Debunker Club Works to Dispel the Corrupted Cone of Learning

A new group called The Debunker Club is working to dispel myths and misinformation in the learning field. From their website:

The Debunker Club is an experiment in professional responsibility. Anyone who’s interested may join as long as they agree to the following:

  1. I would like to see less misinformation in the learning field.
  2. I will invest some of my time in learning and seeking the truth, from sources like peer-reviewed scientific research or translations of that research.
  3. I will politely, but actively, provide feedback to those who transmit misinformation.
  4. At least once a year, I will seek out providers of misinformation and provide them with polite feedback, asking them to stop transmitting their misinformation.
  5. I will be open to counter feedback, listening to understand opposing viewpoints. I will provide counter-evidence and argument when warranted.

This year, coinciding with April Fool’s Day 2015, the Debunker Club is running an experiment. We’re making a concerted effort to contact people who have shared the Cone of Experience (also known as the Cone of Learning or the Pyramid of Learning).

Many iterations of this cone exist. A Google image search for “cone of learning” returns dozens of results, most of which are false. If you’ve seen something like this that said, “People remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see” etc., you’ve seen a variation on this theme.

Image search results for Cone of Learning

The original cone was developed by Edgar Dale and didn’t include any numbers. The later versions are the “corrupted cone” with fictitious statistics added.  Will Thalheimer’s post from 2009 debunking these claims is where I learned it was incorrect. Common sense might give you a hint that these numbers aren’t really based in research though. Think about it–how many times have you see research where all the categories broke into even 10% segments?

As part of the Debunker Club’s efforts, I discovered a post on Dane’s Education Blog called A Hierarchy of Learning. Although this post cites a great debunking article (Tales of the Undead…Learning Theories: The Learning Pyramid), the blog author only says that he “appreciate what it conveys.”

I left the following comment on his Learning Pyramid post.

Thanks for collecting so many resources on your blog. I can see that you’ve worked really hard to share many links and ideas with your readers.

However, the information above, though it may appear to have scientific support, has been exhaustively researched and found to have no basis in science. In fact, the “Tales of the Undead” link you cite debunks it.

An article from the scientific journal Educational Technology shows no research backing for the information. (Subramony, D., Molenda, M., Betrus, A., and Thalheimer, W. (2014). The Mythical Retention Chart and the Corruption of Dale’s Cone of Experience. Educational Technology, Nov/Dec 2014, 54(6), 6-16.)

The information presented is likely to produce more harm than good, promoting poor learning designs and hurting learners.

While we might abstract some beneficial notions from the percentages portrayed in the misleading information — namely that encouraging realistic practice has benefits — there are numerous faulty concepts within the bogus percentages that can do real harm. For example, by having people think that there are benefits to seeing over hearing, or hearing over reading, we are sending completely wrong messages about how learning works.

Most importantly, recent advances in learning science have really come together over the last two decades. The misleading information was first reported in 1914, with no research backing. It’s better to follow more recent findings than information that has no scientific basis. See, for example, the book Make it Stick by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel. Julie Dirksen’s Design for How People Learn is another great selection.

I’m part of a larger community of folks called the Debunker Club who are attempting to encourage the use of proven, scientifically-based learning factors in the learning field.

I’m going to be posting about this misleading information on my blog. I hope you’ll comment and respond to my post if you wish. I (and the debunker community in general) want to learn how other people feel about the issues and ideas surrounding the original information and our approach to debunking myths and sharing evidence.

If you’re interested in dispelling misinformation and improving the learning field, please join the Debunker Club and participate in the conversation.

Revisiting Learning Styles

As part of David Kelly’s Learning Styles Awareness Day, I’m revisiting the idea of learning styles. I admit that when I was taught learning styles in my education program, I didn’t question it. It made intuitive sense, and I’d never heard a real criticism of the theory. When I started digging into the research though, I realized that the research support for learning styles is pretty flimsy.

rhythm on a whiteboardIf I think back to the way learning styles were taught to me though, it was never applied the way that the theory is “officially” supposed to work. The most common idea is that people have some sort of style, and if you match that style they will learn better. That’s what Will Thalheimer’s still-unanswered research challenge asks for: something where individuals receive training matched to their style. If you’re a visual learner, you would only receive learning via visual methods; if you’re an auditory learner, you’d listen to everything you learn, etc.

That was never how it was applied in the classroom though. For K-12 classroom applications, learning styles were really about providing multiple methods of learning for everyone in the class. In a physical classroom, you didn’t have the option of individualizing everything, so you tended to look for ways to hit the visual and auditory at the same time or for multiple activities to reinforce the same content.

As a music teacher, that might mean something like teaching rhythms through multiple channels. I’d start by having students listen to me chant and clap a rhythm (auditory), then have them echo that rhythm back (auditory and kinesthetic). After several minutes of echoing rhythms with a specific type of pattern, I’d draw a rhythm on the chalkboard (yes, actual chalk) and connect how it looks to how it sounds (visual and auditory). Then we’d practice reading some rhythms with similar patterns, with them looking, chanting, and clapping all together.

If I was teaching music today, I’d do that same kind of lesson, just not because of learning styles. That’s all based on the Kodály method, which does have research support (at least as far as I know; I haven’t dug into it since I rarely teach music anymore). But the idea of approaching concepts from multiple angles with different methods and media still makes sense. It isn’t because I’m matching to a particular style; it’s because I’m helping everyone learn through multiple channels. This might be what Tom Stafford from Mind Hacks is getting at when he says “Having thought about learning styles helps teachers improve their teaching and also helps increase their confidence and motivation.” I really wish he provided a citation for the idea that thinking about learning styles helps teachers improve their teaching though; I’d like to know whether that’s just his opinion or something with data to support it.

So what does this mean for me as an instructional designer today, rather than a K-12 music and band teacher? As an instructional designer, I basically ignore learning styles. I do think about presenting information with both visuals and audio, but that’s more based on cognitive load theory than learning styles. I’m also working to do better at visual presentation with graphics and not just words, because that is supported by research. As Judy Unrein noted “…humans are such overwhelmingly visual creatures that if we simply catered better to that one sense, we could improve the vast majority of our designs.”

Judy’s idea of focusing on interaction preferences is an interesting one. People do have different preferences, and those preferences can change based on the context (and the type of content, I would add). Giving learners some control over how they interact with the training does seem beneficial. If we don’t lock down the navigation, they can choose which parts they really need. In spite of the research, I personally find audio in e-learning to be generally obnoxious, so if I can turn it off and read the captions instead, I almost always will do that instead. I can read much faster that you can read to me, thank you very much, so I’m annoyed if you don’t give me the option of reading.

What about you? Is there anything in learning styles that you find useful in your own practice, or is it something you’ve abandoned in favor of other ideas?

Image credit: rhythm by billaday