Research Myth 1: The Learning Pyramid

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Have you used The Learning Pyramid?

The educational world is full of ideas that are attractive when you’re trying your best to improve student outcomes but they are often fuelled by faulty claims and dodgy research which is hard to spot.

Here is one such offender.

The Learning Pyramid

Described as “the Loch Ness Monster” of educational theory, the learning pyramid is a “fake” (De Brutckere et al 2015) and its time to debunk it. We probably all know this pyramid theory as:

  • 10 percent of what they READ
  • 20 percent of what they HEAR
  • 30 percent of what they SEE
  • 50 percent of what they SEE and HEAR
  • 70 percent of what they SAY and WRITE
  • 90 percent of what they DO

Myths have many fathers but the learning pyramid appears to have started life loosely associated with Edgar Dale’s cone of experience, a visual device which summarised his classification system for different types of mediated learning experiences. This evolved into a pyramid in the early 1960s (commonly attributed to the National Training Laboratories in the US) and since then has taken on a life of its own especially in CPD PowerPoints.

The nicely rounded off % figures often quoted could go back to 1912 or prior to that, but they have no basis and are impossible to interpret or verify – it’s bogus information. As Will Thalheimer (2015) points out:

People do not necessarily remember more of what they hear than what they read. They do not necessarily remember more of what they see and hear than what they see. The numbers are nonsense and the order of potency is incorrect”. 

Somehow the “truthiness” of information seems more believable when presented diagrammatically, especially when in pyramid form (Newman et al 2012). (See also the Mehrabian myth relating to nonverbal communication).


Let us know what you think – have you found the Learning Pyramid useful or do you agree with our verdict?

Read 12 Educational Research Myths in full here.

4 thoughts on “Research Myth 1: The Learning Pyramid

  1. I agree that the learning pyramid isn’t entirely accurate. I think that this is more of a big picture idea that fits better with the levels of processing theory. Which suggestions that the more deeply information is processed and the more connections someone can make with the material the better that it is remembered. That’s the idea that should be taken from the pyramid.

  2. What is wrong is not the pyramide itself (which previous comment is largely correct about), it is what people believe is the pyramide and how it is used in CPD. That people misuse and misunderstand a tool, doesn’t make the tool a myth, just fools looking at the finger of the wise man pointing to the moon. Reading Dale’s original paper can help in that view to understand what the pyramide is about.

    It is very ironic that there is currently a tweet from this site (most recent one!) advocating some recent research which, in essence, try to reinvent the wheel (Dale’s paper and pyramide is still light years ahead though).

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