A Pareto approach to pedagogy
Enjoyed Nate Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise, though would have appreciated it more with less of a Big Thesis and more of a collection of stories (which is what it ends up being anyway). Sam Wang at the Princeton Election Consortium reviewed the book and noted that its use of Bayesian reasoning as a cure-all seemed reductive, which is how it felt reading the second half of the book. (Meanwhile, Everything Is Obvious by Duncan Watts is the better book about the limitations of prediction, and there are a number of books that are better on the possibilities of group predictions) .
The best chapter is the one on the online poker boom and bust (Silver calls it a “bubble” but really it was a boom quickly and actively destroyed by regulatory legislation). In it, Silver presents a totally unscientific but provocative variation on the Pareto principle, which says that 20% of customers account for 80% of profits.
In the Pareto Principle of Prediction, the 80-20 rule refers to accuracy and effort (or, alternatively, “skill” and “experience,” a related but different formulation):
As I apply [the principle] here, it posits that getting a few basic things right can go a long way. In poker, for instance, simply learning to fold your worst hands, bet your best ones, and make some effort to consider what your opponent holds will substantially mitigate your losses. If you are willing to do this, then perhaps 80 percent of the time you will be making the same decision as one of the best poker players like Dwan [a prominent online poker hustler] — even if you have spent only 20 percent as much of the time studying the game
I tend to think that there’s something like this in teaching — a set of baseline teaching competencies that, when “mastered,” stop you from crashing and burning. Some combination of lesson structure, management of bodies in space, tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, and big-picture predictability (understanding the full “course” of a lesson even throughout bumpy parts, related to but not exactly the same as structure) makes up for a ton of the anxiety that accompanies teaching.
Recently I’ve been doing some consulting work and workshops that basically lay out a few of these things explicitly for non-traditional teachers in enrichment environments — artists, students, professionals. Pareto Pedagogy comes in handy to help teachers avoid meltdowns — recognizing when they’re cramming multiple lessons into one unit of learning time; when arrangement of space is thwarting their best intentions; when letting silences happen in the classroom would yield more trust and better responses.
Most teachers in K-12 figure this out naturally over the course of their training and certainly within their first few years of teaching. Some teachers over-correct, in a way, employing far too many techniques to predict and control classrooms than are probably necessary — Mary Kennedy refers to this as teachers making the routines the point of the lesson instead of a means to a more important end (as when teachers and students alike get bogged down in color-coding sentence parts and wind up learning more about the color codes than the sentence constructions).
But failing that 20% — bodies, space, structure, handling ambiguity/silence — can make teaching a complete nightmare. That doesn’t mean that mastering some of these makes you a good teacher, or that the “skills” are going to be the same in every environment (this is one of many ways teaching differs from poker!), but that part of the important work of empowering new teachers in ways that also empower their students is simply mitigating disaster. One of the things I love about adapting button-down classroom management techniques like Doug Lemov’s — as much as I think the “project” there is far too controlling — is that it supports (and usually makes very evident very quickly) the simple idea that some control allows for much more freedom and creativity in a learning environment is a somewhat unpopular but very important concept in informal learning environments.