A gigantic pyramid scheme

It was the opening sentence of an Opinion piece in last week’s Philadelphia Inquirer that first caught my eye:

Ask students what year Columbus sailed the ocean blue and they’ll likely respond with “1492!”

I’m guessing that most students these days have no idea when Columbus sailed over here. After all, as yesterday’s Washington Post reports, two-thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is, and 22% “haven’t heard of the Holocaust or are not sure whether they’ve heard of it.”

As for Siri Fiske, the author of the Inquirer piece, whatever she may know about historical facts, she seems out of touch with present-day practices:

Schools have been drilling such facts into children’s brains since the dawn of public education. In past decades, long lectures and rote learning were necessary evils…

You have to go back many decades before you find long lectures and rote learning as standard practices in K12 classrooms.

Fiske goes on to say:

Information had to flow in one direction only — from all-knowing teachers to students — because there was no practical way for students to teach themselves.

No practical way? In one of the best math classes I ever attended, back in the late 1970s, we each worked independently, at our own rates–essentially teaching ourselves via well-designed textbooks.

Fiske explains:

Modern technology has irrevocably disrupted that flow of knowledge. The digital revolution has made it necessary to reorganize the classroom and radically alter the student-teacher dynamic.

Necessary? I’m guessing whatever necessity there is to alter classrooms comes from a very specific aspect of the digital revolution that Fiske omits: the short attention spans fostered by cell phones and social media. These days, maintaining students’ on-task focus is more challenging than ever.

For Fiske, though, the reason not to lecture is Google and websites:

Say a teacher is introducing her class to the solar system. Today, students can instantly Google any facts they’d need to know about the planets. They can even create their own solar system models on NASA.gov. In the near future, students might even break up into teams and embark on space exploration missions, thanks to virtual-reality headsets.

Given the new digital landscape, a half-hour lecture on the solar system can be a waste of time.

Fiske continues with a bunch of unsupported assertions:

Lecturing also fails to impart the knowledge and skills students will need in their future careers.

Today’s students are.. ill-served by educators who cling to an outdated, top-down teaching approach.

Prepping students for the modern workforce means coaching them on how to analyze material and approach topics in unconventional ways.

The closest she comes to justifying these claims is this:

Nearly 90 percent of executives report trouble finding workers with soft skills like critical thinking and creativity.

If this is true (Fiske provides no link), it’s also true that employers report trouble finding workers with hard skills like literacy and numeracy.

What bugged me the most about Fiske’s piece, though, was her reliance on the debunked Learning Pyramid theory, and on an irrelevant study conducted by a private company whose mission includes promoting “innovative solutions” and “technology integration.” So I wrote the following letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer (which the Inquirer has declined to publish):

Siri Fiske’s April 4th piece (Modern teachers shouldn’t waste time lecturing students”) claims that “students retain only about 5 percent of information” from lectures, “but 70 percent when they practice a skill themselves.” But the study Fiske cites, by the National Training Laboratories, appears neither in Fiske’s hyperlink, nor in a Google scholar search, and its conclusions were debunked four years ago by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham (“Why the ‘learning pyramid’ is wrong”, Washington Post, 3/3/2013). Second, Fiske claims that students whose schools focus on real-world problems like app-development and drone-flying “are more likely to attend four-year colleges” and get “better test scores.” But the study Fiske links to, a study by MIDA Learning Technologies, was of 2nd and 5th grade classrooms, and it investigated something else: whether project-based STEM learning “influences classroom instruction and student engagement” and “students’ ability to problem-solve.”

The Learning Pyramid is everywhere. Here’s one of its most popular guises:


Regarding the Learning Pyramid’s checkered history and viral spread, the Association of College & Research Libraries has a great blog post here. It turns out the Pyramid was initially proposed, not as a theory of learning, but as a model of levels of abstraction:


Over a half-dozen decades (it first appeared in 1946), the Learning Pyramid was perverted from a model of abstraction into a reason to replace teacher and textbook-based instruction with hands-on projects.. and at no point has it had any empirical backing.

3 thoughts on “A gigantic pyramid scheme

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s