Zombie Ideas Again: “The Learning Pyramid”

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.






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23 responses to “Zombie Ideas Again: “The Learning Pyramid”

  1. Alice in PA

    Research into effects of specific teaching methods is difficult, as you know, because of all the variables.
    And one of the largest is the very important question of our expectations for our students. Anderson (2002) in “Reform Science Teaching: What research says about Inquiry” points this out. Do we want our students to learn specific content knowledge, analysis skills, laboratory skills, applications, better attitudes towards science, to think more like a scientist…? There is evidence that inquiry can promote learning better than direct instruction in some of these areas but we cannot expect all of them all of the time. We probably cannot expect all of them in one classroom.
    Equally problematic, at least in science, is the definition of inquiry. One of my earliest conversations with my doctoral advisor was about inquiry and I confessed that I didn’t know exactly what they meant because there seemed to be so many definitions. He told me that was true in the research also. (It was a great moment of new grad student validation).
    Pyramid like the one you show can really hinder teacher learning (and therefore student learning) because it glosses over nuances such as these.

  2. David

    Hi Larry, If I can take tangent, how can we finally put to bed the myths that surround us in education? Moreover, since many of these myths support the tech industry in educationa and eslewhere, can the future be changed? Or are those of us skeptics doomed to be labelled as “neo-Luddites” or left to be a part of a dissatisfied resistance (see the WaPo article here on that: http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2015/12/26/resistance/)? Even those at research institutes on the responsible use of technology throw up their hands as the tech industry continues to ignore their work (see https://theconversation.com/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-does-wefs-klaus-schwab-leave-out-53049).

    Given the influence of the pro-student-centered + ed tech folks (the Gates Foundation, Broad Foundation, etc.) throwing millions of dollars at the political and educational institutions to further their ends, is there any hope? Or should we just hunker down and hope that the winds of change will blow once more in the opposite direction?

    • larrycuban

      David, thanks for the links to the two pieces on the issue of whether technologies are worrisome to society and individuals in their liberties and humanity. I had not seen these two pieces. As for your question at the end of the comment, well, I can answer only for myself: my skepticism in the narrow arena of technologies applied to education remains unadulterated by the rosy scenarios painted by those who haven’t met a new technology they didn’t like. Hunkering down, at least for me, is foreign. So I continue to speak out and write about technologies in schools.

  3. Reblogged this on The DigiTeacher and commented:
    So important that our beliefs as teachers are grounded in solid research.

  4. Reblogged this on Blogcollectief Onderzoek Onderwijs and commented:
    Another persistent education myth, the ‘Learning Pyramid’, is debunked by edublogger Larry Cuban.

  5. Pingback: Zombie ideas again : « The Learning Pyram...

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  7. For once I get to be the zombie! And this from someone (me) who looks down his nose at anyone who discourses on “learning styles” and other pseudo-scientific falderal.

    I have one of those pyramids on my classroom wall. I use it to remind myself to cut out the talkie blather that I regularly fall into. I sense a red herring smelling up your blog this week; we ain’t arguing for all constructivism all the time. That chart exists in a world where 98% of the teachers I see lecture too much (including me).

    I’ve taught at a junior college and in a public high school for about twenty years and I haven’t yet observed that ‘tilt toward student-centered learning’ that you allege. I hear teachers talk about such things, but I don’t observe very many teachers doing thusly. So, yes, I notice that some profs in ed schools push constructivist methods, and, yes, for virtually all high school teachers those ideas go in one ear and out the other. I’m a little embarrassed to be supporting this kind of folk wisdom, but here I am doing it. (“Hypocrisy is the homage that vice renders to virtue.”)

    Which is why I think my chart is a good antidote for my bad habits of explainin’ when my students should be doin’.

    • larrycuban

      Having the “Learning Pyramid” in your room, Jerry, I thoroughly understand. You use it as a reminder to construct activities for your students that involve them in learning and where they can participate. Like yourself, I, too, have observed so many educators talking about the importance of students participating but the nature of the age-graded schools, the demands placed upon teachers, class size and other factors constrain such practices and we–I include myself–end up doing a lot of talking and directing. The “tilt” I speak about is in the talk, not the doin.’

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  9. David Callaghan

    Hi Larry.
    Thanks for a great post. It seems to echo a favourite of mine: Kirschner, Sweller & Clark’s 2006 paper “Why Minimal Guidance during Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching.” – well worth a read to add more weight to this post. I love the way Kirschner et al give a ton of references (reminiscent of Oversold) and love their tone here “The minimally guided approach has been called by various names including discovery learning (Anthony, 1973; Bruner, 1961); problem-based learning (PBL; Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980; Schmidt, 1983), inquiry learning (Papert, 1980; Rutherford, 1964), experiential learning (Boud, Keogh, & Walker, 1985; Kolb & Fry, 1975), and constructivist learning (Jonassen, 1991; Steffe & Gale, 1995).”
    Link: http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/publications/kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf

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