Zombie Learning Theories

In November of 2014, I posted a short article to the Brainbrainlearning.net discussion forum on the importance of educators being good consumers of education research (click here to read Let’s Be Better Consumers of the Science).

Since then, I have had lots of discussions and fielded lots of questions related to educational research, particularly myths related to learning and the brain.   As I’ve learned more, I’ve become fascinated with what some researchers refer to as “zombie” learning theories (because despite a lack of evidence, these learning theories refuse to die).

In this article, we’ll tackle probably the biggest zombie of them all – Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience.

Cone of Experience

In the past year, I’ve taught numerous classes for educators (ranging from sessions for first-year teachers to master’s classes at a private university) and when I’ve asked them about the Cone of Experience (sometimes referred to as the Cone of Learning), not one of them has challenged its validity.  Not one!

The problem is that there is no research base to support this theory.  None.  There is no documented research study to support any of the percentages attributed to the various learning activities.  This theory would have you believe that people will remember 90% of a simulation, model or experience while they’ll only remember 10% of what they read.

Let’s think about this for just a second.  Set aside the fact that there is no research to support these tidy little percentages, let’s use some common sense.  Do we really believe that students will only remember only 10% of what they read?  Dear Mr. and Mrs. Teacher – if you really believed that, why would you have them spend any time reading?  Seems like reading would be a gigantic waste of time.  Wouldn’t you spend the vast majority of your class time doing those things that would get 70-90% retention?

When we think about this theory a little more, it seems silly that we fell for it in the first place.  For example, consider that quality, reliable educational research never results in the kinds of percentages listed in the model.   Multiples of 10 are just too convenient and they just don’t work that way in real research.  Besides, how would we measure something like this in the first place?  And why are some teaching and learning activities left out?  Think about this: each of us can recall a time, in great detail, when we remembered far more than 20% of what someone said us.  Can you recall a time when you were ridiculed, yelled at, embarrassed, or made to feel inferior?  I bet you remember a lot more than 20% of what you heard!  For those of you who are teachers, do you remember 90% of every lesson you taught last week?

It should also get our attention that when this theory is shared (along with the corresponding diagrams and charts), there are rarely any citations or references to original research.  By the way, Edgar Dale was a real guy and he did some interesting research starting in the 1940s and he did theorize that some learning experiences would result in better retention than others.  However, he never added the percentages that you commonly see referenced in the diagrams.  And, he never incorporated Bloom’s Taxonomy into his work either.  In fact, he spoke directly to the misuse of his theory in the years following its introduction.  For a more in-depth review of Edgar’s theory, including an interesting historical perspective, check out the article written by Candice Benjes-Small and Alyssa Archer from Radford University. 

With all this said, why has Edgar’s theory continued to survive?  What might his theory have gotten right?  Might there be a “grain of truth” somewhere in the model?  For a more comprehensive discussion of this, read the Benjes-Small & Archer article I just referenced.  Briefly, however, consider just some of what we do know about learning and memory and compare that to some of what you see in the diagram.  The following practices and conditions all increase retention:

  • Teaching content to someone else (Nestojko, et al. 2014)
  • Elaborating on what you are learning (Benjamin & Bjork, 2000)
  • Creating associations between what is being learned and what is known (Greene, 2010)
  • Varying the context of learning (Smith, Glenberg, & Bjork, 1978)

And the list could go on and on.  When you compare solid, evidence-based research to the Cone of Experience, there seems to be some overlap.  That is likely a factor in its staying power.  As educators, we have this intuitive understanding that the more students are actively engaged in the learning, the better the retention.  We just need to be better at discerning the research and aligning our practices to those things that have a base of evidence to support them.

Want to learn more about good, solid research?  Check out the outstanding book by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel titled Make It Stick – The Science of Successful Learning.


1 Comment

  1. This interesting article offers you a chance to take a quiz to see how well you do identifying learning myths.

    Check it out.


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