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 he groups 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 current trend towards 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 constant use of network tools has had a negative impact on our ability to sustain prolonged concentration (op. cit.: 11). Its effect on cognition and workflow is such that cognition becomes fractured into a sequence of disparate, brief and segmented bursts of concentration, which we could refer to cognitive moments, which are co-terminus with the completion of the task.
Newport continues to raise more interesting concepts as his article develops to describe, with more conceptual accuracy, the impact of network tools on employees in terms of 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. It is, for this reason, also countable. And its countability makes it appealing as a means by which to generate measurements for empirical evidence of productivity where the focus is on short-term, measurable outcomes.
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 measurements of productivity. In deep work short-term measurable outcomes are subordinates to the quality of the process of the work itself. Deep work is focused on quality, not quantity. Newport’s thesis 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 is a global phenomenon, encountered wherever the intrusion of network tools may be found, including in South African work environments, and increasingly in the work environments of educators.
The first point that I wish to emphasise in this article is that the ubiquity of network tools in our daily experiences is stifling our ability to enter into the mental state required for deep work. We find ourselves, instead, frequently encountering the demands of shallow work tasks. Newport’s argument is centred on the effect of network tools on knowledge workers. That is, those whose job descriptions are primarily about engagements with knowledge (as opposed to physical objects in a production plant or factory, for example). Educators, no doubt, are a kind of knowledge worker. I think that Cal Newport has hit the nail on the head, but, in doing so, has also tapped into a deeper issue. It is to this second issue, and my second contention, that we now turn for the rest of this article.
My second contention is that there is a growing attitude among managers of education and, consequently within educational management practices, that 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. Sure 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. This is a consequence of the infusion of shallow work tasks into the institutional demands that employees are expected to meet. A move that is justified with the ostensible reason of ‘increasing productivity’ or generating ‘evidence’ for ‘quality control’. This is a ruse. It is more likely the consequence of the entrenchment of a specific approach to management, which is more concerned about social control than about quality of work or quality of outcomes. Its roots are in the confluence of the second industrial revolution and the second wave of western colonialism just over a century ago (roughly 1870 – 1918). The ‘scramble for Africa’ was part of this period. Out of this industrialising and extractivist 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 labour for production in factories that we derive our current notions of ‘mass production’, ‘standardisation’, consolidation of ‘best practice’, ‘efficiency’ and the use of documentation as an expression ‘empiricism’ in management practices, amongst others. These ideas may be collectively summed up in the term ‘scientific management’.
The ideas referred to above were developed to manage the production of inanimate objects (motor vehicles, in the case of Ford). It is assumed about the ideas and practices of Ford, and more often about those of Taylor, that they may be tweaked and imported for use in any business project. This way of thinking becomes problematic when educational institutions are also regarded as business projects and consequently become subject to the business management mindset.
Given the amenability of shallow tasks to evidence gathering, 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’s time with emails, recording, reporting, filing, etc., is actually counterproductive to genuine productivity because the time and space for deep work are thereby squeezed out of existence. The current management belief seems to be that structuring the working day around a set of shallow work tasks maximises productivity, and, by implication, that this kind of management is in line with the best practices of human resource management. We are, apparently, expected to acquiesce to the idea that keeping people busy with a slew of menial tasks is a mark of good management? Really? . . . Come on . . .we deserve better than that!
The threat of shallow work to the quality of education
Newport’s argument is particularly relevant to the field of education, particularly in the TVET sector and increasingly at schools as well as universities, which have not resisted being 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 and 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 those 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 modes of pedagogy: 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 undue influence on South Africa’s economic and educational policy trajectories. This is a concern because those same policy trajectories have created huge 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” (Karlin: 2018).
South Africa, as part of the ‘global village’ since 1994, and under the aegis of such powerful influences as the World Bank, IMF and all that is entailed in the neo-Bretton Woods system, 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 two decades, under pressure from the DHET’s policies and associated funding models, TVET managers have diligently complied with governmental 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 engagement 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 diminished or completely closed off 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 education-centred management to business-centred management is in the language used within the institutions: leaders of educational institutions are called “Principal and CEO” or sometimes just “CEO”, and are often associated with a CFO, drawn from the private sector, to influence and manage the financial matters of the institution; students are called “clients”; colleges have a ‘business strategy’; and quality is defined in terms of ISO9001, which is a set of standards – no doubt in the tradition of Taylorism – designed to ensure ‘quality’ in corporate environments.
In addition to these linguistic indexes to ideological preference, we also hear it said that the government and the tax-payer must get a “return on investment” from the funding it makes available for education. We need to pause and reflect on how ethically perverse this position is. Education is about the growth and development of people, not, primarily, about the growth and development of economies. But the latter would naturally result from the former, if the government’s approach privileges the educational development of people instead of merely training people for the supply of labour to the private sector.
Education should be viewed as a public good. It is intrinsically valuable, with its primary benefit being that of the development of a healthy society; and in a similar way to how biological growth follows good nutrition, economic benefits follow well-rounded education. But to accomplish this, education must first be viewed as good within itself, and not as an instrument to be manipulated for economic purposes; education must first be valued as a public good.
Educators working under a business-management regime feel the oppressive atmosphere when expected to conform to expectations which are not in the interests of education, because it is the corporate sector spirit which, in these contexts, functions for itself, in its own interests. As Giroux 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”. In the TVET sector, for example, curricula and physical resources are increasingly being influenced and even owned by industries in the private sector. The effect of these policies and management practices on the teaching profession 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. 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. Or, even worse, they are reduced to security officers employed largely to discipline, contain, and all too often, turn students who commit infractions over to the police and the criminal justice system. 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 linguistic scholar and political analyst, 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).
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 of free-market capitalism from different, specialised points of view. South African educators are caught up in the global current of corporatization and commodification of education and the entailed degradation of deep educational work into the shallow work which characterises corporate business environments.
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, by paying attention to the voices of my colleagues in both the TVET sector and in the Basic Education sector, I know that I am not alone in this experience. 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 the desire of the master named free-market capitalism.
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.
If we want quality in the production of business objectives, then, by all means use a business management model; but our mission as educators is education, not business for profit; and no one can serve two masters: at critical moments there has to be a choice about which one is to be served. Educators serve Education, not Business or the Corporate Sector.
There exists a widespread misconception in the field of education (students, educators, institutions and the interested public) that ‘training’ and ‘education’ are the same thing. This confusion of meanings is the direct result of the infiltration of free-market capitalist ideas into the field of education. These values are, namely, the principal of ‘exchange value’ and the notion ‘commodity’. Under the influence of these ideas, the outcomes of education are only regarded as worthwhile if they have an exchange value in the free market: certificates, diplomas and degrees are exchanged for an income while in the employ of some organisation; knowledge is not acquired and treasured for its intrinsic worth and developmental value, but rather for its economic worth and exchange value. Even earlier on in the education system, ‘good marks’ in the GET phase are exchanged for acceptance into ‘good schools’ in the FET stage; I believe that even 5-year-olds need to pass assessments for some schools, not for school readiness, but purely for selection; for the sake of maintaining the school’s high throughput rate. Socialisation into the values of free-market capitalism starts very early and does not even spare the fragile souls of children.
Under these conditions, the purpose of education has been displaced with the imperative of training for the job market. This has happened with the approval and active promotion of the Government’s departments of education. Consequently, ‘training’ has become synonymous with ‘education’, and thereby eviscerated the substance, the life-blood, of education from our education system. What is left over, is an undead corpse, infecting everything it touches. It is a system that produces skilled workers fulfilling the requirements of industries, but lacking the depth to engage critically with their relation to themselves, others and the environment.
Our education system trains students how ‘not to think’ critically while satisfying the requirements of industry in training them how to ‘do’. Our students, the youth, who are the future custodians of our communities, and, indeed of the country, are being trained into being highly skilled labourers that lack the resources required for genuine critical thought. Socialised into competitive behaviour and the cynical eye that evaluates themselves and their relationships in terms of the exchange value, the intrinsic worth of being human is disregarded, resulting in the unconscious labelling of those who ‘fail’ in the system as being disposable: because they do not yield an adequate ‘return on investment’.
When it becomes acceptable to regard human beings as mere high skilled resources for corporate operations, or as ‘disposable’, or as ‘not worth the investment’, then we should not wonder why the spectre of poverty and inequality persists 24 years after South Africa was politically emancipated: through its exploitative and extractivist attitude, the capitalist ideology has plundered the soul of the nation and thereby undermined the promise held out by political emancipation.
Education ought to have been the means by which the ravages of apartheid’s oppression could be repaired: physically, through the development of skills and technical knowledge, while psychology through the deep soul-work of genuine education. But aligning education with economic imperatives has produced a system and a way of thinking that sees only the physical aspect of reconstruction and regards only this as worth pursuing, and not the psychological. Because the psychological has no ‘exchange value’, it can not be traded for a nice house or a nice car or a holiday overseas, for example. In short, it does not satisfy the drive to consumerism which our economic and political climate currently fosters.
The Deep Work of Education
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: the nurturing of the soul, the development of whole human beings, capable of critically and constructively relating to themselves, others and the natural environment. 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? This requires some deep, authentic thought on the matter. A starting point for reinvigorating this vital dimension of education is to facilitate the conditions in which educators are allowed the time and space to engage in the deep work of education instead of being distracted by the shallow work of bureaucratic tasks. The reader could also start upon his or her own journey towards deep work by reading Newport’s book and doing their own research around the concept of deep work. A proposition of ways in which a movement towards deep educational work may be effected would require the publishing of another article. With the editor’s permission, this is something that I would like to do.
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 the educational field because the current trajectory is destructive to both the education profession, the status of educators and the health of democracy in South Africa.
- Chomsky, N. (2018). Lecture at St. Olaf College, 4th May 2018 (1h26’17’’) Accessed: 28 May 2018 at www.youtube.com (See from 1h18’55’’ to get the broader context of the comment).
- Giroux, H. (2018). Interview with Mark Karlin, The Nightmare of Neoliberal Fascism, 17 June 2018. Accessed: 10 January 2019 at https://truthout.org
- Giroux, H. (2012). The War Against Teachers as Public Intellectuals in Dark Times. Accessed: 10 January 2019 at https://truthout.org
- Giroux, H. (2011). On Critical Pedagogy. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group.
- Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work. Rules for Focused Success In A Distracted World. New York: Grand Central Publishing.
- Giordana, L. (1992). Beyond Taylorism. Hampshire: Macmillan.
- Pruijt, H. D. (1997). Job Design and Technology: Taylorism vs. Anti-Taylorism. London: Routledge.
- Cal Newport is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, United States of America.
- The term ‘educator’ is used in this article to refer to teachers and lecturers in the various bands of education: GET, FET and HET.
- The reader is encouraged to delve into Newport’s book if a more thorough treatment of this issue is desired.