The Law of the Vital Few

One drop can have the greatest ripples

When Robert J. Marzano conducted a review of the average state or provincial curriculum, he confirmed what teachers already knew: it is not possible to teach all curricular outcomes to every child in a meaningful way in the time allotted. Dr. Marzano determined that on average a student moving through a K–12 education system took 14 subjects which contained 255 standards. These standards contained 3,500 indicators, which he concluded would require an additional 10,000 hours of school to ensure learning for every student.

This fact, combined with traditional practices of teacher isolation, have resulted in teachers being forced to make individual decisions every day regarding which outcomes to ignore, how long to spend on each outcome, and what constitutes evidence of success. Considering that the quality of these decisions has a direct impact on student learning, the importance of making the right ones cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, leaving these decisions up to individual teachers more often than not results in widely different opinions about what should be taught.

In a professional learning community, these important decisions are never left up to chance. PLCs engage teams of teachers in collaborative processes to collectively determine the most essential outcomes. In other words, teams decide what elements of the curriculum all students MUST learn—what is essential as opposed to what is nice to know. To do this they must discuss the merits of each outcome and determine whether it is essential by asking if an outcome has endurance (needs to be remembered after the test is written), has leverage (required in more than one discipline), or is required for the next level (must be learned before students can move to the next step).

Once the essential outcomes have been determined, they are vertically aligned to ensure that there are no gaps, overlaps, or omissions. Teams collectively sequence these outcomes into a shared year plan and decide on the length of instruction for each. This collaborative work ensures curricular equity for students and creates a guaranteed and viable curriculum for the school. Not surprisingly, educators who have spent their careers covering content might approach this concept with skepticism. After all, how can focusing on less equal more student learning? The whole idea seems a little counter-intuitive.

To demonstrate why going deeper into fewer essential concepts is better than the traditional inch-deep, mile-wide approach, consider the “Law of the Vital Few.” This law, which also goes by the name of the “Pareto Principle” or the “80-20 rule,” states that for many things 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In other words, 80% of our results with students come from focusing on the most important 20% of the outcomes. In a traditional school setting, this is one of the concepts that excellent teachers have intuitively discovered. They see the evidence of how deeper understanding of certain concepts leads to increases in achievement for all students whether they enter their class struggling or excelling. Their instruction and practice is focused to ensure that all students understand the most important aspects of the curriculum, and as a result the achievement of students is often looked upon as a pocket of excellence within the school. If we are to help ALL students learn, we need to move away from isolated teacher practice and collaboratively ensure the conditions for excellence are possible for every teacher.

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