An Inquiry into the Nature of Work

Like all educators, I have been adapting to the new world in which we are facilitating learning, and today, I just wanted to share some broad observations I’ve made about my students, and about my own successes and failures in creating conditions for optimal productive work through this pandemic. 

To begin, I’ve given several projects over the last few weeks (you can find a few free examples of them here), scaffolding the projects with daily practice problems that contain techniques related to those you might want to use during the projects. Furthermore, every practice problem was uploaded with a detailed review video. This might be obvious, but this is much less work than we would have been doing if we were in school. Normally, when students have a project going on, 95% of it is done outside of class time. I give very little to no homework when projects are assigned to make up for that fact, but in the 5, 75-minute classes every week, we do a LOT more than 3-4 practice problems a day. 

Well, this last round of projects – across the board from 9th grade to 12th grade – were better overall than any projects I’ve ever received from students. Dang. This is a trend worth speculating over. So I asked a few friends of mine what they were seeing; my colleagues at my school also said the work being turned in seemed to have had more attention paid to it than is typical, and an art professor I know at a local college of art and design said her student’s projects blew her away. So it’s not just my students. 

Now, I am going to begin upon some wild speculation here, but here are a few guesses that I have as to the way work happens in our modern American society: 

Even before this pandemic, I was thinking a lot about the nature of work in my school. It seemed to me that there were distinct ‘patterns of work’ that emerged from different activities, and that my big concern was that our environments generally do not allow for ‘deep work.’ By deep work, I mean the type of tasks that simply cannot be completed with distractions present. Trying to score a 1600 on the SAT could be an example of time-pressured deep work, and writing an essay that draws upon complex threads from multiple sources to create a cogent argument is an example of deep work that could take many more hours and multiple sittings. These are the sorts of tasks that you couldn’t hold a conversation while completing. The types of tasks that, when starting, can cause ‘writer’s block,’ but that when in the process and rolling, feel fantastic and make the time fly by as if we were stuck in a beautiful, productive bubble with an IV of good ideas dripping in. If we were using the analogy of ‘the brain as a computer,’ we would say these are the tasks that, to be done right, require all of the available RAM. 

All this to say that deep work is, generally, hard to come by at my school. I laugh and joke with students about it all the time – for example, there are times when a student will be using our noise blocking headphones (not music-enabled) to block out distractions and another student will come up and tap them on the shoulder to get their attention! (I find it funny because the point of the headphones is, clearly and certainly, to stop people from doing just that) This is admittedly partly because we have a collaborative environment that encourages students to figure out how to work together productively. However, I also constantly urge students to be very aware of what type of work they are completing, and to avoid partaking in those distractions. I begin every ‘groupthink’ that students complete with an ‘individual think’ of four to six minutes, and most of my students would probably, if asked about the individual think rules, roll their eyes and mock my voice: “Remember that talking during an individual think is an automatic No Evidence grade for your Character Point Average [25% of the total grade] – this is because in order to learn you have to make sure you at least try the problem yourself first before talking it over with peers to come up with collaborative solutions…” 

This is part of the reason that I tend to assign very little homework while projects are happening, and why I tend to have projects be mostly an at-home, individual type of assignment – I want projects to be about deep work*!  

So why, then, were the projects so much better? They are usually done at home! BUT, they are usually done at home after a full day of exhausting their willpower by having to do other things that are not deep work. 

And so this observation brings me back to society rather than just my classroom. Until beginning this new life of teaching remotely, I had never really slowed down and thought about what those other things that students were doing all day were… but over the past several weeks, I have noticed trends in my own work habits. At first, I was just knocking out project after project that I had wanted to do for a long time! But after one, two, three weeks, I started slowing down. It wasn’t that I wasn’t still trying to get good work done, it was just that I had a ton of different things to do, and it was like I was wasting time deciding which was most efficient and should consume my energy now. And this was what I realized: the in-school environment promotes the ability to get a lot of small tasks done efficiently, but it’s really bad at promoting deep work. The home environment is the opposite. 

I suspect that something similar happens in the big, wide work world. My wife’s experience as someone who works from home almost full-time, with the exception of traveling to her company’s headquarters once a quarter, seems to confirm this hypothesis. Every time she comes home from headquarters, she comments “I don’t know how anyone in the office gets anything done! They are just always bothering each other with dumb, unscheduled questions or going to pointless meetings… when do they just sit down and get 3 hours of uninterrupted spreadsheet analysis in?!?” Ummm… I respond… I don’t think they do. That’s why they have you. 

I’m interested to see how this pandemic and its resulting effects on school and white-collar business will interact with the nature of work in our society moving forward. In my perfect world, the average work/school-week would begin to shift to include one or two days of working-from-home as a new societal standard, and we would tacitly understand the difference between the types of work each environment supported. Now, that’s not to say that will happen – I’m not sure our society is ready for it. But it will be interesting! 

Next week, I’m going to dive into a bit more depth about my specific struggles with completing both deep and shallow work in this new world, and the experiments in major routine mix-ups that have been helpful in me overcoming those struggles. Until then, keep thinking of ways to return to the heart of education, even in this cold digital world. 


*Without going into too much depth about something I talk about a lot, I believe an incredibly important part of mathematics is being able to describe the process and logic to another person. It improves our own mathematics understanding, improves our writing, and improves our general conception of what’s needed for effective person-to-person communication. See Intro to Mathematical Literacy.

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