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How the Idea of Deep Work Can Help Our Children

Either as parents or as educators, we should always be looking for new ways to help our children learn. Today’s topic—deep work—isn’t revolutionary, but it is important. It’s something that we all recognise as a vital part of healthy attitudes to work, even if we don’t focus on it. So let’s learn more about deep work: what it is, and how it helps children learn.


What Is Deep Work?

Deep work is an idea popularised by computer scientist and author Cal Newport. [1] No doubt you’ve read something earlier today, yesterday, or at least in the past week about children’s narrowing attention span. The problem of incredibly fast paced media and games is in children’s decreasing ability to devote themselves and their concentration to a particular task. That’s not to say that technology has no place in the classroom or in a child’s life—far from it—but when used unwisely, those are the effects.

Deep work is the antidote to all of that. To illustrate how, let’s start with an example. If you’re a parent, answer honestly: when your child does their homework, do they listen to music at the same time? Do they scroll through endless social media when work gets a little hard, vowing solemnly that it’s ‘just for a minute’? Or do they watch videos while they’re trying to write? This is what’s called shallow work. While the work is getting done (to an extent at least), they aren’t devoting their full conscious effort to it. Instead they’re choosing to fill 30, 40, 50% or more of their mental bandwidth with something easier. The exact same applies to us at work.

Deep work is the opposite. During deep work, you cut off any and all distractions so that your mind is devoted solely to the task at hand. Not only that, but you have to actively push yourself and your understanding to the limit, devoting all of your knowledge to the task at hand. That’s how you create something of real value, rather paint-by-numbers, easily-replicated fluff.


How Can Deep Work Help Children Learn?

So why is it so important to encourage children to focus harder on their work? Is there some kind of psychological mechanism behind it, or is it a simple equation: working harder equals achieving more?

It’s a little bit of both. The more time a learner spends actively working and cutting out distractions, the more they get used to the effort that’s needed to truly push yourself. Over time, that habit solidifies and becomes the new normal. Alongside that come increased confidence and self-worth from making real achievements. And, obviously, they’ll get more work done in the meantime.

Not only that, but deep work actually frees up time. Picture a learner that’s doing their homework, but listening to one of their favourite albums at the same time. Listening to the music—singing along to the lyrics, thinking about whether they skip the next song or not—stops them from being able to think about their work. The slower their thoughts, the slower their work, and the longer they take.


How to Truly Embrace ‘Deep Work’

Deep work takes work. In other words, it’s not just a philosophy that you pay lip service to. It’s something that you have to dedicate yourself to and learn over time, like any skill. Here are three ways to help a learner embrace deep work.

Cut out distractions.Cutting out anything that demands your attention while working is absolutely essential. It’s possible to read or to write while something more fun and engaging presents itself, of course; but by cutting them out completely, you allow yourself to actually put your mind into what you’re doing!

The problem is that this is a skill, not something innate. It’s difficult to recognise when you’re about to succumb to taking the easy way out. Not because you don’t understand what’s happening, but because psychologically we would all much rather do things that are easy than things that are hard.

So, in action: remove potential distractions while they’re trying to work. It might be difficult at first, but emphasise how it saves them time. They can choose between working hard for half an hour, or shallow working for an hour or more.

Ritualisation. It’s completely understandable if they’re not used to deep work at first. That’s where ritualisation comes in. Over time, as they get used to deep work, it becomes its own reward. Like any habit, the more you practice, the better you get. You can teach your child the value of doing things that are hard by rewarding hard work, whether successful or not.

Learning mastery. Modern education is no doubt better than learning by rote, which was far and away the most popular method of teaching all the way from the Middle Ages up to just a few decades ago. But that doesn’t mean that modern education is perfect—far from it. Unfortunately, there’s an emphasis on learning as much as possible in as little time as possible so as to prepare for testing… But whistle-stop tours of this subject and that are no replacement for mastery.

If you didn’t know, mastery is where you focus not just in the short term, but in the long term too. Rather than moving on to new content or new topics the moment you have a grasp of something, you stick with it, and make sure that you’ve completely mastered it before moving on. This is what makes the Singapore/Shanghai maths method so effective. [1] Mastery helps the person learning to recall whatever it is later on. Putting this into practice means coming up with novel ways to test your children’s knowledge, not just having them learn by rote. Solving sets of puzzles and self-led learning demonstrate mastery.

What’s great about deep working is that it’s not a fad or a phase. Hard work and dedication always have been and always will be the key to educational attainment—this is just a new way to understand that idea.

[1] Cal Newport. Wikipedia.


[2] Should all countries use the Shanghai maths method? BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-38568538