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:
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 ill-served by educators who cling to an outdated, top-down teaching approach.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.