The ABC of ELT

Deep Work For Teachers (And Some Teaching Ideas)

Recently I read Deep Work by Cal Newport [UK link], I was instantly attached to the ideas presented and wondered about how it could be applied to Teaching English as a foreign language. So here are some ideas on how to apply Deep Work to teaching English as a foreign language.

What is Deep Work?

Deep Work is an idea from Cal Newport that the most valuable tasks require an extended period (at least an hour and a half) of concentration on those specific task. This work (the most valuable tasks) usually brings in the greatest results and is becoming more difficult to do in our hyperactive, always connected world.

He contrasts Deep Work (for example writing a long report, or working out a solution to a problem) with shallow work, rapidly interrupted or changing tasks which require little attention or skill. Such as replying to emails, filling in a spreadsheet with data and so on.

You may well be able to see similarities with the “80/20” Principle (where 20% of the tasks bring about 80% of the results) in that those tasks which bring about the greatest results, are the ones which require more concentration and are worth investing time in.

Applying deep work to teaching

For us teachers I think there are a couple of key ideas we can take away from deep work to try and become better at our jobs and make a greater difference in our students lives. The first step I think is to identify the key areas of “deep work” which for us come in

  • planning individual resources
  • planning syllabus
  • researching/studying
  • creating high quality resources

Now here are some ideas for how we can apply Deep Work principles to our lives.

Plan in focused isolation

Teacher’s rooms are great for bouncing ideas of others and for getting inspiration from other teachers. But Deep Work suggests we shouldn’t spend our time planning here as it can prevent us from entering into a focused state.

That doesn’t mean you should abandon a teachers’ room all together but instead plan away from the teachers’ room and then share ideas afterwards. This takes inspiration from how Cal Newport describes the collaboration condition at MIT vs Facebook’s Open offices. MIT has closed offices but encourages staff from different faculties to bump into each other leading to sharing ideas and inspiration. Facebook has everyone together in a pit of noise and mess which can be reminiscent of some teachers’ rooms.

Avoid distractions in day to day life

Imagine teaching a dog that every time you ring a bell, you give him a sweat (yup this is Pavolv’s dog), now you start to give him sweets only when you ring the bell and he is at home and not at work (he’s a very smart dog). You’d really confuse him and probably distract him a tonne at work (he’s got a report to do. I hear he has a bone to pick with Sue over it…I’ll get my coat) every time he heard a bell.

This is exactly what we’re like. We tell ourselves that it’s okay to have a load of notifications on our smartphones because we can just ignore them when we’re at work. But that little dog in our head just wants to get its treat every time the phone pings. We need to avoid distractions everywhere to be able to avoid them in class. Speaking of which…

Be careful of distracting connected devices in your classroom

It’s easy to have a simplistic “ban all the smartphones/tablets” in class but these devices can be useful for teaching and practice. Especially when we teach students how they can use these devices better outside of class for learning English. However, notifications prevent focusing properly. What’s more, that feeling of “am I missing that notification” is a distraction as well and can prevent getting into a “flow” state. You can train yourself (and students) to use notifications well (basically turning most of them off) or activate “do not disturb mode” and similar features. This could even be the topic of a lesson.

Relax in healthy ways

One of the key ideas I’ve taken from Deep Work is to make sure I relax in healthy ways, going for more walks rather than watching programs, reading a book not playing on a computer screen. Exercise in particular seems to get the blood pumping and help us to draw connections between things, plus walking in nature helps our brains to rest properly which can help our sub conscious tackle certain tasks (it seems that eureka moments happen when our subconscious can take in a lot of information and process it in the background)

Demand higher

Demand more from you and your students. Encourage them to do their homework without distractions, and push them to really engage with the language you are providing them with. This really fits in with the ideas around deep work as deep work requires students to be challenged but not over challenged. In English Language teaching in the private sector we can often excuse not stretching students by saying we want them to “enjoy” learning, but in truth, being challenged makes learning more enjoyable and worthwhile.

Focus on Blogs over social media and books over blogs

While nice sound bites and the interactions on social media can be great, deep work suggests that diving deeper into an idea via a well written blog post or book is a better use of our time and will help us develop more. Sure there are books which should really be only a blog post (and blog posts that should only be a tweet) but that does not invalidate this statement for high quality resources.

What do you think?

I’m sure there are more ways that Deep Work could be applied to teaching English but I’d love to hear some of your ideas



About Chris Wilson

I'm an English Language teacher based in Krakow, Poland. I enjoy writing, using technology and playing the Ukulele.

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