Too much of something is never a good thing

A key theme of Richard Koch’s “80/20 Principle” is that all of our time spent works on an 80:20 ratio. Dating back to Vilfredo Pareto, who stated that 80% of land was owned by 20% of people, and then adopted mostly to business, the 80/20 principle essentially aims to help focus people’s attention on 20% of their core base to generate 80% of their profits.

This principle can be interpreted in the educational sphere as well. Too much of something is never a good thing. Give 100% of students praise, and your praise will no longer mean anything — but give your praise only 20% of the time while 80% providing standard feedback, and now your praise is meaningful. Give 100% of your time to project-based instruction and you’ll probably have students start to get sidetracked, lose steam, or become bored — however, give 80% of your time to PBL and 20% to reflection, and watch your results.

One thing education reformers need to recognize is that there’s a place for traditional education — arguably 20%. Roughly 20% of students (after surveying my classes for years, and this is shockingly accurate) love school. They love tests and traditional academics. They would be hurt by shifting everything to self-directed learning, challenge-based learning, or project-based learning (or whatever new medium of education). We need to ensure that we don’t leave them behind in our push for reform.

Conversely, this means that 80% of our students are not being catered to. Watch your students come alive when you let them run around the classroom! How many students roughly love acting and role-playing assignments for longer than a day — after the magic has worn off? I would venture that about 20% of them do. What about assignments where you map out everything through sketches and storyboards? About 20%. Initially you’ll find a large amount of engagement from about 80% of students (finally something that’s not traditional ed.!) — but when it becomes normalized, you’ll again cater to the core 20%.

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So then, how do we cater to 100% of students? The major issue with giving 100% is that once something is fully committed to, it begins to have no meaning. Similar to the Utopian theories employed by Huxley in Brave New World or Lowry in The Giver, when there is an absence of a counteraction, the main action no longer exists. Once someone commits 100% to self-directed learning for example, our world could turn into one where people no longer question what they learn, work together, or seek out mentorship. (note: many self-directed learning centers feature components of this, but the term “self-directed learning” if obeyed with 100% accuracy would imply users sitting at computer centers learning from Khan Academy all day).

The best possible system would be one where they were various courses and school opportunities available for each type of learner. You’d have traditional schools maintain about 20% of their current populous, a non-profit charter for art students, a self-directed learning center for those inclined, a homeschooler organization who take trips daily, a Montessori school focusing on theater, and more. The more options available for students, the more engaged everyone will be since more and more people will want to be there. The more we cut through that ratio and minimize the amount of left-out learners, the easier our education system will fall into place.

Therefore, we can employ the use of giving 100% when we no longer want a system to be recognized. A case in point example would be going gradeless. If we commit 100% to no longer giving grades, that means that grades no longer mean anything at all. Note: this is not the same as not giving feedback! When the scale and grade no longer matter, or are even thought to matter, students will become more motivated and see drastic increases in their learning. Plus — they’ll have a greater love of education as their ideas and exploratory ventures aren’t tarnished by an inherently-competitive grade. Another good 100% commitment? No longer having standardized testing. Standardized testing is already a 100% commitment to take — and therefore, has lost all meaning.