Resources mentioned in this episode:

Teaching After The Coronavirus Shutdown video

Achieve The Core Focus by Grade Level document

Welcome fellow Recovering Traditionalists to Episode 62.  Today I am talking about The 80/20 Rule Applied to Teaching Math.

This week over on my vlog, I talked about Teaching After The Coronavirus ShutdownSpecifically, how to plan for what to teach next year knowing that your students may not have gotten a quarter of the instruction they would have gotten in the grade before yours.

I shared about the document created by Achieve The Core that details out the Major Work of each grade level.  The Focus by Grade Level document (or what was originally called the Content Emphases) shows the standard clusters that basically carry more weight in each grade.

In the Math Shifts at a Glance document it states:

 “The Common Core and other college- and career-ready (CCR) standards call for a greater focus in mathematics. Rather than racing to cover topics in a mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum, CCR standards require us to significantly narrow and deepen the way time and energy are spent in the math classroom. We focus deeply on the Major Work* of each grade so that students can gain strong foundations: solid conceptual understanding, a high degree of procedural skill and fluency, and the ability to apply the math they know to solve problems inside and outside the math classroom.”

The idea is that we shouldn’t be trying to cover all the content but instead spending the majority of our time focusing on the Major concepts and helping kids build their conceptual understanding and procedural fluency of those.  

This is not a new idea but it is one that is even more valuable as you start to think about planning out the content you are going to teach next year.  

At the bottom of each page of the Focus by Grade Level document, in very tiny print, it states:

“At least 65% and up to approximately 85% of class time, with Grades K–2 nearer the upper end of that range, should be devoted to the major work of the grade.”

That statement reminded me of the 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle.  It’s the idea that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

This has been shown in lots of situations, but here are just a few.

In the 1800s Vilfredo noticed that 80% of his peas came from 20% of the pea pods.  Microsoft has seen the principle hold true today, as they say that 80% of the tech issues can be solved by fixing 20% of the bugs.

I believe that the same holds true for our learning of mathematics.  We spend a lot of time trying to cover ALL the concepts when really 20% of them are what impact 80% of our math understanding.

So go download the Focus by Grade Level document to see what the Major Work in your grade level is.  The Major work is NOT just 20%, but I bet you can pick out the 20% that impacts 80% of your students’ understanding.  That 20% is where you need to spend the majority of your time this next year.

Let’s take a look at just one example.  There is a box on the page that shows the Highlights of Major Work in Grades K-8. In 3rd-5th the highlight says “multiplication and division of whole numbers and fractions-concepts, skills, and problem solving.” 

So that is the main thing we should be helping students understand during 3rd-5th grade, but each grade has lots of other standards. As you are looking at your standards, I want you to think about whether or not it helps support your students in understanding the major work. It’s not to say that the other stuff isn’t important but next year especially, you are going to have to make some tough decisions about what you spend your time on during math. 

In this example from 3rd grade one of the standard clusters is about getting kids to “Reason with shapes and their attributes.”  Again, it’s wonderful if we can help kids understand that a square is a rectangle but not all rectangles are squares (which is part of that standard) but is that part of the 20% that is helping students develop the major mathematical work that impacts 80% of their math understanding?? No.  

Next year, you will have to make some hard decisions about what content you delve into during math time and I want to encourage you to use these Focus by Grade Level documents to help you make those decisions.  Also be thinking about the 80/20 rule: is this part of the 20% that is going to impact 80% of their math understanding.

If yes, you’ve got to make sure you spend a lot of time in that area.  It’s not to say that you don’t spend time in the other areas.  But if it’s part of that 20% it has to be part of what you focus on next year.

Stay safe and stay mentally healthy.

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As you start off the school year, I want you to keep in mind what is really important as we're trying to teach mathematics to our students.