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Posts Tagged ‘dale

One of the disadvantages of not reacting immediately is that something online might go offline. In this case it was a tweet of a slide from a self-proclaimed expert.

The slide was a rehash of the so-called learning pyramid. I hate how much it has been misrepresented that I refuse to show an example of it now.

But I only have to describe what has become common knowledge among new teachers and trainers — we supposedly only learn 5 or 10% from lectures, 10% from reading, 20% from audio-visual, and all that jazz. This is a bastardisation of Dale’s original Cone of Experience.

Dale's (1946) original Cone of Experience.

A few years ago, I shared how the learning pyramid with percentages has been debunked. But here is the short version.

  • Edgar Dale suggested in 1946 that media had effects on imparting information, and suggested a hierarchy of media effects.
  • This hierarchy was dubbed Dale’s Cone of Experience.
  • Dale did not suggest percentages to his theoretical model.
  • The hierarchy was about media effects, not retention or learning.

Despite this, Dale’s Cone was misused. Michael Molenda, someone I studied under, suggested that someone named Paul John Phillips, an instructor working at a military training methods branch, might have added retention rates without any backing from research. An early form of the learning pyramid was first published in 1967 by D. G. Treichler, again without any evidence.

It is easy to challenge the learning pyramid without mentioning the lack of research. Just ask the seller of snake oil how the percentages are in exact percentages of fives or tens. For example, how does a lecture ensure 5% of retention or learning? Why 5%? How was this measured? Why not deliver just that 5%?

Some things bear repeating. No, not the mythical percentages in the learning pyramid, but the fact that it was spread as a lie.

If you operate in training in the corporate, governmental, or NGO worlds, then 80:20 or 70:20:10 makes sense to you.

To the rest of the world, particularly those in schooling and higher education, those ratios and what they stand for make about as much sense as the tweet above.

The issue is not so much the proportion of, say, sales and active customers, it is how the numbers came to be. When you discover that this “principle” has been applied to management, marketing, sales, and even life, you have to ask: What research helped establish these ratios?


If you dive into that rabbit hole, you might realise how shallow it is. It is a pothole that does not go anywhere. I would rather pave over that hole.

I did something similar in the past by pointing out how wrong the numbers were in Dale’s cone of experience. This critical resource describes how Dale did not put any numbers to his model and the numbers were made up.

It is tempting to try to make complex phenomena like “how people learn” simple. The mistake is trying to boil this down to numbers and formulae.


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