The Myth and Mystique of the Learning Pyramid

The Myth

The image Edgar Dale’s Cone of Learning is so tempting. For those of us who are advocates active learning, it visually tells us that talking at people, lecturing, just isn’t enough. We do better as teachers and trainers if we let learners see, hear, experience, try and teach it back to others. But here are the problems with this model, first introduced by Dale in 1946:

  • Somebody added those very neat percentages sometime later
  • The model could never be  substantiated by research findings
  • It’s not so linear as presented – adding “hear and see” over “read” cannot be relied upon add to learning by another 10 or 20%

The Mystique:  Why do we like it so?

The Metiri Group did a study that was commissioned by Cisco in 2008, called “Multimodal Learning Through Media: What the Research Says.” This meta-analysis examines the myth of The Cone and suggests,

The person(s) who added percentages to the cone of learning were looking for a silver
bullet, a simplistic approach to a complex issue. A closer look now reveals that one size does
not fit all learners. As it turns out, doing is not always more efficient than seeing, and seeing
is not always more effective than reading. Informed educators understand that the optimum
design depends on the content, context, and the learner.”

The paper goes on to explore types of memory, the science behind how people learn, the impact of “Interactive Multi-modal” learning over “Non-interactive Uni-modal” approaches, and concludes:

The reality is that the most effective designs for learning adapt to include a variety of media, combinations of modalities, levels of  interactivity, learner characteristics, and pedagogy based on a complex set of circumstances. In general, multi-modal learning has been shown to be more effective than traditional, uni-modal learning. Adding visuals to verbal (text and/or auditory) learning can result in significant gains in basic and higher-order learning. The meta-analytic findings in this report provide insights into when interactivity augments multi-modal learning of moderately to complex topics, and when it is advantageous for students to work individually when learning or building automaticity with basic skills.”

Does the Pyramid point us in the right direction? Yes and No.

This is the question that James Lalley and Robert Miller explore in their paper, “The Learning Pyramid: Does it Point Teachers in the Right Direction?” published in Education in 2007. After concluding that the Cone of Learning (with those percentages) cannot be proven, they move on to examine the more credible research available on these various learning methods. Though not intended to be comprehensive, they wished to determine if each of the identified methods do result in improved learning retention.

No. . .

After looking at each method in turn, direct instruction (lecturing), reading, audio-visual, demonstration, cooperative learning, practice by doing, and teaching other, they concluded:

… use of each of the methods identified by the pyramid resulted in retention, with none being consistently superior to the others and all being effective in certain contexts. A paramount concern, given conventional wisdom and the research cited, is the effectiveness and importance of reading and direct instruction, which in many ways are undermined by their positions on the pyramid.”

The key points here are:

  1. “Lecturing” does not fully encompass the Direct Instruction in which teachers now engage.  Teacher-facilitated learning, has experienced a paradigm shift from “Sage on the Stage” to “Guide on the side,” whereby teachers incorporate active listening, coaching, mentoring and facilitation. Dale’s Cone of Learning does not adequately capture this new reality.
  2. “Reading” is now seen not only as an effective teaching method, but as the main foundation for becoming a life-long learner, and is therefore a critical component of a learning experience.

And Yes. . .

If we were to draw any conclusion based on the pyramid, it would be that the methods be thought of as on a continuum as opposed to in a hierarchy. . . . this returns us to the assertions of Dale (1946) and Dewey (1916) that for successful learning experiences, students need to experience a variety of instructional methods and that direct instruction needs to be accompanied by methods that further student understanding and recognize why what they are learning is useful.”

 

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