More Free Time & Better Results: Apply the Pareto Principle to Your Teaching

“The majority of the effects come from the minority of causes”

In 2013 at this time of the year, I was in my classroom arranging colourful posters on a bulletin board. Convinced that my student’s learning would skyrocket if I had a beautiful, pleasing environment, I set to work beautifying.

But I shouldn’t have bothered.

The Pareto Principle is named after the economist Vilifredo Pareto, who famously recognized that 80% of Italy’s wealth in his time was owned by a mere 20% of the population. Apart from being applied to economics, the Pareto Principle can be applied to any endeavour—from your work to your personal life.

In every arena, we can see that a small number of things we do (the 20%) account for the clear majority of our results (the 80%).

I was therefore wasting my time with beautifying my classroom. A beautiful classroom is not part of the small number of things (the 20%) that accounts for most of student results (the 80%). Here is a video summarizing the Pareto Principle:

This summer, I encourage you to cut the fat off of your teaching practices to not only attain better student results, but also get more free time to enjoy your life.


Which practices are the 20% that account for 80% of student achievement in your classroom?

Stay away from what you subjectively feel is important (e.g. I used to think posters were important), and base your 20% on the research.

According to John Hattie’s meta-analysis study, published in the Visible Learning for Literacy: Implementing Practices That Work Best to Accelerate Student Learning, the following practices have powerful effects on student learning (listed from greatest effect to least)

  1. Self-reported grades/student expectations

Meaning: Students are very good at predicting how well they will score on a test or an assignment. The problem is that they often set safe expectations: “If I get a B+, I’ll be happy.” As teachers, our greatest influence comes in changing student expectations. We can do that by making our students aware of their expectations and goals, and by encouraging them to aim higher. We can also make them very aware of what we’re marking for (the goals), and have them actively involved in the process (meeting the goals and exceeding them).

How to do this in your classroom:

  • Have students write their goals for their year at the start of the year.
  • Revisit these goals often.
  • Have students write down their expected grade the day before the test.
  • Engage in conversation about their expected grades, effort, etc.
  • Provide clear rubrics for assignments; focus on one writing skill each assignment.
  • Have students grade their own work before submitting it to you for your final grade.
  • Here are some great tips for Hattie’s self-reported grades. 
  1. Teacher credibility

Meaning: Students learn the most from teachers they see as credible.  If they see a teacher as being trustworthy, competent, knowledgeable, prepared, and dynamic, they are more likely to learn from that teacher.

  1. Providing formative evaluation

Meaning: Formative evaluation is the evaluation and feedback we give our students before the “for marks” assignment is due. Formative feedback shows students their strengths and weaknesses.

  • Assign lots of writing practice with focused goals (e.g. “In this assignment, you will demonstrate your understanding of transition words.”)
  • Regularly schedule a day for your students to write while you mark their writing and provide formative feedback.
  • Provide formative feedback using focused, one-skill rubrics with limited space to write (e.g. Use a rubric only for transition words and write a sentence or two explaining the grade you’ve given.)
  • Use Kahoot to provide students feedback on their understanding.
  • Have students write practice quizzes and take up the answers as a class.
  1. Direct instruction

Meaning: A teacher-led lesson which includes a clear learning objective; an “I do” modelling and explanation; a “We do” guided practice of the skill with the class; and a “You do” individual practice portion. Though maligned as traditional and “old school,” it works.

  • Prepare your lessons as described above. Avoid fads that require students to learn critical skills on their own.

5. Classroom discussion

 Meaning: Classroom discussion clarifies understanding of texts and concepts, especially for students who struggle.

  • Put up a piece of writing on the board and with your students discuss its merits and demerits, referring to the skills you have taught.
  • After reading a story, poem, etc., spend time discussing its structure, meaning, etc.
  1. Teacher clarity

Meaning: When students know what they are meant to learn each lesson, they are more likely to learn it.

  • Break big tasks into small chunks (e.g. to write an essay–> first thesis–> brainstorming, etc.)
  • Teach only one chunk at a time.
  • Make it clear to students what they are learning each lesson (e.g. “Today you will learn the difference between concrete and abstract nouns.”)
  • Before the lesson, answer student questions: 1) What am I learning today? 2) Why am I learning this? 3) How will I know that I’ve learned it?
  1. Feedback

 Meaning: Feedback from teachers and peers that is timely, specific, understandable, and actionable propels learners forwards to success.

  • Regularly schedule class writing days so that you have time to provide specific feedback on student writing assignments.
  • Focus on one skill per assignment and grade just that. Use a rubric and write two or more sentences with specific feedback. Avoid marking up the whole page with grammatical and spelling edits. This not only tires you out, but it also confuses your students.
  • Use kid-friendly language in your feedback.
  • Have students regularly assess other students’ work and provide specific feedback. Model the difference between specific and vague feedback.
  1. Reciprocal teaching

Meaning: Students become teachers in small group sessions, often in the reading of a text. In most reciprocal teaching situations, students are assigned roles (e.g. summarizer, connecter, word wizard, etc.), and they share their understanding in small groups.

  • Use literature circles, complete with groups and assigned roles, to read a novel.
  • Have students complete a role (e.g. summarizer, definer, etc.) based on your lesson to discuss in small groups the next day.
  • Get students to record on their cell phones their discussions and email the recordings to you (to make sure they stay on track!).
  1. Teacher-student relationships

Meaning: More that his or her socio-economic status, the relationship a student has with his or her teacher impacts his or her performance in school. If students see you as someone who cares, has empathy, and wants them to succeed, you are more likely to teach them.

  1. Spaced versus mass practice

Meaning: Students learn a skill or concepts more effectively when they engage with the concept for shorter periods of time several times (e.g. 10 minutes of paragraph writing practice spaced over 6 sessions is more effective than 60 minutes of paragraph writing practice taken at once).

  • Identify the skills you want your students to learn. Space their practice of these skills over weeks and months (e.g. I assign paragraph writing all throughout the year– a paragraph each week– Dave Stuart Jr. does much the same with his article of the week assignment).
  • Cut down the skills you think are crucial to the bare essentials.

An ELA teacher who applies the Pareto Principle practices the 20% that accounts for 80% of the results. He or she does not waste time building elaborate projects, beautiful displays, fancy worksheets, or another committee. He or she focuses on what really matters.

 The Pareto Principle teacher:

  • Develops good relations with his or her students
  • Develops high expectations for their behaviour and performance
  • Is credible, knowledgeable, and prepared
  • Asks students to reflect on their goals
  • Gives formative feedback & budgets class time for marking
  • Teaches lessons with clear goals; guides students; provides time for practice
  • Engages his or her class in discussions
  • Uses reciprocal teaching when it makes sense
  • Spaces out practice of key skills over time

If you plan your next year right, I guarantee that you will avoid a lot of the frustration and the burnout of the last one.

Remember, “the majority of effects come from the minority of the causes.”

Which needless practice will you cut out of your teaching next year?

P.S. If you want to read more about Hattie’s top ten research-based teaching practices, click here.

To see a full list of  Hattie’s research teaching strategies, ranked from most to least effective, click here.