The 80:20 Principle – 5 – Mental Models for Education

In 1896 the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto noticed that roughly 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of its population.

The Pareto Principle, or more often, the 80:20 principle, suggests that 80% of your sales usually comes from only 20% of your products, services or clients.  It’s the reason a First Class ticket to New York costs £7,000 when an economy class ticket costs only £400.




This one’s brilliant for time management and decision making in general.  It can be combined with Effort:Impact to help us to realise how, actually, all that time we spend trying to make super nice PowerPoints probably falls into the 20% impact for 80% effort category.

The most important use of the 80:20 principle I’ve found in education is curriculum design.  Will Emeny produced this incredible network map of the GCSE maths curriculum, and in doing so he revealed the 20% that underpin the 80% of the curriculum.



  • Multiply and divide whole numbers
  • Add and subtract whole numbers
  • Multiply and divide decimal numbers
  • Add and subtract decimal numbers
  • Understand place value
  • Multiply and divide negative numbers
  • Add and subtract negative numbers
  • Order of operations
  • Round to decimal places
  • Round to significant figures
  • Powers of 10
  • Fraction of an amount
  • Connect between fractions, ratios, decimals and percentages
  • Plot and identify coordinates


If your pupils can’t do those things, they’re not doing much of anything else.  Therefore, focus your Year 7 curriculum here, and make damned sure they all succeed!

Michel Thomas is a master of this.  He pointed out that the 100 highest frequency words in the French language made up 50% of the everything people said in everyday conversation, so with only 100 words you’re half way there!  He made sure to put them front and centre of his language curriculum.

He did the same again by finding rules that opened up the most words possible for English speakers, and introduces them immediately, rules such as all English words ending in ‘-ible’ and ‘-able’ being the same in French, just with a different pronunciation.  Doing so gives you an immediate vocabulary of thousands of French words, so that only 90 minutes in he’s asking you how to say in French ‘What is your opinion of the economic and political situation in France at the moment?’


In physics, chemistry, biology, what are the 20% topics?

What about geography and history?

English?  (Stop saying it’s about nothing more than skills!)

What about music and art?


Figure it out, redesign your curriculum, leverage the power of the 20%.  I put that down as one of the most vital ingredients in the success of Bruno Reddy’s maths curriculum at KSA.


About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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7 Responses to The 80:20 Principle – 5 – Mental Models for Education

  1. Pingback: Overview – 0 – Mental Models for Education | …to the real.

  2. Andy McHugh says:

    Great post! I applied the Pareto principle to managing teacher workload in a blog post earlier this year. You can read it here: . Would love to know your thoughts!

  3. bottomsbray says:

    I wonder if that’s where the 80:20 pupil:teacher talk nonsense came from. I always wondered how it could be so precise; looks like the “dale” effect.

  4. Greg Ashman says:

    Great post although I’m not keen on the swipe at PowerPoint. The way that it is used in my department actually saves everyone a lot of time.

  5. Pingback: What is 80/20 Rule about? – coreSparker

  6. Pingback: Alphabetical Signposts To Teacher Excellence – E – Teach innovate reflect

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