What Schools Can Do to Foster Deep Work
Parents desperately want to prepare their children for the future. I’m sure it’s been a worry ever since students were sent to sit at Socrates’ feet, but in our world of breathtakingly fast change and anxiety-provoking uncertainty, it’s come to a head right now.
Some parents cling to what they believed worked in the immediate past. They say, “If I can get her into the right preschool, that will help get her into the right elementary school, which is a feeder school to the prestigious high school ,that will ensure an Ivy League college and a financially stable life and we’ve won the game.” They love their children, and they are willing to do what they believe it takes to make a faded dream, fading faster every day come true.
Others look around and see the changing world and the feel the global competition for technology skills even more strongly. “Are you teaching coding in the third grade? Do you have 3-D printers? Can she use them NOW? Are you teaching the history of the start-ups and the basics of an entrepreneurial state of mind?” At the same time others are saying, with lots of good reasons, that computers will program computers in the future and soon we won’t need all those budding coders that are cramming into coding camps.
But the truth is, technology will continue to take over jobs that that humans, even very well-educated human, do now. (Most of the important research skills I learned in law school are laughable now. A computer can do what cost me long law library days with one click.)
Despite all the angst, I’ve come to believe that there is no true way we can give an accurate estimate of the skills and competencies that students will need 15 years from now. But there’s one thing we can be reasonably sure of: it will require the ability to do deep work, the kind of work that requires humanity to create and will never be replaced by computers.
Deep work, according to Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, occurs when we focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task, enabling us to move beyond “shallow work” to the meaningful work that can only be created by human beings. A recent issue of Education Week, Jason Furman, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, says there will be jobs in the future, no one knows what those jobs will be, and without knowing what those jobs will be, we still know that education and more of it is the way of getting them. Therefore, schooling should focus more on the skills that complement artificial intelligence rather than those that are substitutes for it. In other words: deep work.
How can schools create an environment where students can learn to do deep work? Well, right off the bat, a day divided completely into 45 minute periods, with students rushing between math to art to lit, definitely doesn’t provide the time to allow extended focus without distraction. Students who spend their time with worksheets and multiple choice standardized tests will never learn to move beyond the shallowest level. Students who are never asked challenging questions and provided with a mentor to help them struggle through it won’t have a chance to develop the mental muscles necessary to do deep work. Students who never are provided with time to just think, and with the environment for a reading and writing life of their own, are at a great disadvantage here.
So, maybe, a complete restructuring of the school day and curriculum? Just a thought.