Stories, ideas, and beliefs that have been disproved through scientific studies litter the mind. Professionals across-the-board in medicine, law, architecture, engineering, and business take-for-granted stories that have little to no basis in evidence. Yet they persist.
In earlier posts, I have identified such “zombie” ideas that have scientific-crafted shafts buried in their heart yet arise again and again (see here and here). I offer another one that a viewer of this blog (Pedro De Bruyckere, a teacher educator in Ghent, Belgium) suggested in a recent comment . He and colleagues have written a book about common myths that educators hold and he reminded about the “Learning Pyramid.”
A cottage industry of debunkers have pointed out many times over the past quarter-century that the “Pyramid” has no scientific standing and comes from unattributed sources mushed together in the 1960s and 1970s (see here, here, and here). Although it lives on, seldom, however, in official programs (there are exceptions, see here) the “Pyramid” resides quietly and strongly in the folk wisdom of those many practitioners who believe in their heart-of-hearts that active or experiential learning is far better (and more effective) than teachers talking, showing visuals, or demonstrating concepts. How come?
Such beliefs about knowledge retention exist in the minds of many college educators and practitioners across the professional spectrum–increased by the launching of lecture-dominated MOOCs and surge in lecture-driven online courses–representing another instance of “confirmation bias.”
Why does the belief in the “Learning Pyramid” persist in the face of so much counter-evidence? The zombie effect about the “Pyramid,”and here is where I am speculating, reinforces the tilt that so many university teacher educators and workplace practitioners have toward student-centered, experienced-driven learning. Such ways of thinking about better ways of teaching were pushed by early 20th century pedagogical progressives, 1960s-era neo-progressives, and now with the explosion of “personalized” and blended learning, many reformers have shrouded themselves in the cloak of student-centered learning. Progressive rhetoric about student-centered teaching and learning abounds.
I have no bias for or against student-centered, project-based, whole child-driven progressive teaching (or whatever label best fits). I have stated my position often that those who teach daily need mixes of both student-centered and teacher-centered practices. They need a broad repertoire of ways of teaching. My histories of how teachers have taught since the mid-19th century make that point in capital letters. I have worked hard to scrub any bias toward one or the other set of classroom practices, always arguing that “hugging the middle” of the spectrum on teaching approaches is both historical and consistent with contemporary practices that I have found in classrooms around the nation. Having said that, I have also found that many teacher educators and practitioners cherish the notions, but particularly the talk, that one way of teaching is better than another and that way is student-centered, however defined. The “Learning Pyramid” while not often referred to explicitly gives such believers aid and comfort because the bottom three strata of the “Pyramid” confirm that student participation retains the most knowledge–even though past and current studies fail to find that to be true.
Consider teacher educators. David Labaree argues that university schools of education became centers of progressive rhetoric about child-centered education over decades (see here) even though the realities of public school organization, curriculum, and instruction tilted strongly toward encouraging teacher-centered instruction. Teacher educators, he says, prepared their charges for classrooms for a workplace where progressive methods should be used but seldom were. Lecturing to students, “direct instruction” and more teacher talk than student talk were negatives to many of these teacher educators. The “Learning Pyramid,” seldom referred to explicitly, justified language and approaches to instruction that privileged discussion, small groups, and active student participation (see here).
Turn to classroom teachers. In my research of teachers past and present, I have found that primary grade teachers generally adhere to more student-centered, whole-child approaches than secondary school teachers. There does remain, however, even among those upper-grade teachers who see their primary duty to convey content and teach skills a rhetorical embrace of student participation with recognition that such approaches are harder to implement, particularly in times when standards, testing, and accountability are dominant policy prescriptions.
These deeply buried progressive beliefs among so many teacher educators and practitioners feed and nurture the “Learning Pyramid,” I believe, so that it persists well after it has been debunked and buried.