Myths and Misconceptions

The world of teaching and learning is rife with received wisdom, including the potency of learning styles (which deserves a page to itself), and plenty of other unproven but fashionable ideas. and the page on "Innovations" See "What works..." on the teaching site

It is not so much that they are "wrong", but:

"Mostly harmless"?

Famously, in Douglas Adams' Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the verdict on Earth was "mostly harmless". Can't that be said about all this stuff? In my more pompous moments—which are becoming more frequent as I get older—I think it is more worrying than that for these reasons:

  • Opportunity cost: The cost of something is not just a matter of time, money or effort spent on it, but all the others things you could have had or done had you not spent the time etc. on this one. Teaching time is finite, and there are endless debates about the curriculum and its necessary content at all levels. Time spent on pandering to manifestly nonsensical ideas is at best wasting time which could have been spent on real teaching. Worse, of course, it could be hindering real learning...
  • Integrity: Particularly in the lower levels of schooling, we transmit and perpetuate relatively benign myths in the form of necessary simplifications, to match concepts and explanations to pupils' levels of understanding. But we need to be wary! As Einstein is said to have said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler" or else we end up with this. Moreover, if we are caught out too often, the credibility of the whole educational enterpise can be undermined.
  • Modelling: Similarly, we are supposed to be modelling rational and critical enquiry and evaluation to our students.

But mea culpa, I've fallen for this in the past like everyone else...


The "Learning Pyramid"

Average retention rates for material taught using various methods —>

Looks plausible, doesn't it? It is plausible enough to appear on over 1,200 web-sites, according to one search engine, and in goodness knows how many textbooks on teaching. Moreover, its provenance is impeccable; NTL (no relation to the former UK cable company) is a highly-respected institution, now "NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Sciences" undertaking research and training in group dynamics. (The attribution is always to "National Training Laboratories, Bethel, Maine")

Unfortunately, according to a recent article even NTL does not know where it comes from. 

"NTL believes it to be accurate but says that it can no longer trace the original research that supports the numbers" Magennis and Farrell (2005:48)

It may come from Dale (1946/1954/1969) (but see below).

See here for more on the disputed provenance. And here for another take on it.

Does that matter? The pyramid makes sense, and it is intuitively accurate. Perhaps so; perhaps too much so! It is just too neat. The figures fit too closely and neatly with our (i.e. sophisticated teachers') beliefs. I am inclined to think that one of our kind conjured them out of the air in a less demanding age (I do the same thing, but I'm not daft/arrogant enough to attach figures to my half-baked ideas). I don't even know whether Pask's commitment to the value of "teach-back" was really based on his own research, or on this notional model.


Purely a note for academic detectives:

    "It is important to discuss what the Cone is not as well as what it is because of a widespread misrepresentation that has become ubiquitous in recent years. At some point someone conflated Dale’s Cone with a spurious chart that purports to show what percentage of information people remember under different learning conditions. The original version of this chart, [...], has been traced to the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company, according to Dwyer (1978), who cites Treichler (1967). [...] Despite the lack of credibility, this formulation is widely quoted, usually without attribution, and in recent years has become repeatedly conflated with Dale’s Cone, with the percentage statements superimposed on the cone, replacing or supplementing Dale’s original categories.

    MOLENDA M (2003) "Cone of Experience"
    in A. Kovalchick & K. Dawson, (eds) Educational Technology: An Encyclopedia. ABC-Clio, Santa Barbara, CA, 2003.


    Subramony, D.P. (2004). "Dale’s cone revisited: Critically examining the misapplication of a nebulous theory to guide practice." Educational Technology 43.

    Treichler, D.G. (1967) "Are you missing the boat in training aids?" Film and Audio-Visual Communications 1: 14-16.

    Note: I have not personally verified these references beyond Molenda: JSA 1.11.05 [back]

Dale's "Cone of experience" is something rather different; allied with the insight of Jerome Bruner, it suggests a more dynamic and less prescriptive model.

The Power of Non-verbal Messages

Mehrabian's model of communication is often cited for the opposite reason from the Learning Pyramid; it is counter-intuitive and shocking (intellectually, if not emotionally). Broadly, it is usually cited as claiming that in a given (spoken) message:

  • 7% of the meaning is in the spoken content,
  • 38% of the meaning is in how it is spoken,
  • 55% of meaning is in the facial expression of the speaker.

This is not merely counter-intuitive, it is self-evident rubbish. It relates to some very deliberately ambiguous communication exchanges, and Mehrabian himself disclaims the misinterpretation of his points.

Much of this depends on what you represent to students, rather than your intentions; see my paper on "Process and Content " Even so, the "framing" of messages is important in teaching. Are you serious, or are you bantering with students, or teasing? More important, how do they understand what you are saying? How many times have you had your "jokes" repeated in students' assignments? How do they "take" what you say? There needs to be a sound basis of clear, non-coded, communication before you can start playing with it.

For a good discussion of the original experimental material, go here.

Here is Mehrabian's own apologia

and his own site

and a more general discussion on Alan Chapman's wide-ranging site, always worth a visit

Oh! See this angle, too...

Other useful Sources

There is an excellent balanced chapter on "neuromyths" (pdf available here) from a recent book by the co-ordinator of the site (Howard-Jones P (2009) Introducing Neuroeducational Research London; Routledge). It's not as entertaining as Ben Goldacre's Bad Science but more comprehensive and informative, covering:

  • Multiple intelligences, 
  • Learning styles, 
  • Enriched environments
  • Brain gym
  • Water
  • Omega-3
  • Sugary snacks and drinks

—and even a sympathetic discussion about why there are (so many) neuromyths in education—and how to spot one.  Unfortunately, as simply a .pdf of the chapter, the bibliography is not included—you'll have to get the actual book for that!

The site was also recommended by Tony Fisher—many thanks.

Donald Clark has recently posted (07.11.13) on a selection of "fails"—what's wrong with "failures"?—and misconceptions, here. He discusses, inter al.:

  • Ken Robinson's misrepresentation of data on ADHD prevalence—"In fact, much of what passes for fact in Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talks are not supported by any research or data whatsoever."
  • The pyramid discussed above (in column chart form).
  • Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings
  • Sir Cyril Burt's faked IQ data

(Revised 11.12.13)

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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