Category Archives: Learning Sciences

The Learning Pyramid: Myth!

I have been reading up on the The Learning Pyramid, attributed the National Training Laboratories (NTL) at Bethel, Maine. My tutor mentioned this when we were talking about peer based learning. He remembered that there was some interesting research on the different methods of instruction.

Here is a “version” of it. It has many variants.

The Learning Pyramid

However, the more I have looked at this simple and persuasive little diagram and the more I dig about the less good it seems. Here is a great little blog that attempts to find out more about it. This writer attempts to understand how such an unreferenced, unresearched piece of “wisdom” is repeated so often.

The best scholarly article I have found on this is James P Lalley and Robert H Miller “The Learning Pyramid: Does it point teachers in the wrong direction?” Education, Sep 2007 This article attempts to find out the origin of the Pyramid. The researchers also attempt a review of all the current research for each teaching type.

I would urge you to read it in full. But for the tl;dr crowd I have extracted two sections:

1. No reference found

‘Additional information regarding the pyramid raises questions of credibility. The National Training Laboratories, in response to an email request from a member of the Academic Computing Department at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, stated the following about the pyramid:

“It was developed and used by NTL Institute at our Bethel, Maine campus in the early sixties when we were still part of the National Education Association’s Adult Education Division. Yes, we believe it to be accurate – but no, we no longer have – nor can we find – the original research that supports the numbers. We get many inquiries every month about this – and many, many people have searched for the original research and have come up empty handed. We know that in 1954 a similar pyramid with slightly different numbers appeared on p. 43 of a book called Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching, published by the Edgar Dale Dryden Press in New York. Yet the Learning Pyramid as sucb seems to have been modified and always has been attributed to NTL Institute.” ‘

2. A continuum not a hierarchy

‘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. Therefore, the less prior knowledge students have the more likely it is that effective methods would be found toward the direct instruction end of the continuum, and as students’ knowledge increased, they would be more
capable of learning with methods involving discussion and teaching. However, because learning is an ongoing process, this will not preclude that further learning will take place with more direct methods. Thus, even the most experienced learners, such as successful heart surgeons, could learn from a more experienced learner, a surgeon with a new technique, and the best
initial methods would likely be lecture/demonstration which would lead to practice by doing, and possibly teaching others. Not surprisingly, this retums 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.’

The world is not so simple.

Well. What a surprise. The world is more complex than a simple diagram tries to make it.

The dangerous thing about “The Learning Pyramid” is that confirms what we all know about reading and listening to lectures. They are not only dull and boring, but now we learn they are useless too. Excellent. Let’s concentrate on more modern techniques that the Gradgrinds of Teaching would never use in the dusty classrooms. And off we skip.

24250063The best advice from research seems to be is to use a variety of methods. This is also echoed by research into learning and memory from the cognitive sciences.

I have been reading a modern summary of the learning sciences by Benedict Carey “How we learn.” The research highlighted in this book points out that learning is at its best when it is varied, regular and revisited. Memory is an amalgam of recall and stored information. We seem to store everything we do, along with the emotions and environment in which we study. The trick is is to improve recall and this is best done by studying the same information in different places and in different ways and this assists the recall process winnow out the facts from the noise of the environment.

It’s an excellent little read and has certainly changed my attitude to learning. And it is great to see that the Lalley and Miller study also concludes that variety works too.

 

Seven myths about education – Daisy Christodoulou

This little book – Seven Myths about Education – has received some attention from reviewers – herehere and here and appears to have caused a minor stir.

I have managed to get a copy from the library and have read the intro and first two chapters.

I will give my reaction to the books message later.

For now I want to deal with how the book deals with evidence and theory. This book has been accused of putting up straw men to easily knock down. And in the reviews above you will find elements of those accusations.

So I was prepared for a book that might annoy me with an over simplistic positioning of the myth makers. And what I got was a much better thing. Each chapter is neatly organised into three parts:

  1. Theoretical evidence
  2. Modern practice
  3. Why is it a myth?

Part three is all about evidence from cognitive sciences, and psychology. And this is what most attracts me. There seems to be a growing cross disciplinary subject called “learning sciences“. And what struck me is that the evidence from the first section is from writers who had no evidence but their experience – they were working at time when there was no scientific study. Great thinkers like Rosseau, Dickens, Dewey, and Freire were writing cogent and persuasive arguments based on their experience and analysis of contemporary education and classrooms.

Compare this to cognitive scientists, memory scientists and others who attempt to tease out how we actually remember things, and how we think. I have been reading another book that reviews the current work on “How we learn” which demonstrates that the learning sciences are growing rapidly and counter so many of our commonly accepted ideas about study and learning.

One of the best lines from the the Seven Myths book is the scrambled egg metaphor by E D Hirsch: “who sees the relationship between knowledge and skills as being like a scrambled eff. You cannot unscramble an egg, and you cannot unscramble knowledge from skills.

Which in turn reminds me of the jam being stirred into a rice pudding image from the wonderfully thought provoking play Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. (I wonder if Hirsch borrowed the idea from Stoppard and who in turn Stoppard stole it from?)

And this is what pedagogy needs. We need to shed the thinkers who used only the evidence of their experience. Anecdote is not evidence. The subject of how we think cannot be left to an individual’s experience of their own thinking. All the studies and books I have read about the cognitive sciences generally echo the fact that our thought processes are not transparent to our conscious brains. A scientific basis is required, on which we can build an evidence based craft of teaching.