Book Review: Deep Work

508024134_140I recently read Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport.

It was a good read and made me look differently at what I want to do and how I go about it, but mostly, how I allocate my attention. I recommend it to anyone who feels that they don’t have enough time, which is high praise, because that’s most everyone I’ve ever met.

The main premise of the book is that it’s really important to carve out uninterrupted time in our days to focus on tough problems, ignore distractions, and do the hard work. He calls this “deep work,” and contrasts it to the shallow work of reacting to email, refocusing after interruptions, meetings, engaging on social media, and so on. He argues convincingly about why deep work is valuable, and writes extensively about how to go about it (e.g. scheduling, how to limit shallow tasks), as well as how to boost your concentration skills to make the most of your deep work time (e.g. meditation, memorization work).

I have to admit that it was a bit hard for me to get into it: as a stay-at-home-mom who can’t use the bathroom without getting interrupted, the multiple stories of single men retreating from the world for months at a time to incubate their genius in silence felt kind of like Newport was flipping me off. I’m glad I kept reading anyway, and I encourage you to do so as well. I think he’s just trying to be engaging by talking about so many extreme examples at first. In Part II of the book, he really delves into the how of deep work, and includes many suggestions and examples of people working deeply to great effect without abandoning their other responsibilities.

ESOL-Related Thoughts

Are we employing deep work strategies to perform our best as faculty? How could our departments support deep work of both full-timers and adjuncts? How can we as individuals harness it?

Are we fostering or impeding deep work in class? With our assignments? With our LMS expectations?

Is this a topic worthy of mention and coaching in our classes, like information literacy and plagiarism and critical thinking?

Excerpts from this book be a worthwhile text to use in an advanced class. The writing is pretty direct, has a strong voice, and makes really valuable points as well.

 

In case you’re interested but aren’t going to be reading the book any time soon, Newport has some talks up on YouTube, and he’s a great speaker.

 

You’re reading Book Review: Deep Work, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

 

 

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Update

Just checking in!

I’ll be teaching Level 2 in the mornings from next Wednesday through early June.  Yesterday we all received our paperwork, books, and materials for the semester.  Looking through my paperwork, I saw one student who was in Level 1 with me last semester in my Level 2 class!  I’m not sure who will be taking over my old class or how many of my former students will be returning to Level 1

In other news, I’ve applied  to be a non-degree-seeking student at one of the local universities to pursue a bit more coursework in ESL.  I should hear back any day now via snail mail.  My intention is to apply this semester to be a degree-seeking student starting in the Fall.

Volunteering in the Emergency Room continues.  I really like it.  I’m not sure I could do it much more than 3.5 hours per week though – it’s exhausting!

I just finished several great books, and one of them is very relevant to working with people new to America.  It’s called The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, written by Kao Kalia Yang.  The writing is stunning, musical in a good way.  There is no preaching about war and genocide and US foreign policy, nor is there any exoticism of a culture whose world view tends to differ greatly from the typical American world view.  Yang invites you to join her family in the jungles of Laos, the refugee camps of Thailand, and the low-income housing of St. Paul, and she tells you stories.  The book made me feel like an insider in a culture I hadn’t known much about, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I think that’s everything!  Can’t wait for teaching to begin next week!

ESL Student Blog

I just wanted to point you toward a great ESL student blog. It is written by adult students who attend free English classes similar to the ones at my center.

This is a recent post of intermediate student writing.

And this post shows the students’ garden! The pictures are beautiful. Inspired and looking for a great, easy-to-read novel?  Try Seedfolks!

“The Art of Teaching Adults” – Overall

The Art of Teaching Adults from Worldcat.org
The Art of Teaching Adults from Worldcat.org

I spent about a week going through “The Art of Teaching Adults” by Peter Renner.

I picked it up because it was available at my local library and because the title was pretty spot-on with what I was looking for.  I was expecting a nice overview of the field, and I pretty much got one.  Renner defines “the field” a little differently than I do – he doesn’t relate anything specifically to English Language Learners, or even to remedial education in general, but his discussion was still useful to me.

As Jen mentions in two comments, Renner seems to go back and forth between “educational miopia” and “practical and helpful ideas.”  (Jen, I’m not 100% sure I know what you mean by ‘educational myopia’, but I’m about to go off on my own interpretation.  Feel free to hit the comments to add your two cents as it was intended.) I see him as myopic in two ways – in that he doesn’t really seem to say anything new or see beyond his time, and in that he’s looking closely to dissect but not necessarily at the big picture.  These limitations worked pretty well for me – I needed some reflection of the time and some small bites of methods and techniques. And Renner does a great job of citing some big-picture people his work is derived from.

RI - Newport: The Breakers Gateway by wallyg on Flickr
RI - Newport: The Breakers Gateway by wallyg on Flickr

In fact, I’d say that one of the chief values of this book for me was that it was a gateway. Renner introduced me to other authors’ work, noted his discussion pretty thoroughly, and I’ve been able to identify and include works on my syllabus that I want to peruse.  I’m considering making note of his whole bibliography for future reference – we’ll see.

You should know that I’m going to have frustrations with pretty much any book I read.  I’m picky.  One of my chief frustrations with this book was when I felt his content to page-space ratio was page-space-heavy.  At times I also found myself wondering about his editor – why was Renner allowed to write fluff (i.e. his discussion of Kolb’s learning style inventory), include “classic concepts” where they made no sense (i.e. an overview of underlying assumptions of adult education at the end of a chapter focused on overhead projector how-tos), and focus on silly content (i.e. when to throw out markers) while glossing over key content (i.e. how to plan an effective lesson)?  Aren’t editors there to help authors avoid these kinds of things?

Despite some frustrating moments, this book was valuable to me for its introduction to the field, its bibliography, and its concrete ideas for running an adult class.

“The Art of Teaching Adults” – Chapters 25-27

The last three chapters of the book!

Overhead Projector by Tango McEffrie on Flickr
Overhead Projector by Tango McEffrie on Flickr

Notes

Projecting Overhead: What Renner says about using overheads is largely transferable to quality digital slides.  In six points he manages to say that simple is best and to focus on readability.  He then lists a bunch of Dos and Don’ts, which emphasize the value of controlling the learners’ attention by only revealing a bit of information at once, not leaving old slides on the screen, leaving lights on to allow for note-taking, and minimizing distractions such as waving your arms.  He also emphasizes the importance of setting up the room so that everyone can see and spends a page listing diagrams.

He includes a “classic concept” at the end of this chapter that to me seems entirely incongruous but important: Knowles’s assumptions of adult learners:

  • adults are motivated by what they feel they need to know;
  • adults are more life-centered than subject-centered;
  • adults have many experiences, and these should be analyzed in their education;
  • adults want to engage in self-directed learning.

Seems a little ironic after a chapter of “how to transmit knowledge to learners via a one-way presentation.”  Or maybe the juxtaposition was intentional?

Flipping Charts: Renner encourages posting flip-charts as records of what was discussed, but only inasmuch as they help the class focus.  He spends four paragraphs talking about different qualities of paper and how to tear it, even describing and recommending the “matador tear.”  This struck me as a little odd, or a little desperate to fill space.  He recommends multiple easels or a blank wall, and specifically mentions that it’s nice to have a separate place for brainstorms and side-lists that aren’t the main focus.

Tools by Adactio on Flickr
Tools by Adactio on Flickr

He suggests bringing a screwdriver and pliers with you to presentations to remove pictures and nails from walls so you can hang flipchart paper.  I cannot even imagine feeling comfortable un-decorating a meeting space that’s not my own.

He diagrams how to set up a row of flip-chart paper along the wall with already-torn tape in a neat line above it for writing and posting ease.  He also diagrams how to tape the caps of four markers together, resulting in a “handy four-color dispenser,” which I thought was kinda clever.  Then he crosses the line into micromanaging by telling you when to cap and put down your pens, and goes so far as to recommend throwing out dry markers immediately.  I mean, sheesh.

His suggestion to use colors in such a way that learners can see them and to help organize text is also a bit obvious.  He encourages abbreviation and posting an abbreviation key, which I agree with but there’s no mention of potential difficulties for English Language Learners.  Encouraging presenters to remember to face the learners and to observe the sheets from a learner’s point of view were helpful pointers.

All in all, perhaps needlessly detailed.

Showing Films: Renner warns that old videos are more humorous than helpful, that they’re passive unidirectional tools, and that they have to have a purpose that relates to the topic.  He spends a page and a half emphasizing planning ahead and previewing material.  Then he reminds us to prepare the learners – give the film some context and tell the learners where you’ll be going with it, and then go somewhere with it both short-term and long-term.

He lists eight ways to go somewhere with films, including Q&A sessions, pitting the film against an article with a different viewpoint and comparing them, and creating “viewing teams” that address questions, clarity, disagreements, agreements, and application.  I can actually use those ideas.  Way to end strong, Renner!

My Overall Impressions

In writing notes on that second chapter, I kind of couldn’t believe he was still going.  I’m still astounded that he spent the same amount of space discussing paper and markers how-to than he did when discussing how to properly prepare for, screen, and follow up with an educational film.

I was also surprised that there was no wrap-up to the book.  It’s not one that’s necessarily intended to be read cover to cover, and each chapter was separate, but in a work that emphasizes discussion and debriefing, it was an abrupt ending.

More about the book overall in the next post.

“The Art of Teaching Adults” – Chapters 21-24

Octopus Journal by Mollycakes on Flickr
Octopus Journal by Mollycakes on Flickr

Notes and Commentary Together

Writing in Journals: It takes Renner six pages to convey about a half-page worth of information.  He suggests providing some class time for writing and sharing, providing some guiding questions, and periodically reading the journals as a teacher.  He provided case studies to give examples of how journals can be used.  A list would have sufficed.  Six pages.

Assessing the Course: These six pages were more justifiable, as the examples of different types of evaluation (i.e. first-day, mid-course, self-evaluation, daily, post-activity) actually deepened his initial explanation.  All examples were noticeably qualitative.  Some of the example questions felt obnoxiously leading (i.e. “How did you build group spirit?” and “What could you do to increase productivity?”), but just seeing all the different pieces of a course that can be evaluated was helpful.

Giving and Receiving Feedback: Renner’s most helpful suggested guidelines for giving feedback are to focus on observable behavior, to give feedback as soon as possible after the event, and to not give too much at once.  His guidelines for receiving it are to actually listen, to not worry about responding right then and there, to be sure you understand, and to stop the giver of feedback when they’re giving too much of it.  Seems pretty clear and reasonable.

Whats More Stupid: the Question or the Answer? by Ewan McIntosh on Flickr
What's More Stupid: the Question or the Answer? by Ewan McIntosh on Flickr

Designing Tests and Quizzes: Renner busts out two adult learning principles that I’m not remembering from earlier chapters:

  1. when learners know what they’re going to learn, they’ll learn better
  2. immediate and long-term reinforcement also helps

He relates this specifically to tests, but they seem like basic principles that could have been unifying themes in the book.

His test-writing tips can basically be summed up as: “Don’t be an idiot.”  I do appreciate his mentioning that true-false questions are set up to penalize students who can come up with exceptions to even seemingly-obvious statements.  True-false is pretty much the bane of my test-taking existence.  I also appreciate his little margin quotes of bizarre test questions.  I guess I’ll close with my favorite:

Write not more than two lines on The Career of Napoleon Buonaparte, or The Acquisition of our Indian Empire, or The Prime Ministers of England.

N.B. Do not on any account attempt to write on both sides of the paper at once.

“The Art of Teaching Adults” – Chapters 16-20

Notes

These chapters are around the same length as the last five – quite short and focused on recommended activities.  I’m a little surprised he didn’t group them together into a unit or somesuch to differentiate them from chapters more focused on theory or general practice, but I can hardly complain about organization.

Inspiring Participation – Renner highlights two activities: Speedy Memo and Spend-a-Penny.  Both activities give everyone a venue to communicate, and both are extremely low-prep.  I’ll summarize basically:

  • Balancing Coins in Coroico by JayTKendall on Flickr
    Balancing Coins in Coroico by JayTKendall on Flickr

    Speedy Memo

    • Ask a question, particularly to get anonymous but quick feedback or opinions
    • Request very short responses – one or two words
    • Learners write their response on a small piece of paper and pass it to the front
    • Answers are mixed up and read out loud
  • Spend-a-Penny
    • Each learner gets three coins (or tokens, or whatevers) to “spend”
    • “Spending” is answering questions or commenting in class.
    • When a learner spends a coin, they put it in front of them.
    • When all three are in front of them, their turns for the session are over.
    • The goal is for all learners to spend their coins during the activity/class session.

Studying Cases – Renner encourages teachers to write case studies for students to work with.  These stories can help learners focus on lower-level content such as “what happened?” and higher-level problem solving.  He advises that you write like it’s a story, using real names and at least some dialogue.  He also advises against flashbacks – just tell the story chronologically.

Inviting Experts – Renner points out that this can benefit classes and presenters with limited experience.  He gets into the nitty-gritty of finding and booking the expert.  It’s obvious, but prepare the students for the speaker.  He also proposes student debates in lieu of an outside expert.

Learning Outside the Classroom – Yes, fieldtrips are good.  A really great point is that adults don’t need chaperones – you can send them out into the world to do, for example, four hours of “work” in a related field.  Such a thing wouldn’t be possible with a whole classroom’s worth of students all at once.  They still need support, including clear instructions, an explanitory letter, and some suggested contacts, and class time should be taken to let learners share experiences.

Individualizing Assignments – This follows logically from the last chapter’s discussion of individual field trips.  It talks about setting up independent projects, the purpose being to develop self-education skills.  He says: define topics, provide guidance, set completion date and consequences for lateness, figure out what the end product will be and how to collect it, and make sure they learned accurate information on their own.

Renner ties this to Lewin’s experiential learning model, which is:

  1. have an experience
  2. note the results
  3. build a general theory around this – “if I do this, this will happen.”

I’m confused as to why this was at the end of this chapter instead of the previous one.

My Overall Impressions

Though I enjoy the short and meaty chapters, I felt that a two-pager on how to run a competent independent project was kind of sloppy.  These could go horribly awry – I need more guidance.  I have a lot of “how” questions, I think tied to the question “in what context?”  In a classroom of even 15 students, I need some more details on how exactly to manage 15 disparate projects effectively.  Some common pitfalls to avoid would have been nice too.

Elements of Style (Illustrated) from Amazon.com
Elements of Style (Illustrated) from Amazon.com

I definitely appreciated the activities that give all students room to participate.  One of my students is specifically in my class to improve his conversation, and he rarely speaks.  I asked him about this after class one day, and he said he doesn’t speak up because he’s giving the other students a chance to speak – he doesn’t want to be rude.  Well, I found I couldn’t argue with that.  These activities foster communication differently than “shout-it-out” answer time and than the ever-tiresome round-robin.

I also love that Renner encourages teachers to write case studies.  Published readers are handy, but often pretty sterile reading.  Why use something canned and not quite right if you can do it better yourself?  His tips for writing quality pieces were well-taken.  I would add that we should all read and take to heart The Elements of Style.