Dale’s Cone of Learning figures debunked

Edgar Dale was a US educationist and professor of educations at Ohio State University.  In 1946 he developed his most famous model, the cone of learning.

Since then it has been quoted frequently, far and wide as the definitive evidence for how we retain information when delivered in various styles and mediums and has informed how to design training courses in specific ways.

Hear are the most popular figures in a typical illustration of the whole model:

click image to enlarge

There are some variations on the theme, quoted with the same level of authority as the ones above.
This one is typical:

Lecture: 5%
Reading: 10%
Audio Visual: 20%
Demonstration: 30%
Discussion group: 50%
Practice by doing: 75%
Teaching others or immediate application of learning: 90%

Source: Kurt Lewin - National Training Laboratories

The only problems are these:

It was called the “Cone of Experience” not “The Cone of Learning

And

Every single percentage associated with the various levels is wrong.

When Dale first published his cone there were no numbers associated with the model at all. There was no research used to generate it and Dale even warned his readers not to take the model too literally.

click to enlarge

click image to enlarge

Indeed in his last iteration of the model in 1969 (published six years before he died) it still did not contain any numbers.

Many people, including Chi, Wiman and Meierhenry are credited (blamed??) for first publishing the percentages attached to Dale’s original cone but investigations undertaken by the blog “Myths and Worse”, indicate that most likely, the bogus percentages were first published by an employee of Mobil Oil Company in 1967, writing in the magazine Film and Audio-Visual Communications.

In 2006 Michael Molenda, a professor at Indiana University, tried to track down the origination of the bogus numbers. His efforts have uncovered some evidence that the numbers may have been developed as early as the 1940′s by Paul John Phillips who worked at University of Texas at Austin and who developed training classes for the petroleum industry. During World War Two Phillips taught Visual Aids at the U. S. Army’s Ordnance School at the Aberdeen (Maryland) Proving Grounds, where the numbers have also appeared and where they may have been developed.

This is interesting as it indicates that the numbers came first, then Dale’s model and then someone bunged the two together.

Of one thing we can be certain:

While Dale’s cone may give us some useful indicators as to the best way to generate retention, his was not a scientific research study and he made no claims what-so-ever about the percentages.

As we have already seen in previous posts, there is plenty of dis-information still swilling around in our industry. Trouble is, debunking it is all too easy. I am fundamentally a lazy person and I am having no trouble at all finding the myths amongst our facts. And if I can do it, so can those we need to build credibility with.

So our call to action today is simple:

If you quote Dale’s Cone of learning in any of your materials you should immediately re-name it the Cone of Experience (‘coz that’s what it was called) and remove those nasty percentages.

Sorry if this gives you more work to do. Just trying to help.

pine cone image by vickisnature
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31 Comments

  1. Posted March 3, 2010 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    That is an incredibly sticky myth, isn’t it? I first saw it in a grad level Psychology of Adult Education class (as a handout from the teacher), attributed to the National Training Institute in Bethel Maine (if you email them about it, they have a very nice note they send back basically saying “We have no idea where this came from either.”).

    I know I perpetuated it myself before the lack of citation made me too twitchy, and I went looking for the source, and I’ve seen it used in multiple locations, by reputable people.

    I think it’s such a prevalent instructional design myth because it so closely correlates to that we *want* to believe about instructional methods.

    • Paul
      Posted March 4, 2010 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      Hi Julie,

      I think you have nailed it with your last sentence.

      It’s not just this one but all the others we have found (so far – we are still looking!!)
      We want them to be true because it helps us.
      I do think we have become a little complacent though – people seem to accept things at face value without challenging the source. And to just say “We don’t know where it came from (but we will keep on quoting it anyway)” is unforgivable. It took me 5 minutes!

      Stay curious Julie ( and perhaps just a little bit cynical?)

      Regards

      Paul

      • Jana
        Posted November 28, 2010 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

        This tendency we all have to believe and accept things at face value is true on every issue and sources, including the government and media, on health issues, political views, etc. How many of us really search out and think for ourselves on each of our proclaimed beliefs and statements before we vote and hate others that think otherwise?

        Very curious, for Truth!

        Thanks for the info in the “Experience” percentages…it is much appreciated!

  2. Posted March 5, 2010 at 2:25 am | Permalink

    RE: “cynical” in Paul’s reply. I prefer the term “skeptical,” which I don’t consider cynical at all. A healthy skepticism is based on the assumption that we can find the truth by honest effort. And that’s a positive.

    As with Paul’s similar post on the Mozart Effect, a bit of hard-headed reality checking is important. Thanks for the example and the good work.

  3. Magy
    Posted April 2, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Hi Paul,

    thanks for your interesting contribution! You posted the author name “Michael Molenda” (2006), but could you also please post the source of the book?

    Tank you in advance!

    Best regards,
    Magy

  4. Posted October 25, 2011 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    This is brilliant!! Thanks for the great insight regarding debunking the “cone of learning” or should I say “Cone of Experience!”

    Thanks again!

  5. Ben
    Posted July 11, 2012 at 3:15 am | Permalink

    Thank you!
    As an educator I am insulted that this misrepresentation of a good idea continues to be used as “RESEARCH” to support other poorly developed ideas. It is hard to sit in “professional development” activities run by the system, with guest experts telling you the “truth” about teaching and learning that is supported by research.
    The current ideas is based around the technical natives and the technical immigrants. The conclusion is that technology has changed the brains of our youth. We are not talking neuroplasticity, but large scale structural changes! Yes, what took millions of years to evolve has changed in two decades by technology. I still am having problems finding the research that supports those ideas?

  6. Gabriel E. Guzman
    Posted May 22, 2013 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    All I read are words to refute Dale’s ideas (cone or pyramid). I don’t defend nor condemn what Dale’s said about learning. In fact, I find the concept to have merit. If there was no research behind it is a different story, which then makes me even more interested in data that refute those ideas, not just the debunking words without any more proof than the alleged myth itself.

    For example, most everybody might accept that consuming sodium above 1500 mg/day leads to hypertension and a whole host of other health problems… there are books written about it, and many researchers have build careers on that assertion. Now the Institute Of Medicine comes out with the report assessing the evidence, and concludes that the whole war against sodium, and the one-size-fits-all recommendation of the very low sodium intake is well… unsubstantiated based on the evidence. Many have showed evidence that refutes and debunks the myth of the relationship between sodium intake and hypertension, in fact showing the opposite. In this case, the debunking has plenty of published data to suport it.

    Has anybody published something that debunks the Dale’s cone (or pyramid), and offer data that contradicts that? I would very much appreciate that.

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