Could the 80/20 approach end The Achievement Plateau?
Less could be more.
Remote and hybrid teaching (and working) have highlighted the issue of “zoom burnout” and popularized frequent breaks, but why are we to believe that the 3-dimensional work and school world is any less exhausting?
Zoom fatigue has been written about extensively since Covid-19 forced the world into widespread remote work and education, so much so that many companies now encourage fewer and shorter meetings.
In the remote teaching world, it’s pushed us to incorporate frequent breaks throughout the school day, provide more “asynchronous,” independent work, and encourage students to get outside as much as possible.
This push to be more mindful of children’s attention spans during remote teaching — the rule of thumb is 2-3 minutes per year of age, meaning even a 14 year old would max out around 40 minutes — has me wondering if we should be considering a similar approach when we return to in-person learning?
For years, we’ve taken precisely the opposite approach in ed reform circles. All 3 charter schools I worked for had extended days, one that even lasted until 5PM for kids. We needed draconian discipline policies just to keep the students engaged.
Teacher and principal evaluations are peppered with talk of a “sense of urgency,” which, as a teacher, means you jam-pack lessons with cognitively-engaging activities. As a leader, it means you’re always working.
Despite all the urgency talk I’ve heard in the last 17 years, I haven’t seen much progress. And that led me to wonder: is all the urgency actually doing more harm than good?
I first came across the 80/20 rule in endurance training. The basic premise: do too many hard workouts, and you’ll end up burning out and regressing. In order to progress, about 20% of your training should be hard — HIIT workouts or sprint workouts — and the other 80% should be easy — low heart rate and fun. Why? Because the body needs time to recover from stressful workouts, and too many hard workouts cause too much chronic stress, and humans weren’t built for chronic stress.
The concept comes from the Pareto Principle, based on the work of Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, which suggests that 80% of results come from 20% of the work.
It might seem arbitrary, but the phenomenon has been discovered in everything from taxation, computer science, and baseball, where in 2009 roughly 15% of MLB players accounted for 85% of WAR (Wins Above Replacement is an advanced baseball stat that computes player value). As an aside, I likely had a negative WAR in my men’s league last year since I was completely lost at the plate but whatever we won the championship and this is a run-on. I digress.
So what does this mean for education? I wonder if there isn’t an opportunity to give students (and teachers) more “easy workouts” during the day: more breaks and more easy, fun work to balance out the few cognitively-demanding, stressful lessons they’ll experience. A 2008 study found that students had improved attention and concentration after just a 20-minute walk in nature.
In Finland, it’s common for students to play frequently throughout the school day. In the U.S., most teachers would seek permission to take an extra “recess,” and even then might feel ashamed as their colleagues see their “lack of urgency” through the windows.
It’s certainly possible that less won’t be more, but plateaued achievement and teacher burnout have me fairly convinced that more is also not more. Maybe Paul Rudd’s character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall is right: do less.