Guest Blogger- David Stuart, Jr. Kent ISD Bulletin

Feeling Overwhelmed? Consider the 80/20 Rule

(Photo Credit: Robert S. Donovan, used under CC attribution license.) The peas will make sense in a minute.

Teaching is this hugely complex, challenging calling, and that’s why I’m glad it’s mine. I don’t foresee getting to a place where I’m like, “You know what? I’ve got this all figured out. Done. Turn on the cruise control.”

To be honest, I think few of us will get there, and if we do, it will be after about 30 years and 100,000 hours of intensive, deliberate practice.

But we don’t need to wait until we have it all figured out before we can start being master teachers who make a huge impact with our careers. I think that all of us, if we train ourselves to focus in, can fairly quickly become adept at the 20% of things that yield 80% of the results.

What is the 80/20 rule?

The 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, is essentially this: for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. It’s named after an economist named Vilfredo Pareto, who observed over a hundred years ago that 80% of the wealth in Italy was held by 20% of the population, and (get this) that 80% of the peas in his garden were produced by 20% of the pea plants.

Peas and people. Pareto was intrigued.

Learning guru Tim Ferriss provides some other ways of phrasing the Pareto Principle in his intriguing book, The 4-Hour Work Week:

  • 80% of the outputs result from 20% of the inputs
  • 80% of the consequences flow from 20% of the causes
  • 80% of company profits come from 20% of the products and customers
  • 80% of all stock market gains are realized by 20% of the investors and 20% of an individual portfolio.

In teacherspeak, the Pareto Principle would be written like this: 80% of student achievement results flow from 20% of the work we do with students.

So what does the 80/20 rule have to do with educators?

I think we have a wretched habit in education of over-complicating the most powerful 20% of educational practices. This is a crime we all commit together: teachers, administrators, literacy coaches, authors, consultants — all of us.

Because of this, a big part of my work as a teacher who writes about teaching has been to aggressively seek to boil our problems down to their roots and develop similarly boiled down solutions. Let’s take a look at two examples of the kind of intentional reduction I’ve applied to two common problems.

The 80/20 rule and the problem of Common Core implementation

The Common Core are among the best lists of literacy standards we’ve yet seen in the USA, but there are still far too many of them: 32 college and career readiness anchor standards, with each of those standards containing several skills of its own. In actuality, if I were to seek to develop every single one of the Common Core skills for my 9th grade ELA and history students, I’d be trying to help my students master over 100 skills.

Even if you’re not in a Common Core state, the same is likely true for your own literacy standards — 100+ goals.

Forgive me for a lack of optimism here, but if the future of education in America depends on teachers being able to help students own and master 100+ high-quality, rigorous literacy goals per year, I think we’re in trouble.  Thankfully, the 80/20 rule is likely true of the CCSS; there are a select few of those college and career readiness goals that will garner the lion’s share of the long-term benefit for our kids.

That’s why I’ve sought to reduce them. I think the Common Core literacy standards essentially boil down to this: we need to focus on increasing the quality and quantity of reading, writing, speaking, and argumentative thinking our students do. Why? Because these things are the core of 21st century skills.

My non-freaked out framework for literacy instruction across the content areas is a pretty mundane attempt at communicating that boil-down work, yet I think similarly simple frameworks are the only way that content area teachers especially (and even many ELA teachers) are going to internalize the importance of getting great at a few key things — in this case, we need to get awesome at helping students think argumentatively (especially in grades 6-12), and then to read, write, and speak in ways that are increasingly complex and college/career appropriate. Keep in mind, however, that I’m no fancy standards guy; I’m just a practitioner.

I explain this in greater depth here.

Notice that while the framework allows us a simple, visual device for understanding what (I think) matters most in literacy development, there’s lots of work we can be doing to get better and better at facilitating and teaching toward the five elements. This framework gives us a foundation for successive PD workshops (here are some of my thoughts on how to do literacy PD).

I’ve also found such simplifications are highly motivating for teachers. Why? Because the 80/20 Rule makes us believe that we can actually master the bulk of this work, and mastery, as Daniel Pink points out in Drive, is a critical element in sustained motivation.

Ultimately, frameworks like this allow us to spend a larger percent of our energy on the 20% of the standards that matter most. They’re intentionally non-comprehensive because comprehensiveness goes against the Pareto Principle.

(Great schools allow their teachers to focus in on and get great at the 20% of practices that matter most. This is essentially the central argument of Mike Schmoker’s Focus.)

The 80/20 rule applied to our careers as educators

One of the key complaints I hear from teachers (and justifiably so) is that they have no time to do all the things they’re supposed to do. I think this is one of the leading causes of burnout — and the Pareto Principle shows us that it’s entirely unavoidable.

The liberating power of 80/20 comes from the fact that, once we start discovering what 20% or so of our practices yield the vast majority of long-term results, we can satisfice (click here and see Number 4) the heck out of the 80% of things we do that don’t matter a whole ton, such as:

  • Responding to every email the second it comes in. This isn’t highly impactful in the long run. Solution? Check your inbox 1-2x per day. Period. If you’re an administrator, encourage your staff to minimize their daily inbox checking.
  • Worrying over mind-numbing paperwork. Not highly impactful in the long run. Solution? Get it done and move on.
  • Creating beautiful bulletin boards. Looks nice, right? But where’s the long-term impact? Solution = make your instruction awesome; your room needs to serve its purpose.

Instead of exerting energy (and anxiety and stress do exert energy, my friends) on things that don’t matter, we ought, instead, to focus on daily improvement in three basic areas:

In pictorial form:

Three-pronged strategy for impact 2.0

The point here isn’t that I’ve created something original — it’s that I’ve sought to boil our work down into its most potent core focus areas.

(I’ve since written an ebook about this called Never Finished: Continually Becoming the Teachers We Want to Be (and Staying Sane in the Process.

Getting “initiatived” to death in your school?

Share this post with the powers that be. Literally take the link to this post, paste it into an email, and send it to them with a brief explanation of why you think it’s relevant to your school setting. I’m not writing anything ground-breaking here — Pareto’s been dead for a century — but I do think his work merits reminding.

We must be judicious about running the things we ask teachers (and students!) to do through the 80/20 filter. I’ve provided two examples in this post of how this can look when applied to some of our questions as educators in the USA, but there are so many more questions that need to be 80/20ed — feel free to share them, and any other thoughts you might have, below in comments.


Dave Stuart Jr. teaches full-time at Cedar Springs High School. He also maintains a blog that aims to get at the heart of what matters most in teaching, ranging from the Common Core to our careers as educators. Dave’s first book came out in September 2014.