Myths in Education – The Learning Pyramid
September 10, 2017
By Dr Lieb Liebenberg

The Learning Pyramid is an attempt to categorise different modes of teaching in terms of their value for learning – with “Teach others” as the most effective mode of learning something new and “Lecture” being the least effective.

In favour of the Learning Pyramid

This image (and derivatives of it) represents one of the most persistent myths in education and it is often quoted in the context of teaching and learning practices. At first glance, the pyramid has a lot going for it:

  • It resonates with the constructivist paradigm which underpins much of what is promoted and understood about the notion of 21st-century education – with its focus on student agency and collaboration.
  • It ties in with our prejudices against “lecturing” and “reading” as outdated forms of education as opposed to methods that are more in line with 21st-century modalities – like communication and collaboration.
  • As humans we also quite like pictures which attempt to simplify concepts for us. And – as all marketers and consultants know, if you want to tell a convincing story – be sure to make liberal use of images…
  • Furthermore, the image does resonate with our experiences with students which confirm that if they actively “teach/share” content with one another it is a much more efficient way of mastering the material than simply reading through it.

So on the face of it, the “Learning pyramid” seems to make sense and appears to provide a nice heuristic for understanding the importance, relevance and efficacy of different teaching/learning modalities.

What’s wrong with the model?

Unfortunately, there is much wrong with the model. Let us start by taking a look at its origins. It is attributed to “the National Training Laboratories”, who claims that it originated from them, but cannot supply the original research upon which it was based: “we no longer have – nor can we find – the original research that supports the numbers.” (cf Letrud, p3). In an era where we are increasingly trying to distinguish myth from fact (and do so by looking at the data and research that inform our opinions) this is a serious admission and one we cannot simply ignore. To make matters worse, the NTL acknowledges that there are different “versions” of the Learning Pyramid out there and that the values attributed to the different modalities differ between the versions, so again, this hardly leads to more confidence in the model itself – quite the opposite.

So from a research perspective alone, it should be clear that we cannot accept the Learning Pyramid as a “proven/robust/reliable” tool or model for evaluating different teaching and learning activities – it is not backed up by research and data.

Interrogating the findings

But just to be sure, should we not take a closer look at the claims inherent in the model and see if it does not perhaps provide useful insights after all? We could, but unfortunately closer scrutiny just confirms our doubts about the value of the model. For instance – the neat, rounded numbers (5%, 10%, 20%…, etc) attributed to each level is clearly NOT the result of a rigorous research project. Real data is messy and simply does not provide or lead to such neat divisions. Other fundamental problems, specifically related to the practicalities of the model are:

  • What kind of learning/subject is the model best for or based upon – or is the model equally effective with the ratios remaining constant for any kind of learning? For instance, what is the role of “Reading” in trying to get learners to write good essays? Are we seriously expected to believe that proficient reading would only play a 10% role in comparison to the 75% of practicing essay writing? I am not sure that any good (published!) fiction writer would agree. What happens if we compare college essay writing to performing chemistry experiments in terms of the role that reading about an experiment and actually doing it play in each activity?
  • How exactly was “learning” measured, or is it supposed to be measured according to the Learning Pyramid – and over which period? Again, we have no information about this, so how can we build any meaningful teaching strategy based on the model?
  • Does the age or year group of students play any role in the distribution of the different teaching actions. If not – is it equally applicable for toddlers as for adults?
  • What precisely is meant by “Audiovisual” and how does it differ from a teacher doing a “Demonstration” while explaining what is happening? How is it different from simply doing a recording of that same demonstration and does that recording then qualify as “audiovisual”?

Let’s stop using the model

Maybe some of the answers to the above questions are simple and even self-evident, but because we do not have access to any report of the original research we simply do not know, we have to make assumptions. Unfortunately that is not good enough – which is why we cannot keep using, quoting or referring to the Learning Pyramid when we are talking about efficient teaching and learning practices. Instead, we should be looking at practices that are supported by research and where we are able to interrogate the research findings by looking at the data – should we wish to do so. It is quite ironic that one is able to learn – and remember for quite a long time – that the Learning Pyramid is a myth – simply by “Reading” what research says about the matter…