Pareto Principle; work smarter not harder

I had heard of the 20/80 rule, but had never really looked into it deeply. It’s such a great strategy for teachers in many ways. Basically: “Find out what is vital, ignore what is trivial, and you can maximize results.” a  When making a to do list (which I do often), identify the top 20% and focus on finishing those off first. Here is a distillation of my reading and understanding (all links provided) :

Examples to illustrate the 80/20 principle:

  • Vilfredo Pareto found that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population.
  • Microsoft fixed the top 20% of the bugs in its system and 80% of the crashes were eliminated.
  • In health care, 20% of the patients use 80% of the health care resources.
  • Often, 80% of the discipline problems come from roughly 20% of the student body. The Pareto Principle suggests that a few things produce the majority of results. b

Below are more anecdotal examples of the 20/80 principle. I have not taken the time to find research to back up these claims but as broad examples, they illustrate the point: c

  • 80% of sales come from 20% of customers.
  • 20% of products produce 80% of sales.
  • 20% of staff will cause 80% of problems.
  • 20% of society holds 80% of wealth.
  • Most people spend 80% of their time with 20% of their friends.
  • 20% of the clothes in the closet are worn 80% of the time.

In your daily classes, “separate what you have to do from what is truly valuable and impactful. Identify the tasks that will have the biggest impact on student learning, on helping you reach your goals”. d

Here are some key questions to ask about your teaching, using the 20/80 principle, as compiled by Dylan Gates:

  • Does the activity/action benefit my learners? (Is it very beneficial, beneficial, not very beneficial?)
  • How often do I do this action in class? Should I do more or less of it?
  • How long do I spend doing this action? How could I do it more efficiently without diluting the benefit? e

Another good application of the 20/80 rule by Bryant Nielson: f Identify the 20% of students in your class which take up the most time, or cause the most disruption or are the most disorganised. “Make systems, rules and strategies to streamline the challenges.” g “The recognition of this pattern eases much frustration when you see the students who just went through your mind a minute ago. It makes their challenge less personal as you can view a bigger picture.” h

Another interesting take is provided in this article by Susan Kruger, The TL:DR version of her post:

  1. 20% of Your Students Will Take Up 80% of Your Resources and Time
  2. You Will Not Be Able to Reach 20% of Your Students
  3. 20% of Content = 80% of Impact. i

Susan makes broad generalisations, based on her own experiences. I definitely agree with her first point (20% of Your Students Will Take Up 80% of Your Resources and Time). but wonder about nr 2 and 3. It’s hard to accept nr 2 (You Will Not Be Able to Reach 20% of Your Students) but maybe I should. If I think about my class of 2019, I think that maybe I was unable to ‘reach’ 10%. Again, this is just empirical and anecdotal. I wonder what someone like John Hattie would say about ‘not being able to reach 20% of your students’.
Point nr 3 (20% of Content = 80% of Impact) I interpret as: “pare knowledge down to that which is most useful, most flexible and is most likely to help our students succeed.”j This is simple good practice. We shouldn’t flood our students with lots of facts. Focussing on a few main concepts is much more effective.

My take-aways about Pareto’s principle:

In 2020, I will identify the 20% of my students (so 5 students out a class of 25) who take up most of my time in terms of:

  • behavioural problems
  • disorganisation
  • Academic strugglers (not the correct term, but you know what I mean)

This does seem to be a negative approach because I am focussing on the problems, but hopefully by streamlining my approach to these groups, I can focus more on the positives and the strengths of the whole class. There are also some dangers to this approach; if I ‘label’ 5 kids as my key ‘trouble makers’, I must me mindful to not tar them with that brush for the whole year. I should ‘catch them being good’ and I must be careful to reassess them constantly. This use of 20/80 is clearly a very general strategy which should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, I look forward to experimenting with it when school starts in 2020. I shall revisit this post and report back.

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