80-20 – paring down the knowledge

In the autumn of 2016 with the English Literature exam looming large on the horizon, English teacher Tod Brennan decided to alter both the curriculum he was delivering and the manner he was teaching it.  In this week’s teaching forum Tod shared how he used the ideas behind the Pareto principle in order to inform these changes and bring about a dramatic turnaround in results.

Image result for 80-20

The Pareto principle was first written about in Italy in the late 19th century and it takes its name from that first pioneer, Vilfredo Pareto.  However, it was made famous by management consultant Joseph M. Juran and became known as “the law of the vital few”.  Tod discovered it through the work of Tim Ferriss who has written about a number of methods of reducing what we do to the most essential components.

The basic idea is that 20% of what happens in a business, an economy, even a curriculum yields 80% of the results.  Therefore if you can identify this 20% and focus your energies there, then the overall result is disproportionally improved.  This has been applied to educational theory before, and is something Doug Lemov wrote about in his book Practice Perfect.  Lemov asserted that we should spend our time practicing the 20% of things that produce the 80% of results rather than trying to practice everything.  By doing so we would help our students master the truly vital elements of our subjects.

This resonated with Tod as he was finding students with a narrower section of knowledge (with which they were confident) could consistently produce answers of a higher quality than those with broader but perhaps less secure knowledge.  The inference he made was that the 80-20 effect was in evidence here, and if he could harness that then it would benefit all his students.  With this in mind Tod set about identifying the 20% within the English Literature curriculum.  He reduced the number of quotes he was working with on a particular text from 20 to 8 and the number of purposes associated with each playwright from 12 to 3.  This process continued until he produced knowledge organisers that became the foundation for his teaching.  He made these judgements both from his own experience but also based on those pieces of knowledge that were most adaptable and flexible.  In terms of quotes this would be those that could be used to demonstrate the widest variety of literary techniques or fit with the greatest number of themes within the novel.  He also taught interpretations of these quotes as knowledge rather than drawing them out from his students.  A section of the end result for “An Inspector Calls” is shown below:


He made sure the students knew these quotes back-to-front and inside-out, to the point where he admits they grew weary of them.  However, he said what he asked himself when making the choices was: “If a student joined my class tomorrow with no knowledge, what would I most want them to know before the exam.”  From there he put substantial time and effort into producing these resources, weighing each choice on its relative merits.

One beneficial, and according to Tod, unconscious consequence of this resource and the way he taught with it, was to deepen understanding through elaboration.  This is one of the six principles for effective learning written about by the Learning Scientists and has been shown to help students grasp concepts more completely.  Tod’s intervention achieves this by looking at the same piece of knowledge (i.e. a quote) from multiple angles, thereby creating connections between themes, techniques and interpretations.

This approach is not without controversy and despite not being an English teacher myself, I am aware that there is a debate about whether English Literature is essentially a knowledge-based subject or not.  One element here that might feed into this debate would be that Tod’s approach requires interpretations to be taught prescriptively rather than left for the students to develop.  However the correlation between Tod changing his approach and the outcomes for this class is clear, with the class improving by roughly 30% on the 4+ measure (comparing previous achievement in assessments with final exam results) and ultimately, as a mixed ability group, achieving 11% above national average at 4+.  While the number of variables means the improvement cannot be solely attributed to Tod’s intervention, something undoubtedly changed for these students.

As we all wrestle with increasing content and stuff our newly created knowledge organisers full to bursting with information, it may be worth reflecting on the 80-20 principle and how we can pare that knowledge down to that which is most useful, most flexible and is most likely to help our students succeed.

Produced by Chris Runeckles

This entry was posted in General Teaching, Teaching Forums, Teaching Talk. Bookmark the permalink.

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