Learning Pyramid – fact or fiction?

I’ve been refreshing my knowledge of learning theories and core models for creating meaningful learning events that result in something a learner actually remembers and can do (in the case of behaviors).  And a colleague recently sent a PDF on simulations and their value as a learning method.

In that article, the familiar picture of the pyramid of learning (as it is sometimes called) appeared.  Ah yes.  Feels right, doesn’t it?  Nearly 5,000 image results on learning pyramid retention rates seem to corroborate this idea.

The Learning Pyramid

Well actually, the jury is out on the ‘rightness’ of this model.  Some years back, Cisco took it upon themselves to do a literature review around this.  This is what they came up with (pdf) and as the history of Dale’s Cone of Experience is traced, we find that academics, educators, consultants and instructional designers have made some hefty assumptions about this model over the years.

The earliest versions of the pyramid were only focused on different media types for instructional use.  At some point, an fact-free conclusion was made that learning retention rates correlated to the size of the level in the pyramid, and teaching approaches moved in on the media and interaction types (levels within the pyramid) – check out the original image included in the Cisco study.

So learning by doing isn’t a silver bullet.  How should we design educational experiences, then?

I think we need to take a few things into consideration, and remember (I love a pun) that long-term memory is what we’re after – at least in most cases – with often some behavior shift implied.

  1. Learning styles matter.  These are the preferences that individuals have in terms of how they learn things.  Reading, hands-on experimentation, discussion, seeing images, hearing a lecture or other sounds and so on.
  2. Learning outcomes matter.  If you have identified outcomes in the familiar domains of knowledge, behaviors, and attitudes, then you will choose methods and approaches that best suit those kinds of outcomes.  In other words, talking about how to have a difficult conversation is certainly not enough.  We need practice (“hands-on experimentation”).
  3. Context matters.  I admit.  This is a bucket into which a number of things have been poured:  What motivators for the learner can we tap into?  What’s going on in the business, in their lives?  Where will the learning take place – at work, elsewhere?  When do the learners need which part of the learning most?

Designing educational experiences with the above in mind should get us there.  I think it’s time for a research-based model to be propagated in the way Mr. Dale’s cone has been…

Thanks to David Jones for his very considered post on this topic.

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