For professors, is less more?

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Elizabeth Catanese is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities at Community College of Philadelphia. Trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction, Elizabeth has enjoyed incorporating mindfulness activities into her college classroom for over ten years. Elizabeth works to deepen her mindful awareness through writing children's books, cartooning and parenting her energetic twin toddlers, Dylan and Escher.


Recently at Community College of Philadelphia, there has been a lot of talk about the 80/20 rule, which states that 80% of outcomes come from 20% of the causes. It’s the principle that has been reflected on in many places, such as the powerful book by Keller and Papasan called The One Thing. The basic principle is that often we are driven to do more to get better results, but more success and meaning can come when we don’t divide our focus—when we do less of what matters less.

In other words, the idea behind the 80/20 rule is to identify the 20% that really matters and put our focus there. This is hard for professors in the classroom; we’re in a field where we are taught that everything matters. I have felt burdened by trying to help students’ lives outside of school, their emotional lives inside of it, trying to undo some of the challenges of a broken-in-some-places Philadelphia high school educational system while providing a rich education for a diverse audience of students ranging from age 16-60 (often in one class). There are, of course, institutional pressures as well—things we all “must do” that we would not do if not being forced to do them. Though the circumstances for all of us are different, I think it is safe to say that we have all been told, explicitly or implicitly, that doing more is the way to achieve better outcomes.

At Community College of Philadelphia last semester, instructors were challenged to explore the less is more approach and add just one thing that might improve student learning. We could pick it, and there was no pressure for the “one thing” to succeed. We were just asked to do it and then to report back about how it went. I brought in career counseling to talk to my English class and tried to facilitate connections between the work we were doing in reading and writing and student career aspirations; it was pretty successful, but what I found most effective was a debrief conversation afterwards where people told stories about struggling to find and keep employment. It didn’t exactly relate to our course content as I’d hoped, but it helped me connect with students as I, too, have had struggles finding jobs at moments in my life and career, and I was happy to share my stories right along with students. By the end of the conversation, a few students had very specific goals—to reach out to career counseling to get help on a resume, to apply to two more jobs, and to get some new interview clothing. At the end of the conversation, they felt connected to each other and to me as well as empowered to take next steps that they had chosen. I didn’t seamlessly fold the activity into my curriculum, but it was still what I would consider a success. But exactly what about it made it successful?

When I attended the debrief about the CCP “one thing” projects, something began to strike me. It didn’t really matter what the “one thing” was (or even the subject where the “one thing” project occurred). Of course, the content always related in some way to course goals, but what mattered after that fundamental link was established was something else entirely. What mattered was whether the interventions did one of two things: They either fostered student empowerment, fostered connection (to self, others or professor) or, in some cases, they fostered both empowerment and connection. This semester, I’m going to ask myself some questions about my lessons, assignments and practices. Does this assignment, lesson or practice foster connection and/or does it empower students? If not, I’ll consider letting it go. Though there is, for me, always grief in letting go, I’m hoping that the questions will lead me to put more of my energy into what matters most this semester for the greater good of myself and my students.