachers held students in higher classes accountable.

Another link was the idea of talk. Students wanted a voice. They needed chances to ponder higher-level questions, not what author/teacher Kylene Beers calls the monologic questions most students face.

The next step was to consider what I learned during the research. I didn’t realize that most of my students felt the system was rigged against them. I guessed that their complicated home lives made focusing in school challenging. But most interesting was the underlying desire they all had of their school: they wanted more from it.

Ideo’s last step in this phase is to consider actionable insights. Even though the year is ticking by, I am still committed to finding a way to be better. The hardest part of teaching in the past few years for me has been taking the dozens of ideas, strategies, and dreams flying through my head and turning them into action.

It is the hardest part of being a reflective teacher. I can easily toss a new activity into the mix the day after I read about it. It’s the bigger ideas that pose a problem. On the weekends, I can jot ideas in my notebook, tweak lesson plans, and plan the week.

Once the week starts, all the ideas are swept to the back as I deal with what the day brings. Being intellectually supple and committed to a new plan is what I want to be. Instead, I have to teach, grade, and meet the demands of my real life.

For that class, I needed to consider these questions:

  • How might I get more talk involved in all parts of the class?
  • How might I give the students a stronger voice?
  • How might I refine my demands to focus on the big ideas?
  • And what were the big ideas?

Now comes the trickiest – and most creative part of design thinking: generating ideas and experimenting.

 

Design thinking Part 2: Empathy

What question I’m grappling with this week: What do my students truly need?

“It is essential for our empathy to be rooted in an accurate understanding of others’ perspectives.” Thomas Hoerr, The Formative Five

In my last blog, I wrote about the ideas of design thinking. Jessica Lahey, in a Atlantic article, broke it down into three parts: empathizing with the intended audience; organizing the resulting research; and generating lots of ideas to solve the problem.

I was thinking about that class I have – that we all have – that occupies most of my mental time and space, constantly challenging what I think I know and reminding me why I teach. I needed to design a detailed unit –  to teach The Great Gatsby – and was seeking a way to teach the skills and the students at the same time.

The first step to designing a better unit, classroom culture, or even a product is to empathize with your intended customer.  Thomas Hoerr writes in his new book The Formative Five that “true empathy begins with listening.” How can I truly serve my students if I don’t know where they are coming from?

I have many colleagues who would argue that truly understanding their students is not their job. A teacher’s job, a friend once told me, is to teach. I nodded my head. I agreed in theory, but not with the specific principle he was advocating – all content, all the time.

It took me many years to realize that the trick to being a better teacher is finding the balance of sound practice and pure love. They didn’t teach that in my prep classes. I had to slowly learn that all content, all the time may be all that is expected of me by my district. But my students expected more of me. I expected more of me.

Design thinking helps me find that delicate balance. I start the year with all content, all the time as I begin the slow and painstaking process of listening to my students. Who are they? What makes them tick? I would argue that this process – what Hoerr writes is to “not just hear but to understand what someone else is thinking and feeling” – is the true core of great teaching.

So, I listened. I asked lots of questions in the past month. I surveyed the students in a Google form. I asked them to diagnose themselves as students based on criteria they developed. I learned that many of these students have it rough. School is just a place where things are often calmer than at home.

They want to go to college, though realistically many will never earn a degree. They see the link between hard work and success, though they tend to let themselves off the hook when it comes to academics. They want to succeed, but our system – public school – has just not showed them truly how to look within for what they need.

What they told me, when I asked, was that school tends not to take them seriously, to not value them as people even though they are not on the advanced track. It is something I see all the time, something I am guilty of having done in the past.

Their stories reminded me of a sports team that trails consistently through the entire game, then gets hot, rallies and gets the score close again, but has spent everything getting to that point and has nothing left. Life is like that for many of these students. They spend the bulk of their energy just surviving. When it comes to winning any type of victory they have nothing left. Start again. Repeat.

While I can’t pretend to fully grasp each of their personal stories, I can understand where they are coming from. I see how the system is rigged against them.

Next step: Organize their desires and needs and factor in the content and skills. Stay tuned.

 

  

 

Design thinking: Another buzzword, or something actually usable?

What question I’m grappling with this week: How can I adjust that class I have that just needs something else?

“When treated as a classroom culture, however, rather than an action, design thinking (as well as mindset and grit) may revolutionize the way teachers and students think about failure, creative problem-solving, and teamwork.” Jessica Lahey, “How Design Thinking Became a Buzzword at School,” Jan. 4, 2017.

I am a collector of all things education. I perhaps read too many books, blogs, newsletters, etc. I make lists of class openers, closers, beautiful sentences, compelling graphics, provocative cartoons, unique writing assignments, and ways to propel classroom talk.

I try to plan every lesson using one of Jim Burke’s academic verbs. I have drafted my own “Everest” statement based on the ideas of Dave Stuart Jr. Perhaps I go outside too much to seek what I need in my classroom. But as I always tell my students, I don’t know what I don’t know.

The downside of collecting anything is that eventually you have too much, which makes choosing what you need right now a bit more laborious. My lists tend to remain in my binder until I remember to shake up how I’m ending class (I’ll try a four-square organizer to reflect on the ideas of brain plasticity we researched). I get busy and don’t always get the time to leaf through my collections. Thus, I rely on what I know best, and keep moving.

I’m not sure if this is bad or good. But I always have one class – that class – where I always seem to be at least two steps behind what they need. So when I prep that class, I tend to use the collections too much, and hope that some little trick or activity will right the ship. As I know, this is wishful thinking. It is also wasteful thinking that I continually repeat. The constant tweaking and re-thinking just leads me further away from what the students in that class need.

Which makes the concept of design thinking more intriguing. It’s not another activity to add to a list. As Jessica Lahey pointed out in a short and simple article in The Atlantic last month,  design thinking is a buzzword that often gets misapplied by schools, just like the ideas of grit and growth mindset.

These ideas are more philosophies, grounded in research, that should guide “culture,” as Lahey wrote, rather than a single lesson or activity. By talking to design thinking experts, she simplifies the process into three parts: empathizing with the students, organizing the research, and generating lots of ideas to solve the problem.

As you know from reading my previous posts, I’m big on the problem-solving concept to guide everything I do as a teacher. I am slowly and painfully try to convert every lesson to problem solving.  Couple that with my realization that I often try to do too much – or too little – in terms of seeking things from my collections, and design thinking intrigues me even more.

I already empathize greatly with that class. I love the kids. They are needy. They are not progressing as quickly as I hoped. We take big leaps forward, followed by bigger leaps backwards. I know what they need. I am just having an impossible time making it work.

That leads me to organizing all my thinking to make sense of it all. This is where my collections, experience, colleagues, and other professional resources apply. I have to go through everything I know, find what I need to help meet the needs of my students, and go from there.

Lastly, I need to generate ideas, and Lahey makes it clear that I need “lots of ideas,” that might solve the problem at hand. And, she notes, I need to be “comfortable with failure,” a concept I have slowly embraced during my 16 years in the classroom.

So, in future posts I will apply the ideas of design thinking to that class. I will share my experiences – successes and failures – during the process. I will use this space to think through each step.

Hopefully, I will be able to design a culture which better serves the needs of that class. I really don’t have anything to lose.

NEXT: What do my students truly need?

The “marvels and miseries” of the essay

What question I’m grappling with this week: How can I use writing to work through my obstacles?

“In an essay, it is not the thought that counts but the experience we get of the writer’s thought; not the self, but the self thinking.” Alfred Kazin, “The Essay as a Modern Form,” 1961

A colleague who humored me and read my first blog post smartly remarked that it went all over the place. It made observations, offered evidence, but didn’t end in a neat and tidy place (my wording – not his). He wasn’t trying to be mean. And he was right.

I didn’t start this blog to throw out advice, practices, or solutions. I started it more as a pedagogical backboard, something off which to toss my random ideas. I started this blog for the purely selfish reason of using writing to wrestle with issues I am dealing with in the classroom. I hoped sharing my doubt, second-guessing, mistakes, and digressions might help someone else caught in the never-ending spiral of the classroom.

I’ve always been fascinated with the essay as a form. Not the butchered and battered multi-paragraph analytical essay we all assign, but rather the endless, free-flowing essay as a space to truly make sense of stuff.  As Montaigne, considered the epicenter of the essay universe, wrote, “I speak my meaning in disjointed parts.”

In my last post, I wrestled with moving away from the narration sickness that so captivates the modern classroom. We all have the tendency to talk too much. My “disjointed parts” included exploring Paulo Freire. His ideas helped me get where I needed to go.

William Gass, writing about Emerson as an essayist, noted the “hero of the essay is its author in the act of thinking things out, feeling and finding a way.” I couldn’t agree more. We teach in uncertain times. And thinking is messy business. So we shouldn’t hide this from our students. We need to show them how to use writing to think, to find a way through a complex problem, to not stop at the first, second, or 30th roadblock. The struggle is the point.

In our classrooms we shouldn’t let students think for a second that any idea or observation is the endgame. I see too many satisfied looks when students complete assignments. Writing, like life, is never done, I tell them, just a work in progress. They frown.

A digression: It’s not my job to crush their universe of teenagers with red pen or comment bubble. It’s too easy to assert my power in the classroom by demolishing essays. And it’s just mean to revert to obscure grammar rules (active voice!) and made-up “focus areas” to reduce a work to a C or lower. There should be no satisfaction in this work. It’s empty. No one learns. The writing loses. Students build walls and grudges, which later serve as obstacles to deeper learning.

It is my job to call them on laziness, sloppiness, and carelessness. It is my job to show them to use evidence and research to strengthen their writing, not as their writing. It is my job to celebrate bold moves. It is my job to show them model sentences, paragraphs, essays – whatever we are working on getting better at today. And it is my job to push them past their walls and grudges.

So the challenge is in the challenge. I want my students to see writing as the means, not the end. The work is the thinking, not the writing.

Without frustrations, curiosities, joys, or irritations, there is nothing to write. Pen or keyboard are useless instruments without something to say. If we are required to bombard students with artificial prompts, we must counterbalance them with blank screens and pages sans prompt. The emptiness is the challenge. Sometimes I just say, “Go!”

Students need to see there is joy in writing, not just a grade. They need opportunities to write without any of us saying anything. Many teachers I know and respect write for fun, or to explain things to others, or to figure stuff out. Teacher blogs are everywhere. There is no red ink looming. No “awkward” or “poor word choice.” Only the critical voice of self, which is the most important voice we need students to hear.

As Gass beautifully observed, an essay should capture the “mind in the marvels and miseries of its makings.” We need students to hear this advice, to seek their own “marvels and miseries,” and to use their pens and notebooks to listen to their inner voices. Write it down. See where it goes. That should be the point of writing an essay.

 

 

 

 

Trying to find a cure for “narration sickness”

“Education is suffering from narration sickness.” Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970

What question I’m grappling with this week: How do I get beyond this “narration sickness,” the stand-and-deliver methodology that is ineffective and creates its own kind of sickness among students?

Paulo Freire’s idea that “invention and re-invention” are the only pathways to knowledge has value. I constantly tweak and re-prioritize ideas about texts, skills, and teaching of skills. Just like I tell my students: I don’t know what I don’t know. As I learn, I reinvent.

But it seems like an exercise in futility, a never-ending cycle of updating, revising, and creating. Freire writes we exist in a world where we are “constantly re-creating and transforming.” This transformation is knowledge. So this cycle of tweaking is my own learning. What I thought worked in the past, I now see can be strengthened.

My struggle is what my students need to see. Transparency is key. They need to know that nothing exists in permanence. As the clock ticks, things change.  If I rest on my ideas about my students, I can not be an effective teacher. I need to show them how this applies to everything.

The goal of all teaching, Freire argues, is to help students “critically consider reality.” How does recalling plot details of The Scarlet Letter help my students critically consider their reality? If I ask myself this question, then I must be honest in the answer: it doesn’t.

So what’s the answer? There isn’t one. But there are methods, ideas, and theories.

One method to move beyond “narration sickness” is to see teaching as more of a behind-the-scenes activity. The thinking about what I will do in class is the rehearsal. It takes place off stage. When the show starts, the students must engage, not be the vessels waiting to be filled.

This requires time management. I must discipline my use of time in school to limit the amount of work done outside of school. I know it is possible to be better and do less work. It is another problem I deal with. Key to this plan:

  • Breaking class into chunks
  • Providing multiple opportunities each class for students to engage with each other
  • Forcing students to create something each and every class
  • Offering time to read in each and every class

Having this template makes the behind-the-scenes work easier. Rather than planning a class from end-to-end each day, I instead must create one problem for the students. It is, Freire correctly argues, the only way to learn. And it should be messy, what he describes as the “restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world.”

The foundation of the problem-solving education is to help students see “the way they exist” in a world that is in fact “reality in process, in transformation.” The literature my students read, the typical American Literature fare, offers plenty of opportunities to consider the way we exist. It’s just a matter of knowing my students and knowing the literature.

So as I plan for another Monday, I just need to remember Freire’s words: “Humans exist in a world which they are constantly re-creating and transforming.”

My classroom is my world. The “re-creating” and “transforming” – while messy, complicated, and sometimes time-consuming – is what my students need to do. I just need to get out of their way.