Science or nonsense? A critical look at Learning Theory

There is a great deal written on learning theory, much of it contested, some of it deeply flawed (see panel). Our view is that successful capability building should not get too bogged down with individual learning styles – since in a group these will vary anyway – but that methodologies should be mixed: verbal, visual, experiential and interactive in dynamic workshop sessions, backed up with tailored e-progress modules and clinics to consolidate skills in the real world.


Learning theory: Does it work in practice?

The theory of learning styles

There are competing and conflicting theories in how individuals prefer to learn. Most often cited are the four learning styles developed by Peter Honey and Alan Mumford, based on the work of Kolb: Activist, Theorist, Pragmatist and Reflector. The practical idea behind the theory is that individuals can be encouraged to know their own preferred style of learning and seek opportunities to engage with it. This might just be valid in one-to-one training but is impractical within a group, since individual styles will inevitably vary. A mixed methodology is therefore advisable for group learning. And, in any case, it makes things more interesting and lively!


The ‘cone of learning’ (sometimes called the ‘learning pyramid’)

Edgar Dale North Dakota schoolteacher who  came up with the ‘Cone of learning’
Edgar DaleNorth Dakota schoolteacher who
came up with the ‘Cone of learning’

First postulated by schoolteacher Edgar Dale in 1933, and embellished by others since, the cone attempts to show which kinds of learning input are best remembered: ‘reading’ is at the thin end of the cone, with low retention rates; ‘practice doing’ is at the other. When first described, no values were assigned to the various kinds of input – it was simply a suggested order of effectiveness.

Discredited theory The oft-cited ‘Cone of learning’ The order was a guess and the figures are baseless

Discredited theory The oft-cited ‘Cone of learning’
The order was a guess and the figures are baseless

Now, the cone is invariably shown with figures for each stage – suggesting that students typically remember 10% of what is read, 30% of what is heard, 50% of what is demonstrated, and so on. These figures bear no relation to any study, and their use appears to date to a commercial contribution to a non-scholarly magazine in the ‘60s. Those convenient steps of exactly 10%, alone, should alert suspicion, as should empirical observation: can it really be true that only 10% of what we read is remembered?

We would regard the cone as no more useful in the arena of training than, say, Maslow’s hierarchy is in the arena of consumer psychology: an
interesting, but unfounded, hypothesis – best approached with caution.

Our own view on group-learning practice is that a mix of methodologies is preferable – visual, verbal, experiential, interactive – and that a key factor that has been ignored to date in virtually all theory is motivation. Without that, there will be no learning.