Learning Myth #2: Dale’s Cone of Experience

Many of us in the learning field have encountered the following claim: We remember 10% of what we hear, 50% of what we see and hear, and 90% of what we do. It’s widely believed, but is it true? Unlikely.

The claim is based on Dale’s Cone of Experience. We usually encounter it in a form something like this:


Full Cone                                                                 Source: Wikipedia (Jeffrey Anderson)

As with many learning myths it sounds, well, plausible, almost intuitive.

In fact, this myth is so plausible sounding that it is routinely taught as true in many education classes. (When I googled the term the very first paper that came up was from an Assistant Dean for Education Innovation at a large state university.)

So, as is often the case in this series on learning myths, to figure out what is going on, we need to go back to the source of the “research.”

Edgar Dale was a professor at Ohio State University from 1929 to 1973. He published his original Cone of Experience in 1946 and it looked like this:

Original Cone                                                                                                        Dale’s original cone of experience

 Note that there is absolutely no mention of learning retention!

His purpose in developing the “Cone” was to create a taxonomy of learning methods from the abstract to the concrete, not to comment on learning retention. Also, Dale did not claim that each level of the hierarchy was preferable to the previous level. In fact, he argued that good instruction combines both abstract and concrete methods.

So, where did the retention numbers come from? It’s not exactly clear, but others have spent a lot of time researching when and where they were introduced (most likely sometime around 1970). I’m not sure anyone has found the “smoking gun,” but if you care to, you can spend a lot of Internet time reading about the search for it (just google “Dale’s cone of experience”).

Suffice it to say the retention numbers are bogus, made up, without a shred of research evidence behind them.

One general rule that we will repeat elsewhere in this series: If you see reported “research” numbers that are perfectly round (e.g. exact factors of ten) chances are they are fabricated. Real research rarely delivers such perfect results.

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