Deep Work and Educational Practice


In a recent book on professional productivity, Cal Newport examines the effect of electronic communications technology on our cognitive abilities. The focus of his book is on the kind of technologies that may be grouped under the term ‘network tools’. Network tools, writes Cal Newport, “is a broad category that captures communication services like e-mail and SMS, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, and the shiny tangle of infotainment sites like BuzzFeed and Reddit” (Newport 2016: 6). One could also easily include in the list the general dependence on WhatsApp and ‘Googling’. Newport’s argument is that the modern trend toward the increasing use of network tools impoverishes our cognitive abilities by punctuating our work flow with a series of shallow, administrative tasks. The prevalence of network tools creates the conditions that require employees to be “constantly sending and receiving email messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction” (op. cit.: 7). The disruptive effect of network tools has had a negative impact on our ability to sustain prolonged concentration (op. cit.: 11). Its effect on concentration and work flow is such that cognition becomes fractured into a sequence of disparate, brief and segmented bursts of concentration, which are co-terminus with the completion of the intended task. Newport continues to raise more interesting concepts as his article develops. To describe the impact of network tools on employees, he coins the concepts ‘shallow work’ and ‘deep work’. Shallow work is characterised by routine logistically-styled, business-orientated tasks that do not require much creative thinking (op. cit.: 9). Shallow work has the feature of being easily reproducible, and therefore easily counted as empirical evidence of productivity. Deep work refers to cognitive activities that draw deeper upon our creative capacities and require extended periods of sustained concentration (op. cit.: 5). Deep work is not easy to reproduce and does not lend itself as easily as shallow work to empirical measurement for evaluating productivity. Deep work is focused on quality, not quantity. His argument is that the ability for people to engage in deep work is diminishing precisely at a moment in history when the need for it is increasing (op. cit.: 20). 

This global phenomenon, wherever the intrusion of network tools may be found, including in South African working environments, has also invaded the work environment of educators.

The first point that I wish to emphasise in this article is that the ubiquity of network tools in our daily work experiences is stifling our ability to enter into the mindset required for deep work. It does so by forcing onto us frequent encounters with shallow work tasks. Newport’s argument is centred on the effect of network tools on knowledge workers, that is, those whose jobs entail the engagement with knowledge as a central activity. Educators are, no doubt, a kind a knowledge worker. To read more on this issue, I would encourage the reader to find Newport’s book; it is well worth the read. I think that Newport has hit the nail on the head, but has also tapped into a deeper issue. It is this second issue to which we now turn for the rest of the article.

My second contention in this article is that there is a growing attitude in educational management practices which is actually fostering shallow work practices among educators. The emergence and proliferation of shallow work tasks is a symptom of a broader issue, which has its source in the ideas constituting management practices in corporate environments. Surely it is not so much the “network tools”, as such, that are the problem, but rather the policies and management imperatives that suffocate the life out of creativity through a forced engagement with shallow work tasks?

Feel the Squeeze

Corporate management principles and practices are effectively squeezing out the time and space required for deep work. It is a consequence of the infusion of shallow work tasks into the institutional demands that employees are expected to meet, with the ostensible reason of ‘increasing productivity’ or generating ‘evidence’ for quality control. This state of affairs is the result of the entrenchment of a specific approach to management, which has its roots in the confluence of the second industrial revolution and the second wave of colonialism just over a century ago (c.1870 – 1918). Out of this industrialising and extractive zeitgeist, there emerged the management practices and concepts generally credited to Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor. It is from their ideas on how best to manage the staff and production lines in factories that we have our current notions of ‘mass production’, ‘standardisation’, consolidating ‘best practice’ and ‘efficiency’, ‘empiricism’ in management practice through documentation, amongst others. These ideas were developed to manage the production of inanimate objects (motor vehicles in the case of Henry Ford). It has been assumed that the principles and practices used by Ford, and more often Taylor, can be imported into the management of any business project; this way of thinking becomes a problem when educational institutions fall under such a business management mindset. 

It is easy for the management body to fall into the trap of thinking that busy-ness is the same as productivity. This is a misguided belief. Simply filling up an employees time with emails, recording, reporting, filing, etc., is actually counter-productive because it squeezes out the time and space required for deep work. The current management belief seems to be that structuring employment around a set of shallow work tasks maximises productivity and is in line with the best practices of corporate human resource management. Apparently, keeping people busy with a sequence of menial tasks is a mark of good management. Really?….come on, we deserve better than that!

The threat of shallow work to quality education

Newport’s argument is particularly relevant to the field of education, particularly in the TVET sector and increasingly at schools and universities as well, which, themselves, have been captured by a corporate management mentality. Educators are being denied the time and space to exist as academics engaged in deep work.  Their daily activities are increasingly being comprised of a slew of shallow work tasks for the purposes of recording, reporting, monitoring and evaluation. These are administrative activities, growing in excess, that are required to satisfy bureaucratic demands. They add meagre value to the quality of teaching and learning in classrooms. In these kinds of demands we witness the capture of the educational field by corporate interests. Institutions of education are being managed in such a way that they are taking on the character of a corporate business environment. Knowledge workers in the field of education share the same fate, as described above, in the corporate sector as the conformity to business management principles become entrenched as the paradigm for the management of educational institutions.

The clear and necessary distinction between an educational ethos and a business ethos has been erased by the adoption of business models for the management of educational institutions. The net result is that business management principles and targets become identified as equal to, or more important than, the principles and practices that are necessary to ensure quality education. And let it be emphasised that it is education, and not training, that is being referred to here; for there is a significant difference between those two modes of knowledge transmission-acquisition: mere training is not education.

How have we arrived at this degraded state of affairs? The problem is that South Africa takes its cue from countries that either have no insight into, or no concern for, her unique issues. In the case of education, Western capitalist democracies and the interests of ‘big business’ have been allowed to influence our policy trajectories. This is a concern because the policies have created problems, even  for education in the West. In an interview published on 10th June 2018 in the online publication, Truthout, internationally respected scholar on education, Henry Giroux, notes: “Increasingly, neo-liberal regimes across Europe and North America have waged a major assault on higher education and those faculty and students who view it as crucial to producing the modes of learning and formative cultures necessary in the struggle for a strong and healthy democracy”. 

South Africa, as part of the ‘global village’ since 1994, and under the aegis of such powerful formations as, inter alia, the World Bank, IMF and the Bretton Woods league, has had to adjust its macro-economic and educational policies to fall in line with the imperative to create an ‘investor friendly environment’. Consequently, and conveniently for the corporate sector, the discourses of free-market capitalism, and ‘education for the workplace’ have been offered up as the solution for the country’s high unemployment rate and the social-economic inequalities bequeathed unto us by the apartheid regime (pre-1994). Under the influence of a neoliberal orientation to corporate governance, educational management has been, to a significant extent, coerced into adopting a business management perspective for the management of institutions of education. The TVET sector is a prime example of where this has happened. 

Over the past 2 decades under the pressure of the DHET’s policies and funding models, TVET managers have diligently complied with government expectations and set about transforming educational institutions into ‘training factories’ producing nothing more than skilled labourers with qualifications, instead of well-rounded educated people, capable of critical democratic enactment as South African citizens. A serious consequence of this shift in the values of educational management is that the spaces for ‘deep work’ have been closed off or diminished in the curriculum. Educational quality has, thereby, effectively been lowered in order to make the TVET institutional outputs ‘fit’ policies created by the government and influenced by neoliberal economic values, concerns and interests.

Clues and Cues within TVET Institutions

An observable effect of the shift from an education-centred to a business-centred management ‘philosophy’ is in the language used in the institutions: leaders of educational institutions are called “Principal and CEO” or just plainly “CEO”, students are called “clients”, colleges have a ‘business strategy’ and seek to conform to ‘ISO9001’ standards, which were designed to ensure quality in corporate environments. In addition to these linguistic indexes to ideological preference, the government wants a ‘return on investment’ from the funding it makes available for education, instead of regarding education simply as what it actually should be: a public good, intrinsically valuable for its social benefits (not primarily economic benefits). On this point Giroux makes the following salient point: “Gone are the days when university presidents were hired for intellectual status and public roles. College presidents are now labelled as Chief Executive Officers, and are employed primarily for their fundraising abilities” (2011: 117)

As Giroux (2012) insightfully remarks, “[i]n this discourse, free-market reform refuses to imagine public education as the provision of the public good and social right and reduces education to meet the immediate needs of the economy” and “[i]n the name of austerity, schools are defunded so as to fail and provide an excuse to be turned over to the privatising advocates of free-market fundamentalism”. This is the case in North America, and if we in South Africa follow blindly and continue the trend towards the commodification and corporatization of education and other public goods, we will end up in the same predicament as well, which can only serve to exacerbate the existing, severe, socio-economic inequalities.

Already in South Africa, those with sufficient financial means already prefer private schooling for their children. While in public colleges in the TVET sector, for example, curricula and physical resources are increasingly being sponsored and even owned by industries in the private sector. The effect of these privatising policies and management practices on the teaching profession, in general, are absolutely destructive and has contributed to the failure of education in South Africa to make any significant contribution to addressing the legacy of apartheid and its spawn: widespread and deeply embedded socio-economic inequality. The policies and practices promoted by the imperatives of global capital and the South African departments of Higher and Basic Education transforms educators into:

“objects of educational reforms that reduce them to the status of high-level technicians carrying out dictates and objectives decided by experts far removed from the everyday realities of classroom life. Or they are reduced to the status of commercial salespersons selling knowledge, skills and values that have less to do with education than with training students for low-wage jobs in a global marketplace. … Not only do students not count in this mode of schooling, teachers are also stripped of their dignity and capacities when it comes to critically examining the nature and process of educational reform” (Giroux: 2012, emphasis added).

Renowned scholar and social critic, Noam Chomsky, has also commented in similar ways on the state of Western educational management practices. We see the impact of the adoption of business models for managing education in the emphasis placed on shallow work tasks concerned with “administration, control [and] testing”. The result is “massive inefficiency” and the reduction of educators to mere technical administrators of government and/or institutional policies (Chomsky: 2018).

Educators working under such a regime experience the resulting work environment, the ‘corporate culture’, as frustrating and artificially pressurised.

It is frustrating because the values of educational practice are antagonistic to the values of business practice; and yet it is the latter which is allowed to dominate educational institutions. It has become part of the mechanism by which the space for deep educational work has been squeezed out of existence. This is what engenders the feeling of frustration in educators with respect to the exercise of their core purpose, which is to educate and to be accorded the professional respect for doing so.

A sense of artificially generated pressure is also a consequence of the impingement of the corporate mind-set’s love affair with bureaucracy in the form of ‘reports’, ‘stats’,  ‘paper trails’, etc. Not that these things are unimportant: but that they should know their place in an educational institution; they ought not be allowed to dominate the space and time of an educator’s work because they are, in essence, extraneous, or at the very most of auxiliary value, to the goals of education. The presence of so many odious administrative tasks is a symptom of the corporate sector mindset which has infiltrated and come to dominate our educational institutions; and educators feel its presence as a foreign body which needs to be ejected; it is a pathogen to the professional body, resulting in a proliferation of work-space maladies.

As a lecturer at a TVET College, I can testify to the feeling of being pressurised into conducting my daily work in this manner. And, through observation and dialogue, I have noted similar concerns being expressed by colleagues in the TVET and Basic Education sectors. Take some time for a moment’s reflection and observe that the field of education, in general, is being pressurised to move into a mode of ‘shallow work’ as the education sector increasingly comes under the influence of business management principles in a desperate attempt to satisfy policy and budget requirements served up to satisfy the desire of the master named free-market capitalism.

We might even plausibly cast an aspersion on the departments of education for failing in their duties to nurture and defend the interests of Education, for they  seem to have become sub-departments or ‘strategic arms’ of the Department of Trade and Industry, and thereby lost their way. They seem more interested in the economic value of education than in its human and social development value. As workers in an educational environment, if we want quality in the production and satisfaction of business objectives, then, by all means use a business management model; but our mission as educators is education, not business for profit; and I would expect the DBE and the DHET to be in unison with us on this mission. No one can serve two masters: at critical moments there has to be a choice about which one is to be served. It is a fallacy to believe that the values and interests of education can exist harmoniously alongside the interests and values of the corporate sector. The realities of working in the education sector will present situations in which choices must be made along a bifurcation between educational values and corporate/business values. It is in such critical moments that we may observe who really cares about quality education. As educators, we serve Education, not Business or the Corporate Sector. 

The Deep Work of Education

The similarity between the description of teachers as mere highly skilled technicians (Giroux: 2012), administrators (Chomsky: 2018) and Newport’s notion of ‘shallow work’ is not purely co-incidental. Chomsky, Giroux and Newport are viewing the impact of the same beast – neoliberal capitalism – from different, specialised points of view. South African educators are caught up in the global current of the corporatization and commodification of education. The inevitable fallout entailed in this current global attitude toward educational management, is the degradation of the quality of education through the displacement of deep educational work regimes by the shallow work regimes characteristic of modern corporate business environments.

We need to produce high quality educational outcomes, and we therefore need educational management principles within an educational management model, in which the term ‘management’ is de-linked from corporate sector values and business concepts of management and re-infused with the ethos of sound, holistic  educational thought, values and ideals. Educators must be allowed the time and space to engage in the deep work of education instead of being distracted by the shallow work of bureaucratic tasks. And curricula must be designed, and materially supported, so as to allow teachers adequate time to support students and for students to have the time and space required to deeply engage with subject matter through thought, word and practice.

But how, you might be thinking, is it possible to find our way towards deep educational practice amidst the myriad demands of our current educational environment? A proposition of ways in which a movement towards deep educational work may be effected would require the writing of another article.  And, with the editor’s permission, this is something that I would like to do. The reader could also start upon his or her own journey towards deep work by reading Newport’s book.

In closing then, I would like to leave the reader with two thoughts. Firstly, “if you study the lives of […] influential figures from both distant and recent history, you’ll find that a commitment to deep work is a common theme” (Newport: 6). And secondly, my views are, obviously, not to be taken as incontestable, because, from ten different curriculum theorists you will get ten different views on what constitutes quality education. But we have to start somewhere. We need to change our heading in educational field; because the current trajectory is destructive to both the  professional status of educators and the health of democracy in South Africa.


  1. Chomsky, N. (2018). Lecture at St. Olaf College, 4th May 2018 (1h26’17’’) Accessed: 28 May 2018 at (See from 1h18’55’’ to get the broader context of the comment).
  2. Giroux, H. (2018). Interview with Mark Karlin, The Nightmare of Neoliberal Fascism, 17 June 2018. Accessed: 10 January 2019 at 
  3. Giroux, H. (2012). The War Against Teachers as Public Intellectuals in Dark Times. Accessed: 10 January 2019 at
  4. Giroux, H. (2011). On Critical Pedagogy. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group.
  5. Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work. Rules for Focused Success In A Distracted World. New York: Grand Central Publishing.


  1. Giordana, L. (1992). Beyond Taylorism. Hampshire: Macmillan.
  2. Pruijt, H. D. (1997). Job Design and Technology: Taylorism vs. Anti-Taylorism. London: Routledge.

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