applying the 80-20 rule

Source: Adapted from photo by John Nakamura Remy under CC

I have been doing quite a bit of work in schools, recently, who are right at the very beginning of their e-learning journey. For these Schools, things like GAFE (Google Apps for Education), Flipped Learning, and lots of the other things that many people reading this may now take for granted are, in fact, really new. One of the first things people in this situation tend to ask me is, “What should I do?”

Let’s reframe the question

What I think we should really do is reframe that question around impact. I, therefore, often answer the question with a question along the lines of, “What do you think the one change you can make is that will have the biggest positive difference to the learning for the students you work with?”  Another addition to this could be, “ … and for the least amount of change and/or work for you”. I often quote the 80-20 rule, sometimes known as the Pareto Principle, when having these discussions. The premise of this is that 80% of the results or impact come from 20% of the energy or change. In the pedagogy context this could be thought of as identifying what the initial change/s are that will make, or have, the biggest impact on the students.

Start small and get it right

It is essential that any changes made rapidly become embedded in practice and part of the ‘normal’ in the classroom or school. Starting in a small and focussed way and using an Inquiry mindset, is a useful way of doing this. You do one thing and get it right, then quickly move on to the next.  Don’t revamp everything in your programme at once. Start small and learn what you need to know to make that thing successful, then scale this learning across more of your programme and pedagogy.

For example: change something with one reading group, get it right, and then roll this out to everyone. Experiment, do it well, and learn from the implementation of this prototype about what needs to happen when you scale things up.  Once you have sufficiently mastered things, move onwards and upwards to include more and more people, and more and more of your programme.

Bells and whistles don’t always make things better

One of the real challenges of technology and the digital space is the highly seductive nature of it all. I have seen many schools and teachers fall into the trap of trying to ‘do it all at once’ and turning their schools or classrooms into a digital christmas tree with all the whistles and bells at a meteoric pace. The sad bit is though that the whistles and bells may not in fact be making things any better for students, or the learning any deeper. Sure the teacher is working harder and things are taking longer. Kids are having to learn new routines and ways of doing things. But a lack of focus may actually be detracting from the learning. The whole thing quickly becomes unsustainable for both the teacher and the students who were supposed to be benefitting from this in the beginning.

Finding the sweet spot using the 80:20 rule

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am definitely not advocating for inappropriately slow implementation of change any more than I am for over-paced development. The ‘sweet spot’ is somewhere in between.

I was reading about this idea recently, which takes the 80:20 rule above and extrapolates it out even further:
“What if you took your 80-percent results and applied the 80/20 rule to them? And then one more time?

80-20 rule graph

Source: ShawnBlanc.Net

What you end up with is the idea that your initial 1-percent of energy spent brings about the first 50-percent of results.

It’s about finding the key things that make the difference

For me, this hits home the point about key things making the difference, and choosing that sweet-spot where we get the best bang-for-buck in terms of both simplicity and impact. Small changes often have disproportionately and deceptively big impacts.

I wonder then, if we can come up with a set of questions we can ask ourselves in order to force a focus on some fundamentals and the things with the biggest influence?

Here is my attempt at this:

Question Rationale
What (potentially) small changes COULD I make that will have the most significance for the learning of the students I work with? Trying to focus in on the key small actions or changes rather than the big ones — eg: introduce a choice of digital activities for the non-instructional time with the XXX reading group NOT digitise my entire reading programme
How much personal learning and change is required for me, for my programme, and for students? Is the learning curve involved for the teacher and the students worth the time and effort? Remembering that learning software is not the focus of our programmes and the purpose of our time in the classroom is not to be trained in apps, tools or technology.
Is the proposal doing things better or just differently? Are we exploiting the potential of technology to make things possible that are not in a ‘pen and paper’ or analog world? If not then is having the tech the best option?
Does the ‘better’ justify and outweigh the ‘different’? If the answer is yes then this proposal may have real merit
Of the possible changes I COULD make, which SHOULD I make to have the biggest initial impact? Choosing the most ‘impact-full’ option among the possible choices as the place/s to start.

What other questions or considerations would you include?


**Cross-posted from

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>