The pyramid of lies

In my NQT year I found myself contesting the use of brain gym in my school (I even got sent on a course to ‘convert me’). The experience set me up nicely – as it reminded me to doubt everything I was told about education! Pseudo-psychological claims are like sharp nails on a blackboard for me. One of my earliest blogs was about the nonsense of VAK and it’s depressing to see that it’s still such a persistent idea despite its thorough debunking.

There’s something about education – it seems vulnerable to pseudoscientific ideas like no other professional field. It’s a genuine embarrassment for the profession, that there persists such credulity with regard to educational claims.

I was recently reminded of another piece of egregious pseudoscience that, like a virus laying dormant, seems to pop up every so often to infect teaching materials. It’s the idea that we remember only 5% of a lecture, 10% of what we read, 20% of what we see and hear, etc. It comes in a variety of different lies – here’s one:

Retention rates

It is, of course, a pernicious meme with no scientific basis whatsoever.

There’s a nice systematic debunk of the idea here: People remember 10%, 20%…Oh Really?

There’s also a paper in the journal Education by Lalley and Miller (2007) The Learning Pyramid: Does it point teachers in the right direction? (the article starts on p5 of the pdf) which concludes – even in the cautious language of a peer-reviewed journal:

“The research reviewed here demonstrates that use of each of the methods identified by the pyramid resulted in retention, with none being consistently superior to the others and all being effective in certain contexts. A paramount concern, given conventional wisdom and the research cited, is the effectiveness and importance of reading and direct instruction, which in many ways are undermined by their positions on the pyramid. Reading is not only an effective teaching/learning method, it is also the main foundation for becoming a “life-long learner”.”

If you went to a GP and they recommended faith healing, I think you’d be rightly concerned about the professionalism of that doctor. Likewise, whilst there’s a long way to go before teaching can really call itself evidence-based, I think teachers have a responsibility to be sceptical and discerning when it comes to glib claims about the effectiveness of instructional techniques!

Lalley and Miller note the “critical importance of the teacher as a knowledgeable decision maker for choosing instructional methods.” I agree, I think it’s about time we took responsibility not to get suckered in by snake-oil.

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7 Responses to The pyramid of lies

  1. Reblogged this on TeachingEnglishNotes and commented:
    the pyramid looking familiar..Although reading has always worked well for me – much better than the 10%…


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