Learning Uncategorized

Dealing with Cognitive Challenge in a curriculum



As discussed in the blog on deep work, valuable things are hard to learn. This does not mean that we should shy away from including them in a curriculum. Cal Newport’s book “be so good they can’t ignore you” provides useful pointers for incorporating deep work into a professional career.  I think that these ideas can be used to incorporate cognitively challenging things into a curriculum as well:

  • Distraction-free: When you’re covering hard things, make sure that you have a distraction-free classroom
  • Finite time for challenging tasks: It’s unreasonable to expect learners to engage in deep work/ cognitively challenging activities for 8 hours a day. Ensure that you have enough down-time or repetition incorporated into your curriculum
  • Ritualize the learning of hard things: Newport argues that some kind of ritual is a good way of tackling deep learning. Possible rituals could include a putting hard concepts at the beginning the day or ensuring that you start a hard section with a leg stretch.
  • Manage collaboration carefully: A great deal of deep work is individual, but many of the most successful deep work environments include some kind of team collaboration. Ensure that you think carefully about team work and individual work when tackling hard concepts
  • Focus on the important: Everything is not deep work and most curricula can survive being pared down somewhat. Ensure that every aspect of the curriculum adds to the main learning goal and ruthlessly cut anything that doesn’t
  • Measure: Track the time spent on cognitively challenging tasks and make it public. Provide learners with a clear understanding of how they are doing and areas where they may need to spend more time.

Deep Work

 Cal Newport is a professor at MIT and, as a side hobby, studies deep work for knowledge workers as a side hobby. His philosophy is simple: the ability to do cognitively difficult things will become increasingly valuable in our economy. In fact it’s the only way to make sure that you are not replaced by a robot. He argues that many of the work that is performed in offices today, is of negligible economic value. Many of his ideas may be usefully applied to curriculum design.

Whilst his ideas about the nature of modern work are interesting, I am more interested in the concept of Deep Work itself.  In his book “deep work” he describes deep work as” professional activities performed in a state of distraction free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to the limit”.

This is interesting to me, because he’s being explicit about something we often gloss over. Sometimes (often) learning new things is hard. Learning new things often requires a cognitive stretch, which may have an emotional impact. When we are used to working for 10 hour days and so do not understand how two hours spent on learning a new language can be so taxing. . When we learn truly new things, it’s hard. We are often inadequate at the beginning and then improve slowly.

What I like about Cal Newport is that he doesn’t try and put a plaster over this by pretending that cognitively hard things can be made easier. Instead, he argues that state of cognitive strain is exactly what is required to push us to excel. He argues that this work is valuable, that it is hard and that it is rare. He argues that the ability to work in a state of cognitive stretch for a sustained period of time helps one to produce quality work for a sustained period of timePlaceholder Image