Part 2: The 80-20 Rule Re-Visited: Teacher Talking Time (TTT) #ELTchat

Paul Krugman receiving his Nobel Prize (Credit: Google images)

Ferris Bueller has taken the day off, and his poor classmates went to economics class. Voodoo economics…

As we could see in the video from Part 1, the 80-20 Rule, or any other arbitrary rule of thumb, needs to be critically examined. Let’s take the example we just had, and do the math.

Class length: 40 minutes.
Teacher Talking Time (TTT): 20%
Result: 8 minutes for the teacher.

Pareto Principle, commonly known as the 80-20 Rule (Source: Google images)

Now go back to the video.

Question: What would happen in a classroom with this teacher talking for 8 minutes?

Answer: Students in a coma after 2 minutes, clinically dead after 5, brain dead after 8… 🙂 I’m not kidding.

We will return to this point later, but we begin to see that it’s not only a matter of how long the teacher talks. There are other variables that need to be addressed. However, we shall return, if only briefly, to this point.

Let’s do some history work: What is this 80-20 rule? Why is it such a powerful mental construct? How has it gotten repeated over and over again so much that it is practically a part of a teacher’s DNA?

We travel back in time to Italy. The date is July 15th, 1848, and Vilfredo Pareto has just been born.

Vilfredo Pareto (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Vilfredo Pareto grew up to become an economist. In 1906, one of his observations was that 20% of the people in Italy owned 80% of the land. This was an amazing discovery.

Even more amazing was that in his garden he discovered that 20% of the pea pods had 80% of the peas. It seemed wherever he looked, this 80-20 rule seemed to repeat itself.

Here’s an example of the 80-20 Rule in everyday life: in 1992 the United Nations showed that the distribution of World GDP (in 1989) was 82.70% for the richest 20%. (Source: Wikipedia)

So what does it all mean, especially when related to TTT? Is it relevant?

Well, firstly, I have to tell you that in 2006, Paul Krugman, (winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Economics) in a New York Times article, dismissed this as the “80-20 fallacy. It seems that over the past 30 years, 80% of the world’s wealth is now in the hands of only 1% (one per cent) of the richest people on Earth.

Krugman, Paul (February 27, 2006). “Graduates versus Oligarchs”. New York Times: pp. A19.

Blindly accepting the 80-20 Rule in ELT may make us feel good, but it has been proven to be a fallacy, at least in the field of economics, which is where it originated from in the first place. Enjoy the video.

In Part 3, I’ll address some implications for the ELT classroom.


About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family.
This entry was posted in Education, EFL, Teaching Tips and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Part 2: The 80-20 Rule Re-Visited: Teacher Talking Time (TTT) #ELTchat

  1. I liked your little bio, and “vowed to never study again… [but] I’ve never stopped” resonates strongly with me.

    What black and white line will ever correctly express a truth? 80-20 is pretty black and white…

    More specifically, I have a hard time seeing the fairness in comparing an economics class with an ELT class. Econ, to me, is a colder science that requires more external attention and then reflection and finally (active) reproduction. ELT, on the other hand, is a “warmer” science which lends to greater participation and activation throughout most of the learning experience.

    Whereas in a perfect world, students would spend most of the time in dialogue and actively pursuing a lesson instead of simply “receiving a teaching deposit”, economics certainly requires more explanation and topic exposure than ELT, doesn’t it?

    Any black n white number is going to cause disagreement, however 80-20 for me is a good number because it emphasizes student activation. In any case, I’m glad you’re drawing attention to this issue, and that we’re hashing out the truth here, because it’ll certainly have a positive effect in the classroom. Cheers, Brad


    • Hi Brad,

      Thanks for dropping by again. It’s good to have you for another visit, and I appreciate, fully, your valuable comments.

      Yes, imagine that, I once actually thought that I would never, ever, voluntarily, of my own free will, study again. 🙂

      That’s an incredible thought, because even before the advent of the digital age, (where this thought of mine comes from) life-long learning (and thus study) was already a reality. To be honest, I am so happy that I was wrong, because I truly love learning (which for me implies study).

      Where were we Brad? Oh, the 80-20 rule.

      It almost sounds sexy, doesn’t it? It’s rhythmic, and as Shakespeare put it, “it rolls trippingly off the tongue”. But let’s not go there, because it’s a subterfuge on my part. Forgive me for that.

      Here’s the best reply I can give at the moment. If we teachers, me, you, and others like us, decide to critically examine our teaching practice, our beliefs, and especially the origins of those beliefs, then the ultimate beneficiary of our professionalism will be our students.

      And finally, Brad, I’m really hoping you take a look, or maybe already took a look by now, at the final “installment” in this 3-part series. Rather than call it “Part 3: The 80-20 Rule Revisited”, I decided to call it, “Final: The 80-20 Rule Revisited”.

      I wanted to be clear to my Reader(s) and Friend(s) that this was the last post in the series, and thereby encourage many a voyager and fellow traveler to find out what happens in the end. That’s why I called it “Final”.

      I am going to anticipate that after you read the final installment, you will find that our conclusions are sufficiently similar that we can agree to disagree on any remaining part, however miniscule it may be.

      I thank you again, Brad, for taking the time to share with me here. Your interaction and connection with me here helps me to critically examine my own thinking, and to reconcile it with perceptions that call my attention to areas that may have escaped me originally.

      Have a great day, and I look forward to future conversations with you here.

      You are a most welcome guest.

      Best regards,


      • Wow…I feel like royalty after reading your response. Thanks for such a caring, open, full and intelligent reply.

        Now, I’m quickly on my way towards the “finale” in the series. Cheers, Brad 🙂


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