The 80/20 Rule: Maximize Your Potential in Less Time

What makes the biggest difference in your teaching? If you hop online to the places where teachers hang out and ask that question, you will hear a bevy of answers. It only begets more questions. Is project-based learning the way to go? How about Genius Hour? Flipping the classroom? Inductive method? Constructivist approach? Teach Like a Pirate? Too many choices can be paralyzing, and the only thing a teacher knows for sure is how much they don’t know. There’s a simpler way. You don’t have to be everywhere and do everything to be a better teacher. You don’t have to spend every free moment chatting away on Twitter, reading blogs and going to every EdCamp within a 60-mile radius. You can preserve your most important resource — your time. You just have to follow the 80/20 rule.

The Pareto Principle

In 1906, the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto found that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. When applied more broadly, others noticed that roughly 80% of the effects came from 20% of the causes. It has become a popular principle in management and business. 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. Ask any dean of students, 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. Find out what is vital, ignore what is trivial, and you can maximize results.

The 80/20 Rule in My Teaching

As a high school English teacher, I want my students to be critical readers and thoughtful writers. That’s what matters most. The methods to achieve this goal are varied and plentiful. But what are the few things that can produce the biggest results? Here are three aspects of my teaching that dominate my focus. 1. Ask Better Questions Why It’s Important — Albert Einstein once wrote, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” If I can ask deep, thought-provoking questions that value what my students have to say — not what they think I want to hear — I can help them develop a discerning eye for the reading and writing we do. What I Do — I like interview shows like 60 Minutes, Charlie Rose, and Alec Baldwin’s podcast, Here’s the Thing. Rose is a master of asking questions and offering few answers. In each episode, he’s fascinated by each guest’s wisdom, experience and insights. He knows how to probe their thinking. I seek to achieve the same fascination and desire to hear what my students have to say. See Questioning in Action:

2. Be a Captivating Speaker Why It’s Important — In some studies on the likability of a speaker, words account for 7%, tone of voice accounts for 38%, and body language accounts for 55%. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. To captivate my students’ attention, I’ve focused on how I present the material. What I Do — I watched this TedxED Talk by Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like a Pirate, and it made me rethink everything about how I offered my lessons. See Speaking in Action:

3. Provide Meaningful Feedback Why It’s Important — For many students, feedback is akin to criticism. Perhaps this is why so many essays end up in the garbage when students leave class. Feedback is seldom practised with any enthusiasm. Yet feedback is not criticism; instead, it is a caring and supportive act. It’s a signal that a teacher is dedicated to providing a constructive way to help students reach a higher level. What I Do — A few years ago, I stopped writing comments on students’ papers. It took up 80% of my grading time and few students used the feedback I gave in the margins. Now, my time is better spent conferencing. Instead of comments, I put a grade on the paper and attach a rubric. When students ask about their score — which they always do — I tell them to conference with me. This allows me to have a meaningful conversation with them about their writing. It allows for a give and take. I can hear their thinking and they can hear mine. It is much more effective than what I was writing in the margins. See Feedback in Action:

What are the few things that you can focus on that can dramatically improve your teaching? I encourage you to share your ideas in the comments section below.

Brian Sztabnik teaches AP Literature and Composition, Creative Writing, and Public Speaking at Miller Place High School in New York. His podcast, Talks with Teachers, has consistently been a top-ranked show on iTunes. He is the College Board Advisor for AP Literature and Composition, and won the Educators Voice Award in 2015 for Education Commentator/Blogger, given out by the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences. His first book will be released this fall: The Best Lesson Series: Literature. Follow him on Twitter: @talkswteachers.

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